DEFIESTA: You can’t make Yale care

City Limits

Earlier this month, Yale’s Ward 1 saw another election. No, the scary republican Paul Chandler ’14 wasn’t back: This election was for the ward’s two co-chairs.

defiestaDon’t worry if you didn’t know there was an election. Only two candidates ran for two positions, so the race was relatively unexciting. The News ran only a single article on the topic, reflecting the relative campus apathy on the topic.

Don’t worry if you don’t know who our ward co-chairs are, either. For the record, they are now Ariana Shapiro ’16 and Jacob Wasserman ’16, both of whom supported Ward 1 Alder Sarah Eidelson ’12 in her re-election efforts last fall.

And of course, don’t worry if you don’t know what a ward co-chair is supposed to do; it’s unlikely that anybody really does.

At a basic level, ward co-chairs have a fairly simple role. Their first duty is to appoint the ward committee, a group of usually around twenty-five ward residents who meet occasionally to discuss ward matters and endorse candidates for alders. The 60 ward co-chairs — two from each of the city’s 30 wards — also comprise the Democratic Town Committee, which nominates and endorses those running in city-wide elections.

This all might seem irrelevant. It’s not. The co-chairs are effectively the key to New Haven’s Democratic Party, the only real political party in the city, and so their endorsements carry significant weight.

But because co-chair elections traditionally see low turnout, it’s easy for these races to be captured given even marginal effort. Take, for example, the 2012 ward co-chair elections, which saw union-backed co-chair candidates winning across the city. This paved the way for the Democratic Town Committee to overwhelmingly endorse Toni Harp in the race for mayor.

Harp received 52 votes to Justin Elicker’s 4 and Henry Fernandez’s 2, despite coming nowhere near to such an overwhelming victory when voters actually went to the polls. Being the officially endorsed Democratic candidate in über-blue New Haven certainly didn’t hurt Harp in the primary, and it all came about thanks to these co-chairs that no one knows anything about.

Some ward co-chairs try to do a little more, and involve their constituents in activities like shoveling snow, community service and neighborhood events. That seems to be like Shapiro and Wasserman’s goal for Ward 1, too, as they wrote last month that they want to “engag[e]” Yalies in current policy initiatives, “unite” students and “create a space” for politically-minded groups to collaborate.

This is a familiar goal. Two years ago, former co-chairs Nia Holston ’14 and Ben Crosby ’14 wrote that they “hope[d] to connect students … more deeply to the politics of our city as a whole.” And in both of her campaigns, Eidelson stressed that she serve as a link between Yalies and the Elm City.

Yet after two years of Holston, Crosby and Eidelson in office, students seem no more connected to city life than they did under their predecessors, and voter turnout in the ward was actually down almost 20 percent from 2011 to 2013.

Just like Holston, Crosby and Eidelson, the two newest co-chairs will probably struggle to have any tangible impact on how Yalies relate to the city. It’s easy to fault them for this failing. I’ve done so myself in the past.

But that’s unfair to Shapiro and Wasserman, as well as to other Yalies trying to connect their peers to the city. The difficulty that Eidelson and others have had in getting students to engage with New Haven is indicative not of any acute failure of leadership, but are instead symptomatic of the larger issue of Yalies’ apathy towards New Haven. Try as they might, ward co-chairs and alders can’t will Yalies to care.

Usually, I’d say that the impetus is on the Yale student body to take action, to care more about the city, to treat New Haven as a home instead of a temporary annoyance. But after almost four years, I’ve come to realize that it’s unlikely that anyone, ward co-chairs included, can affect any dramatic shift in how Yalies relate to the city.

Now, it’s time to retire the dream of a campus full of politically active Yalies with something more realistic. Instead of trying to achieve any broad change in the ward, Wasserman and Shapiro should focus their efforts on voter registration and organizing the small segment of campus — Students Unite Now, the Yale College Democrats and certain Dwight Hall organizations — that is already primed to take action in New Haven.

As we’ve seen time and time again, investing effort on the wider student body that is largely apathetic towards New Haven is, and will continue to be, a fruitless endeavor.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu .

A previous version of this article misidentified the class years of Ariana Shapiro ’16 and Jacob Wasserman ’16. 

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