New Haven’s Ultimate Political Survivor

Rosa DeLauro is ready to fight for the Democrats.
Rosa DeLauro is ready to fight for the Democrats. // Tasnim Elboute

On Sept. 24, at a Wooster Square emptied of market-goers and cherry blossoms, a small crowd stood against the early autumn chill. Some people were holding Toni Harp ARC ’78 campaign signs. Others wore the uniforms of public service workers associated with powerful unions, themselves a declaration of allegiance to Harp. Volunteers in Harp T-shirts walked around with clipboards and pamphlets. Gathered around the DeLauro Family Table—a four-piece granite sculpture meant to mirror the arrangement of a kitchen table—the Harp supporters were waiting for a native daughter, U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D), to take the microphone and declare that she too supported their candidate.

If any place in the city could adequately represent the power of the woman now endorsing Harp, it would be that monument. At the unveiling of the DeLauro Family Table in 2011, Mayor John DeStefano, the man Harp hopes to replace, talked up the sculpture as a tribute to the DeLauros’ generations of service to New Haven, citing both Luisa DeLauro’s 34 years as alderwoman and the political rise of her daughter.

That daughter is no longer a political rookie. She is an important force in her own right. Since she joined the House of Representatives in 1991 to represent Connecticut’s third disrict, Rosa DeLauro has been re-elected ten times, consistently garnering at least 63% of the vote since her initial victory over Republican State Senator Thomas Scott. She represents her district in many ways. DeLauro often speaks of her Italian heritage, her working-class upbringing and her attachment to Wooster Square.

For Harp, who will face a strong rival—Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10—in the mayoral election in November, Rosa’s blessing means a great deal.

DeLauro stood behind the podium wrapped in a colorful scarf, her thin frame inside a purple leather jacket. She told the crowd that she and Harp were “cut from the same mold.” DeLauro said of their respective family upbringings, “We have similarities.” She pointed out Harp is, like her, a female, progressive politician concerned about New Haven and familiar with the struggles of its less fortunate.

As the crowd learned that day, both Harp and DeLauro are also dancers.

After the two concluded speaking, Alicia Keys’ “Girl is on Fire” blared from the stereos. Instead of allowing the crowd to thin out, DeLauro began to sway her hips. Clapping her hands and nodding her head to the tunes of “And she’s not backing down,” DeLauro motioned for the onlookers to join her around the DeLauro table, turning the monument into a dance platform.

What wasn’t mentioned was another, unspoken parallel: spouses whose actions and assocations have cast their wives’ political philosophies into question.

DeLauro’s energy is one that New Haven understands and likes. But as the city prepares for its most serious change in political governance since 1993, how has DeLauro been able to maintain her steadfast, decades-long relationship with the city? What is the shape of her political footprint?

BLUE BLOOD

Strong and visible ties to the national Democratic party have a lot to do with DeLauro’s career.

Gary Rose, the chairman of the department of gGovernment and plitics at Sacred Heart University, said DeLauro’s district is very strongly Democratic and appreciates her influence with other top Democrats.

“[Rosa} has worked her way up in Congress—she’s very much a part of the Democratic establishment, [and] that’s admired by third district voters,” Rose said. “People feel that Rosa can deliver the goods when it’s needed.

Rose likened congressmen to “social workers,” adding that DeLauro is “one of the good ones.”

“There’s no end to what the congresspersons are doing for their districts… people who live in the third district, let’s say they have problems with Social Security. People perhaps have Medicaid issues, can’t get access to veteran services. Who do you call when you have these problems? You call your congressperson,” Rose said. “[DeLauro] knows how to run a good staff because she was a former staffer herself.”

Much as DeLauro is a child of New Haven and does, as Rose said, maintain her “local connections,” she is also a product of widely recognized political structures.

Soon after receiving her master’s degree from Columbia University, DeLauro helped found EMILY’s List, a political action committee that seeks to help elect pro-choice Democratic female candidates to political office, and served as the organization’s first executive director.

She is, not unjustifiably, proud of what she was able to accomplish early on. “The organization is an overwhelming success,” DeLauro said. “It changed the face of the House— with more women, and more women of color.” EMILY’s List has elected hundreds of women to state and local office, as well as 101 pro-choice Democratic women to Congress, since its founding.

DeLauro moved from working for female representation to more mainstream Democratic political work with her first job ater EMILY’s List, as the administrative assistant and chief of staff for former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd. DeLauro served as Dodd’s chief of staff in the 80s, and would ultimately back the 30-year senator in his bid for president in 2008.

Rose said DeLauro’s work for Dodd gave her “immediate gravitas,” as she was associated with the senator during the peak of his popularity in the state. Many of Dodd’s accomplishments became principal talking-points in DeLauro’s campaign, he added.

The role with Dodd brought DeLauro into contact with top Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi— and the inner workings of D.C.

Both women would ultimately be elected to the House, Pelosi in 1986 and DeLauro in 1990.

“We’ve been friends for a very, very long time,” DeLauro said. “She was deeply encouraging for me to run for office. When the opportunity arose, she picked up the phone and said, ‘you’ve got to do it.’”

