Cellular phone in pocket and campaign literature in hand, a tired but upbeat Michael Montano ’03 climbed into the driver’s seat of the “DeStefanomobile” Wednesday night, slid the keys into the ignition, and drove the dark blue pickup truck off the curb in front of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s campaign headquarters in Fair Haven.

Sitting atop the pickup –Êwhich was borrowed from a local cleaning business — was a colorful crown of strobe lights and blue and white “Mayor DeStefano” lawn signs, arranged so pedestrians and other drivers could not possibly mistake the vehicle’s purpose.

Rolling along near midnight, Montano demonstrated one method the campaign used to attract voters.

The truck bore anchored to its bed an elaborate public announcement system complete with microphone — to “harass people on the street,” Montano joked — and a cassette player which runs a loop tape of memorable DeStefano campaign speeches.

As he drove away from the center of the city along a blighted stretch of Grand Avenue, Montano, 20, a philosophy major from San Antonio, Texas, began to describe his involvement in the latest chapter of what has become an increasingly violent and emotionally charged political contest; he told the story of his own brush with political “harassment.”

Early in the morning of Aug. 29, Montano said he was physically attacked by former Fair Haven Alderwoman Veronica Nieves Rodriguez, whom Montano said he caught on videotape as she destroyed campaign materials distributed by Edwin Negroni and Daisy Montanez Couverthier, both DeStefano-supported aldermanic candidates in the area.

Fair Haven, a half-mile east of Yale across State Street, has been one of the most explosive flashpoints in New Haven’s most-hotly contested mayoral race in a decade.

Montano, who sought the Ward 1 Democratic nomination last spring but lost to Ben Healey ’04, said he asked Rodriguez to stop as she walked with a partner down Exchange Street.

When she did not, Montano began to videotape her. The Yale junior said Rodriguez then stole the camera, hit him with it and chased him for half-a-block down the street.

Rodriguez could not be reached for comment and Looney campaign manager Jason Bartlett denied Rodriguez had any connection to the senator’s campaign.

“I don’t condone this type of behavior for either side,” Bartlett said. “It’s a heated contest and things are happening on both sides. Certainly [Rodriguez] does not answer to me or talk to me.”

DeStefano campaign manager Julio Gonzalez ’99 said the incident was representative of “the confrontational tone of the Looney campaign,” though he admitted DeStefano probably had “some supporters who have gotten overly exuberant.”

Montano’s experience in Fair Haven was only one of a handful of testy confrontations this summer. DeStefano and Looney supporters have clashed at press conferences, community meetings and publicity events since the campaign reached full swing in midsummer.

Campaigns routinely distribute flyers late at night to prevent the other side from removing them, and some residents have complained they are being intimidated on these nocturnal campaign swings. It’s gotten so bad that Westville Alderwoman Lindy Gold has proposed a ban on flyer distribution after dark.

Gonzalez and Bartlett have both denied direct connections between their campaigns and the persons involved in many of the incidents.

Bartlett and Gonzalez both suggested that the tenor of this year’s race may be more charged than in previous years.

Bartlett, who has been involved with New Haven politics for several years since his 1988 graduation from the University of Connecticut, said he thought “there was definitely a higher level of passion” in this year’s race.

But Gonzalez said the city is undergoing a “period of political transition.”

Although DeStefano has sailed through the nominating process in his last four campaigns, this year Democratic Town Chairman Nick Balletto isn’t supporting DeStefano. The Democratic Town Committee endorsed DeStefano by only a 35-24 vote and failed to endorse any aldermanic candidate in a number of wards, igniting fierce campaigns throughout the city. In past years, party-endorsed candidates easily won their primaries.

The rift within the party developed over the past two years as DeStefano began to clear his administration of politically powerful yet ethically tainted bureaucrats.

One longtime political observer said the problem lies deep within New Haven’s aging one-party system.

Caroline Dinegar, a political scientist at the University of New Haven and a former mayoral candidate herself, said this year’s race is just an especially negative manifestation of New Haven’s longtime lag behind many other American cities.

“New Haven takes steps to maintain a one-party system,” she said. “The positions that both Looney and DeStefano take, they believe in them … but both are very shortsighted.”

Among the city’s 54,844 registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 4 to 1 — and New Haveners have not elected a Republican mayor since 1952 — yet Dinegar said other American cities with comparable voter registration patterns, including New York and Chicago, have evolved beyond their numbers.

She pointed to two cities closer to home — Hartford and Bridgeport — who have “in the last eight or 10 years outgrown their histories.”

Changing immigration patterns in Bridgeport and population changes in Hartford have “shifted the balance of power” in those cities, she said, yet the same has not happened in New Haven.

“It’s just sad,” she said. “This kind of race is not going away.”

For his part, Montano remained optimistic despite his being caught in the crossfire.

“I was certainly surprised by what happened to me, and I don’t like the way certain events have unfolded this summer, but I’m not jaded,” he said. “I don’t think New Haven needs to change; I think it is changing.”

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