Mixed mandates in Ward 1

Sarah Eidelson ’12 is already looking towards her second term, which will begin in January.
Sarah Eidelson ’12 is already looking towards her second term, which will begin in January. Photo by Alexandra Schmeling .

When asked if she wants to run for mayor of New Haven, Ward 1 Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson ’12 lets out a short laugh.

“People are still surprised when I say that I don’t want to run for higher office,” she says over the buzz of Blue State Coffee on a Thursday afternoon, where she is holding her weekly office hours just over a week after winning re-election to the Board of Aldermen. “I’m 22 and, like most recent grads, I don’t have a 10-year plan.”

But for at least two more years, Eidelson is staying in New Haven — in the same High Street apartment she lived in as a student — to represent almost three-quarters of Yale’s student body on the city legislature.

Eidelson is the first Ward 1 representative in almost a decade to seek a second term, and if she completes it, she will be the first since the turn of the century to round out two terms on the Board. Ben Healey ’04 was first elected in 2001 and won re-election in 2003. But he vacated the seat in August of 2005 before the end of his second term. Each Ward 1 representative since has called it quits after just a single term: Nick Shalek ’05, Rachel Plattus ’09 and Mike Jones ’11.

Though Eidelson’s status as an alumnus came under attack by her opponent leading up to the Nov. 5 election, her decision to stick around throws into question a more deeply ingrained criticism of the Ward 1 alderman sometimes leveled by city residents and Yale students alike — that she or he is a political aspirant with only a shallow interest in serving the city.

In the lead-up tothe announcement that the Yale College Republicans would field Paul Chandler ’14 in the Ward 1 race, Republican Town Committee Chairman Richter Elser ’81 welcomed the prospect of a GOP challenge but offered a broader critique of politics in Ward 1.

“The Board of Aldermen is not a stepping stone to a career in politics,” Elser told the News in April. “The city’s needs are serious, and Yale students should be cognizant of that when they run for office here.”

In an effort to take seriously the needs of one segment of the city in particular, Eidelson has devoted her time on the Board to the city’s youth. Much of her work since taking office in January 2012 has been devoted to identifying gaps in youth services and, as chair of the Board’s youth services committee, helping to devise a youth violence prevention grant application that won $750,000 in state funds this October. Eidelson said the committee is now poised to roll out a youth map that will make existing youth services available for online browsing.

Those are the initiatives Eidelson stressed on the campaign trail — and the ones she said were endorsed when students voted 513 to 285 to re-elect her.

“The discourse surrounding this election — and the results — really reaffirmed my belief that Yale students want to see the rest of the city move forward, and they want to be more connected to the rest of New Haven,” Eidelson said. “We don’t see ourselves as thriving when we’re isolated within the University.”

Despite her accomplishments in the city, some Yale students bemoaned Eidelson’s perceived lack of presence on campus. In response to a News survey sent out the week before the election, roughly a quarter of student respondents registered to vote in Ward 1 said the incumbent had not engaged the Yale community at all. The majority of students said she has engaged “somewhat” or “a little.”

In interviews with students leaving the Ward 1 polling place, virtually all students who said they voted for Eidelson said her experience on the Board factored into that decision. Most cited the youth agenda. Of 15 students who said they voted for Chandler, 13 cited relative engagement with the student body.

The critique is a familiar one. The headline of a 2009 News story appraising Plattus’s tenure in office read, “Plattus’s flaw is visibility.” In a 2003 letter to the News, Teddy Goff ’07, political consultant and digital director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, said campus engagement was the dominant theme of the 2003 aldermanic race, when Dan Kruger ’04 ran unsuccessfully to unseat Healey.

“Kruger’s entire campaign seems to be predicated upon his disappointment in the failure of [Healey] to consult with or even inform the Yale community regarding the decisions he has made that affect our lives,” Goff wrote.

Chandler similarly made campus presence a centerpiece of his campaign pitch. At the aldermanic debate at the end of October, he said the question on voters’ minds was, “Where is Sarah?”

In setting a blueprint for her second term, Eidelson said she will remain steadfast in her policy commitments — but added that she might tweak her method of engaging with her constituents.

“I heard the feedback that some students want more ways to engage with me and with information about what’s going on in the city,” Eidelson said.

She said she plans to increase her presence on social media and further emphasize her email newsletters. She added that her weekly office hours in Blue State have been an important way for students to get in touch with her. She said she plans to brainstorm ways to better publicize this opportunity.

Healey said Eidelson will likely have an easier time engaging with students during her second term. The first two years are largely spent getting a handle on the city and government operations, he said.

“Once you’ve figured things out a little more, you have the space to engage with your constituents the way you really want to,” Healey said. “It’s hard to get your constituents involved when you yourself are just figuring out how things work.”

Ward 1 students are not demanding sidewalk improvements or snow removal, he said, but they still want to know their representative — and to have an outlet for their ideas that affect the world beyond Yale’s gates. Healey said being an effective outlet for students is not a matter of being a student oneself but of having the experience to speak meaningfully across the town-gown divide.

Jones said he engaged with students by working on issues that were the subject of activism on campus. He said he helped pass legislation in 2011 that added gender identity protections to the city’s non-discrimination ordinances with the help of students involved in Fierce Advocates, a student LBGTQ activist group.

Drew Morrison ’14 and Tyler Blackmon ’16 — both Democrats who voted for Eidelson — agreed that student engagement matters. Blackmon said Eidelson has been effective in that realm. Morrison said there is room for improvement in her second term.

“The voters made it clear that the thing to improve upon in the second term is constituent services and relations,” Morrison said. “The election was an endorsement of a lot of what Sarah cares about in the city. Because of that, she should take the opportunity to work with people in her ward who also care about those things.”

Dimitri Halikias ’16, who voted for Chandler, said he sees Eidelon’s central challenge as reconnecting with the students he said she neglected during her first term. He said major decisions, including her vote in favor of the city’s sale of portions of High and Wall Streets to the University last June, should have been made only after consulting her constituents.

In her most important work, such as trying to reopen the long-shuttered Dixwell “Q” House and converting the vacant Goffe Street Armory into a youth space, Eidelson said students have been engaged. She said she hopes to bring more of that engagement to campus, where students might feel more comfortable speaking up than in the aldermanic chambers of City Hall.

No specific plans have been made for those campus discussions, she added.

Eidelson’s second term will begin on Jan. 1, 2014.

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