Gubernatorial ambitions caused four-term incumbent Democratic U.S. Congressman Bruce Morrison to retire from Connecticut’s 3rd district in 1990. DeLauro stepped up, running for the open seat and winning 52% of the vote to Republican State Sen. Thomas Scott’s 48%.

Ronald Schurin, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Connecticut, said those margins of victory are atypical, even for a strongly Democratic district. Schurin attributed DeLauro’s popularity to her ability to “bridge the gap between the working-class parts of the community” and “Yale and the more academically oriented parts of the community.”

A founding member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, DeLauro is considered one of the most liberal members of the House, Rose said. Leading in the Democratic state of Connecticut, DeLauro has rallied the state’s left—but at what cost?

In response to a question about DeLauro’s relationship with the Connecticut Republican Party, spokesperson Zak Sanders retorted, “Well, she doesn’t really have one with us.”

“We’ve never heard from her: she’s has made no signs of working with the Republican Party.” Sanders remarked. “Rosa DeLauro is a big fan of the partisan politics going on in Washington, D.C. that has plagued Congress—they’d rather face gridlock than try to work together on our problems.”

FROM FACTORIES TO FEDERAL LEGISLATURE 

Joseph Carbone of Fair Haven has known the DeLauro family since the day he was born. Their fathers knew each other from their work for New Haven Public Works, and Carbone noted that DeLauro still recounts the moment she heard, as a ten-year-old, about his birth.

“She said her father came home all excited and told them that my mom had had twin boys,” Carbone chuckled.

Calling Luisa DeLauro and Ted DeLauro “model public servants,” Carbone recalled the way their kitchen table served as a public forum for local residents around Wooster Square. People from all around visited, Carbone remembered, often just to have a few words with the most recognizable political figures in the neighborhood.

Comparing the DeLauros’ dedication to the attitudes of politicians complaining about the “stress and strain of it all,” Carbone said their family “marked in [his mind] an example of what public service is really about.”

“Their home was a mecca for Italian immigrants — their home was their office,” he said. “They worked 24/7, and the door was to open everybody. People felt comfortable and free to walk in.”

Four personal and political acquaintances interviewed pointed to Rosa DeLauro’s working-class upbringing as having had a large influence on her current political values and work ethic. Congressman John Larson, who serves alongside DeLauro in the Connecticut delegation to the U.S., credited much of DeLauro’s passion and energy with her Italian roots and her politically active alderwoman mother.

Her family’s deep roots to their ancestral home of Italy is reflected in DeLauro’s personality, Larson said, describing DeLauro as a mother at heart, one who is concerned with feeding people, caring for people and entertaining people. He remembered sitting at the dinner table with DeLauro and Greenberg. DeLauro had made an Italian meal of eggs, onions and mushrooms with grated cheese, produced from scratch and in front of them.

Larson described the vibrancy of DeLauro’s hostess style.

“If you ever walk into the house, you just get a welcoming color from every single spectrum of the rainbow,” he said. “There’s always something that’s avant-garde and at the same time very homey.”

Carbone, who was as ensconced with the Italian community as DeLauro was as a kid, remembers two things from their childhood: that above all DeLauro was a young activist, and that their “classic blue-collar” neighborhood was home to dozens of small dress shops and storefronts where men and women sat at their sewing machines all day, making clothing. They worked hard, DeLauro remembered, often under the worst of conditions.

Like Carbone, DeLauro had parents who encouraged her to “see all sides of life,” to note the immigrants who were working in near-slave labor conditions around Wooster Square.

“You walked through those factories in Wooster Square, the noise alone would make your ears kind of shatter. You had to watch every step you took or you could fall into a hole in the floor,” Carbone said. “I think it was the sight of all that — the sound of all that — that has shaped her experience. She has emerged as the embodiment of the shepherd of our community to get beyond.”

Carbone pointed to initiatives to expand paid sick leave and to promote the Fair Pay Act as instances where DeLauro has striven to improve working conditions for the Americans she used to see on her walks home.

FROM WILLIAMSBURG TO D.C.

Today, DeLauro has a whole new crop of fans who like her entirely different, entirely non-Wooster Square reasons.

Comedy writers Travis Helwig and Kirk Larsen were living in Williamsburg when they watched the State of the Union of 2010. Seeing DeLauro appear on the television screen wearing a large scarf and a beautiful, green “thrift store” jacket, Helwig said a thought suddenly occurred to him:

“A lightbulb lit up above me. I thought, I know what you look like — you look like my neighbor!”

When they established the Tumblr page, “Rosa DeLauro is a Fucking Hipster,” Helwig said the conception of DeLauro as an alternative culture icon “resonated with people.” Writing captions of exaggerated hipster slang, the duo have received submissions from both distant fans and members of DeLauro’s inner circle.

Helwig said at one occasion, one of the DeLauro relatives sent them a photo from a private family event. In her interview with the News, DeLauro characterized her fashion choices as less than calculating.

“I wear what I like: I don’t put a lot of thought into what others think, of what they like or what they dislike,” DeLauro remarked. “Someone once asked me why I wear boots. I like boots! I like them, so I buy them and I wear them.”

Those boots are here to stay. Retirement remains a distant future for DeLauro.

“At the moment, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing,” she said. “I’ll continue to do my job until I decide that I’d like to do something else,

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