The year was 1980.
In New Haven, a young Martin Looney won a seat in the state House of Representatives. He would go on to serve six terms before being elected to the state Senate in 1992, where he is now beginning his fifth term.
Now, the 52-year-old Looney wants to be mayor of New Haven. He is challenging incumbent Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in what many expect will be the hardest fought mayoral race the city has seen in years.
The central issue that has emerged in the campaign has been the level of prosperity of New Haven. DeStefano lists downtown development, an improving education system and decreased crime as examples of how the city’s fortunes have risen since he was first elected in 1993.
Looney, however, argues that the DeStefano administration has missed opportunities, and the schools are still struggling.
But to many, the history of Looney’s 20-year tenure in Hartford, and what DeStefano’s supporters call his failure to bring the city’s share of state funding, will be just as important to the campaign as the legacy of DeStefano-era New Haven.
Looney and his allies characterize his career as that of a legislator who has built strong relationships and brought large amounts of funding to his native city. But some DeStefano supporters say the victories he has won are insignificant, adding that his easy-going reputation results from a lack of fighting for causes.
Powerful Committee, Powerful Results?
Looney served as public information director for Mayor Frank Logue and taught English at Quinnipiac College before being elected to the House. As he became a Capitol veteran, he rose through the ranks, chairing three committees before moving on to the Senate.
Now the chairman of the influential Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, Looney said his greatest accomplishments have involved increasing levels of state assistance for the city.
He cited increases in the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which reimburses municipalities that cannot collect property taxes from non-profit hospitals and universities. Looney said the state now pays 75 percent of the lost money, while several years ago it only paid 20 percent. New Haven is one of the prime recipients of the program — it received nearly $20 million last year based on the property Yale owns and millions more from other universities and hospitals.
Looney also said he took a leadership role in guaranteeing the state would pay a huge portion of the cost of school construction and renovation, a program New Haven has taken advantage of extensively.
But Ward 1 Alderman Julio Gonzalez ’99, DeStefano’s campaign manager, disagreed that Looney has been productive.
“If you contrast the ability of John DeStefano to work with limited resources with the senator’s ability to use his leadership position in the committee, you realize that there is one person who is seeking the mayoral nomination who has a proven track record, and one person who doesn’t,” Gonzalez said.
“It’s a matter of what didn’t get done,” DeStefano said. “Someone else was setting the agenda.”
Gonzalez said Looney has yet to produce significant victories, adding that Looney cannot claim responsibility for projects such as school construction, which involved a wide variety of people.
One incident Gonzalez and other DeStefano supporters point to is Looney’s failure to secure bonding funding for the city while the now-defunct Galleria at Long Wharf Mall languished under a slew of lawsuits.
Looney, DeStefano and others had teamed up to win promises of $60 million in state funds for the project. But when the mall stalled, Republican Gov. John Rowland decided not to give New Haven additional funding, and in 1999 the city received no Urban Act bond money. In 1998 it had received $12.3 million.
DeStefano said last week that Looney should have used his power as chairman of the bonding committee to guarantee more funding for the city.
But Looney said that characterization was “ridiculous, a deliberate falsehood.” He said the administration presented no concrete proposal of projects for which it wanted funding.
Nearly all the city’s political players agree that Looney’s personality is sterling. State Rep. Pat Dillon, who has not endorsed either mayoral candidate, called him “the most amiable person I’ve ever worked with.” Rep. John Martinez, who is supporting DeStefano, said it is Looney’s nature to be a “nice guy.”
Looney, who has been critical of DeStefano for having poor relationships with Rowland and others, said his own history of working with state officials will help him as mayor.
“Increasingly, New Haven is smaller relative to the region than it was 10 years ago,” Looney said. “The relationships I have built with elected officials will be a crucial contribution to a healthy future for the city.”
Ward 9 Alderman Gerald Garcia ’94 SOM ’01, who is undecided in the mayoral election, agreed.
“I’m a believer in thinking outside the boundaries of how municipality lines are drawn,” Garcia said. “Having a reputation for being someone who listens, who is thoughtful, will be a huge asset.”
But Gonzalez and DeStefano said the reason everyone likes Looney is that he does not like to stand up to people.
“He hasn’t been a forceful advocate,” Gonzalez said. “Where has he stood up and said this is unjust and not fair?”
Martinez said it was not fair to attribute Looney’s reputation to not making waves.
“When Marty has to cause waves, he does,” Martinez said. “It is not thought out. You have to be who you are. Marty as a person is just a nice guy.”
Dillon said New Haven has fared poorly since the bonding allocation process was moved primarily behind doors several years ago, a situation which she said favors strong-willed negotiators, but she said she could not pin that performance on Looney.
Looney disapproves of the DeStefano camp’s criticism.
“The mayor has always praised my efforts,” Looney said. “That changed about a year ago when the stories started that I would run.”
Looney’s motivation for that run are also a point of contention.
DeStefano said he thought some in the party, including Looney, Democratic Town Chairman Nick Balletto and several disgruntled former DeStefano staffers, saw an opportunity to unseat him after former Alderman Jim Newton surprisingly received 38 percent of the vote in the 1999 Democratic mayoral primary.
The DeStefano campaign has pointed to several Looney supporters, including Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks and former Corporation Counsel Patricia Cofrancesco, who were part of the DeStefano administration before being forced out in the 1998 Livable City Initiative scandal. Supporters of the mayor said those people and others are backing Looney in order to regain power.
But Looney, who said DeStefano should bare the brunt of the responsibility for the LCI scandal, said voters should make their decision based on the candidates’ merits, not on their supporters.
Looney has a much simpler explanation for his candidacy.
“Obviously, the mayor has been in office during seven and a half years of the best economic times the state has seen, but the city does not have all that much to show for it,” Looney said. “The people of the city are feeling that strongly.”
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