Back just in time.

As Yale students returned to campus this week, they found a New Haven buzzing with political activity in preparation for next Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary, which many observers call the most competitive in a decade.

Four-term incumbent John DeStefano Jr. is battling state Sen. Martin Looney for the right to face Republican Joel Schiavone ’58 and a possible Green Party candidate in November’s general election. The winning Democrat will be a strong favorite in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 10 to 1.

As Election Day approaches, campaign workers for both candidates have been busy canvassing voters, distributing literature and preparing for Tuesday’s get-out-the-vote activities. Both camps are working on solidifying support on key issues, including education, economic development and City Hall ethics. DeStefano supporters continue to praise the mayor’s accomplishments while their opponents bemoan “seven years of lost opportunities.”

The stiff competition has sharply divided New Haven Democrats, particularly aldermen, all of whom will face re-election this year. Many aldermen are facing challengers backed by the mayoral candidate they did not endorse. For instance, In a particularly heated race, Fair Haven Alderman Raul Avila, who is backing Looney, is being challenged by Edwin Negroni, who is supported by DeStefano.

The intraparty divisions were apparent when the Democratic Town Committee met in July and voted 35-24 to endorse DeStefano as the party candidate. Looney easily gathered the signatures needed to force a primary, but both sides claimed the vote as a victory.

DeStefano campaign manager Julio Gonzalez ’99 said that Democratic Town Chairman Nick Balletto’s support of Looney made the vote especially hard to win.

“We had to campaign very hard for that because the town chair was dead set against us,” Gonzalez said. “The endorsement was important because of who we brought together.”

But Looney said DeStefano’s margin of victory — the smallest for an incumbent in two decades — was a sign of weakness.

DeStefano also racked up endorsements this summer from several organized labor groups, many black clergymen, and five of the seven state legislators who serve with Looney on the New Haven delegation.

Looney, who said “incumbents tend to support incumbents,” said he was unfazed by the decision of his colleagues in the Legislature. He touted endorsements by the local teacher’s union, the longshoreman’s union, and Local 1199, the union that is organizing Yale-New Haven Hospital workers.

Looney campaign manager Jason Bartlett said the hospital workers’ endorsement will have particular effect among Yale student voters, many of whom have expressed support for Local 1199 and other Yale-affiliated unions.

But Gonzalez said Looney gained the workers’ endorsement simply because the union expects him to lose and remain in Hartford, where the group’s endorsement will give it leverage.

He added that the DeStefano campaign had an organizational advantage among Yale students and said he was confident the Yale vote would go to the incumbent.

Bartlett admitted that Gonzalez, an alumnus and former alderman in Yale’s Ward 1, had a head start among students, but Barlett hoped students would be attracted to Looney’s message.

Last minute preparations

As both camps prepared for Wednesday’s radio debate on WELI, the final scheduled joint appearance before the election, Looney called a Tuesday press conference at the New Haven Coliseum to elaborate on his proposal for a minor league baseball, soccer and lacrosse stadium that he first made last spring.

The senator announced that if elected he will call a referendum to allow city residents to decide whether to build a stadium, which Looney says will provide jobs and attract people to the downtown area. He also proposed to spend the estimated $2 million to $2.5 million obtained through the sale of the stadium’s naming rights to the public school system.

Looney contrasted his referendum decision to DeStefano’s choice to not call a referendum on the now-defunct Galleria at Long Wharf mall project.

DeStefano and his supporters have frequently derided the stadium plan, saying a stadium would come at the expense of other economic development, such as affordable housing, and would provide no real benefit to the city. Gonzalez did not change his tune Tuesday.

“The press conference today is a sad attempt at trying to pin wings on a pig,” Gonzalez said. “It’s still not going to fly.”

Gonzalez also distributed a letter Looney had sent to the state Department of Economic and Community Development in June 2000, in which Looney asked the department to hire Sal Brancati as a consultant to research possible locations for a new stadium. Brancati, who was the city economic development director until last year, has been accused of diverting city funds to non-profits he ran.

Looney disagreed with Gonzalez’s assertion that the association was his only economic-development proposal. Looney said he had been an advocate for housing and economic development, including the redevelopment of several empty department stores near the Chapel Square Mall.

Looney also challenged the mayor on education, calling for a move away from the DeStefano administration’s emphasis on magnet schools and toward the revitalization of neighborhood schools.

Perhaps the most contentious debates of the campaign have centered on the candidates’ ethics. Looney has criticized DeStefano for a string of scandals dating back to early in the mayor’s tenure; this summer he has focused on the mismanaged purchase of a building at 187 Dixwell Ave. from developer Wendell Harp, whose wife is state Sen. Toni Harp.

The DeStefano campaign, however, points out that many of the primary actors in those incidents now support his opponent, a message Bartlett has little patience for.

“This race is about the two candidates. For every person they want to pick out, I can pick out a felon on their side,” Bartlett said. “They need to point in their own backyard.”