More than 70 city residents put pen to paper on Saturday afternoon to help six New Haven alders craft an agenda designed to overcome what the lawmakers described as pervasive divisions in the city’s politics.
The breakaway People’s Caucus on the Board of Alders drew a diverse crowd of discontented residents to the basement of a Dixwell church for a crash course in local politics, a history lesson and a brainstorming session. Saturday’s event was the first for the fledgling caucus, formed in January as an alternative to the Board’s union-backed Democratic leadership.
Caucus members downplayed concern that Yale’s UNITE HERE unions, Locals 34 and 35, play an outsized role in municipal politics. Instead, they argued that common-sense solutions and constituent services should transcend factionalism.
“We are not an opposition party,” Ward 19 Alder Mike Stratton said. “We don’t hate anybody.”
Opposition has long immobilized city government in New Haven, said Yale School of Management professor Douglas Rae, who gave a short presentation on the history of “factionalism and infighting” in New Haven. Rae served as the city’s chief administrative officer in the early 1990s under former New Haven Mayor John C. Daniels. During that time, he said, “it was the Italians versus the Irish.”
Rae offered four examples of governmental and nongovernmental initiatives that have united residents instead of dividing them: a 1,000-member New Haven youth soccer league founded in 1983; the advent of community policing, designed to tie local officers to the communities they protect; the scholarship program New Haven Promise, funded in part by Yale University; and the Urban Resources Initiative, a tree-planting organization.
Another such collaborative, consensus-building group is what “you hope to become,” Rae said of the People’s Caucus.
Presentations preceding Rae’s sought to elucidate the city’s ills and the community work underway to address those problems.
Lee Cruz, a Fair Haven activist, said the government should do more to tap into the initiative of community organizers. Mark Abraham ’04, executive director of the local nonprofit DataHaven, offered statistics revealing the gravest threats to residents’ quality of life. Just 19 percent of living-wage jobs in New Haven are held by city residents, he said. The figure troubled the events’ attendees.
“Does the city know this?” asked Yul Watley, a local housing authority contractor. City activist Wendy Hamilton said politicians do know — but they do not care.
Ward 28 Alder Claudette Robinson-Thorpe, a founding caucus member, countered that “we’re trying to work on it.” Robinson-Thorpe offered insight into her reasons for joining the People’s Caucus, having won election to the Board in 2009 and then again in 2011 with labor backing. She said being in the “union’s camp” was counter to the interests of her constituents. Another caucus member, Ward 21 Alder Brenda Foskey-Cyrus, has cut ties with the majority team as well.
Alders Anna Festa, Richard Spears and Carlton Staggers round out the caucus. Having initially declared himself a member, Ward 7 Alder Doug Hausladen ’04 has since shied away from public identification with the breakaway group. He was tapped last week by Mayor Toni Harp to serve as the city’s transportation, traffic and parking director.
Caucus members asked attendees to write down words describing New Haven today and words to describe New Haven the way they wish it would be. For the first, attendees enumerated New Haven’s most pressing problems, naming specifically segregation, violence and joblessness. They also described the city’s strengths — one person said “cosmopolitan;” others mentioned the city’s numerous institutions of higher education, including Yale. Fairness and opportunity were two ideals attendees emphasized in describing the way New Haven should be.
Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, a former Ward 10 alder who challenged Harp for the mayor’s office in 2013, came as an audience member, contributing that “we’d like to see New Haveners trust each other more.”
Other solutions were more bluntly put.
“Tax Yale!” cried Hamilton, reiterating the demands of numerous attendees that tax-exempt nonprofits in the city contribute more to New Haven’s financial well-being.
After attendees broke up into smaller groups to brainstorm legislative priorities, they reconvened to share their insights. Minority hiring on city contracts, job training, youth services and transparent government topped the list.
The Board of Alders began its most recent two-year term Jan. 1.