DEFIESTA: Change in Ward 1

The night Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12 won her first election in 2011, the energy was almost palpable. She and fellow candidate Vinay Nayak ’14 had spent months engaging campus in discussion on policy and experience, and most especially on how we, in our role as students, should interface with the New Haven community.

Walking with Eidelson as she left the polls for a post-election party, I remember feeling hopeful for the future of Yalies’ involvement in the Elm City. Something seemed to have genuinely shifted on campus — whether marked by a record high turnout of 973 students, or the intense attention paid to the campaigns in the week leading up to Election Day. I felt a sort of resurgence was underway.

On a personal level, Eidelson inspired me. She demonstrated that genuine student involvement in the city is not just something to which we pay lip service, but rather an endeavor worthy of deep commitment — that’s part of the reason I’m now considering living in New Haven after I graduate.

Yet perhaps because of how greatly she inspired me, I found myself disappointed with aspects of her tenure.

Eidelson has done an impressive job as the chair of the Board’s Youth Committee, advancing an agenda to provide the city’s children with safe spaces, after-school programming and more. The role she played in shaping charter revision is another example of Eidelson’s accomplishments over the past two years.

But policy leadership only amounted to half of the job description. Being a New Haven alderman requires balancing two focuses: it’s one part policy, one part constituent services. For most of the Elm City’s 30 wards, the latter consists of interfacing with city departments and attending to basic street-level improvements, ranging from sidewalk repairs to noise complaints.

Since we are students, most of these concerns are managed not from the desks of City Hall but instead from the offices of Woodbridge Hall. Since the Ward 1 alderman does not need to concern him or herself with basic infrastructure, constituent services comes instead in the form of engaging students in the city.

In this respect, Eidelson has missed an enormous opportunity. In the past two years, the momentum she built during her first campaign has fizzled.

Eidelson has argued that she has, in fact, been a presence on campus, citing weekly office hours and her work organizing around initiatives like charter revision. But the simple matter is that Yalies don’t share this consensus. In a News survey last week, roughly a quarter of students said Eidelson has not engaged the Yale community at all and a majority said she has engaged “somewhat” or “a little.”

This lack of interaction between Ward 1 and our alderman showed itself somewhat in yesterday’s election breakdown. Eidelson’s vote total of 563 two years ago — when campus liberals were split between two candidates — is actually slightly higher than this year’s 558, when Yalies had only one Democrat on the ballot. The total number of ballots cast this year, 886, is about 10 percent lower than 2011’s sum of 973 Ward 1 votes.

This notion of low engagement is particularly disheartening given Eidelson’s involvement in the city’s organized labor movement, which, quite admirably, prides itself on bringing new participants into the political process. It’s one thing to engage voters in the weeks before the election — it’s much harder, but a much more important task, to continue to engage them in the intervening months. Ward 20 Alderman Delphine Clyburn, for example, spent a few evenings a week continuing to knock on doors throughout her term; why can’t Eidelson do the same?

Much of the philosophy behind Eidelson’s candidacy has focused on the sense that an alderman can best serve Ward 1 by working for the betterment of the city as a whole. While this might seem to free her of any need to focus on constituents in the manner I’ve described, consider just how much New Haven would benefit from having a broader segment of students as passionate about improving the Elm City as Eidelson has been. Pushing Eidelson to be more involved in Ward 1 isn’t a distraction from the work she’s doing on the Board, but instead a way to enhance it and encourage a campus culture that values engagement with New Haven.

A few weeks ago, I joined Eidelson for a canvass. Beyond discussing her re-election, Eidelson talked with students about the mayoral race, debated the merits of charter revision, explained how she understood Yalies’ obligation to the city. I sensed rumblings of the inspiration I felt in 2011: here was our alderman engaging constituents in a meaningful way, holding conversations about what’s important in New Haven. I’m hoping, for the sake of Ward 1 and the city as a whole, that this is the alderman we have elected.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College and a former city editor for the News. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu.

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