BILDNER: An alternative to the machine

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

I’ll be the first one to admit: the name is a bit corny. I remember when I originally heard about this new group called “The People’s Caucus,” my mind jumped to all the other corny political slogans I’ve heard; my favorite is Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign motto, “Ross for Boss.” Coming up with catchy political expressions is never an easy task.

But the People’s Caucus, a coalition within New Haven’s Board of Alders formed at the beginning of this year, is a shining example of everything that is right in politics. It is a reminder that despite many months of heated campaigning for the mayoral election, which left many New Haven residents anxious about the city’s political future, we are making progress to restore a sense of citizen-centric government to New Haven.

The Caucus was founded for one simple reason: People throughout our community are getting furious with the political machinery that has done away with dialogue, discourse and transparency over the last few legislative sessions. Let me be very clear in saying this is not an anti-anything group. It is not an anti-union caucus, nor a group formed in opposition to any one group, as some have claimed. This coalition of alders that represent city residents from every corner of New Haven came together to offer an alternative style of government.

While working on Justin Elicker’s mayoral campaign, I had the opportunity to meet folks from all over the city, and I got the chance to talk to community activists and leaders in many different neighborhoods. One thing became immensely clear to me: the inner-workings of city government had become deeply flawed, reliant on a dictatorial style of government both at the legislative and executive level. Decisions were being made behind closed doors; Alders were expected to follow the leadership, no questions asked. In a one-party town, this meant that there was little debate over issues that came before the Board.

I had a chance to sit in on one of the first internal meetings of the People’s Caucus, as a newly formed group at the beginning of this most recent legislative session in January. Listening to the six Alders go around the room and speak, I saw elected officials making a bold move to demand that their constituents, the people of this city, come first. As one alder put it, “our policy agenda will come directly from the people we represent.” The meeting wasn’t all pleasantry — there were tense moments, unsurprising given that the alders hailed from distinct corners of the city — but every single one of them agreed that a new style of government needs to be advanced. The days of a lawmaking body that pushes through legislation without substantive input from constituents are over.

I am a progressive. New Haven, for the most part, is made up of progressive Democrats. But in my view, truly forward-thinking city politics necessitate input from constituents — politicians who simply push through legislation without engaging citizens are not progressive. Since its founding, the People’s Caucus has held large public forums all over the city (in addition to smaller get-togethers in the individual Alders’ own wards), focused on a variety of topics, including youth issues, crime, joblessness, city revenue, city contracts and job training. At these forums, constituents come and offer their own policy suggestions and ideas to the Alders; the essence of what city government should be about.

The People’s Caucus has already added an important voice to political discourse in this city. While it’s wonderful that our elected officials agree on many policy issues as steadfast Democrats, it is vital that we have legislators that will work for their constituents, and not political bosses. Let’s hope the caucus only continues to grow, as more and more Alders realize the power of healthy discourse and people-centric governance.

Rafi Bildner is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at rafi.bildner@yale.edu .

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