Everybody loves a rematch. Residents of the Dixwell neighborhood and students in Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges will soon get to experience one first-hand.
Just four years after Grace Gibbs defeated scandal-tarnished incumbent Mae Ola Riddick to represent Ward 22 on the Board of Aldermen, the two will square off in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
The race is one of many aldermanic contests that have been made more fierce by the candidates’ allegiances to the mayoral candidates, state Sen. Martin Looney and Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
Gibbs, a Looney backer, failed to win the support of the Democratic Ward Committee co-chairs, both of whom endorsed DeStefano and Riddick.
Gibbs had been planning on not seeking another term, but said she changed her mind when a suitable successor could not be found.
The campaign marks the political return of Riddick, who served as alderwoman in 1996 and 1997 while living in the Elm Haven housing project. As head of the Elm Haven Resident Council, Riddick was instrumental in securing a $45 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build Elm Haven’s replacement — The Homes at Monterrey.
However, hundreds of thousands of dollars of the HUD grant later went unaccounted for. Riddick was never prosecuted, but the controversy helped carry Gibbs into office.
Riddick did not return repeated phone calls, but Ward Committee co-chair Drew King said it was time to move beyond the scandal.
“That’s in the past, and what she’s capable of doing today is in the present,” he said.
Gibbs, however, said she thought the majority of the ward’s voters would not forget the incident.
Looney campaign manager Jason Bartlett said the controversy in Riddick’s past would undermine DeStefano’s assertion that he has cleaned house at a formerly corrupt City Hall.
“The mayor’s embrace of her just demonstrates that he is only trying to hold on to power and that basically he will embrace anybody who will help him achieve that end,” Bartlett said. “I think he’s a hypocrite.”
But Julio Gonzalez ’99, DeStefano’s campaign manager, disagreed.
“Mae Ola, like a lot of people, has evolved,” Gonzalez said. “What we care about is that she’s a dedicated community activist. It’s up to the voters to decide.”
Gibbs said she her constituents of her ward had gotten to know her, and questioned Riddick’s return.
“She’s had her reign,” Gibbs said. “My motivation is completely different from hers. I have no interest in gaining any money or recognition.”
Ward, the Democratic co-chair, said in April she would support Gibbs over Riddick. But she said Gibbs’ decision to support Looney made her change her mind.
“How could you possibly do that when you saw what DeStefano has been able to do in the ward?” Ward asked.
Gibbs said she is backing Looney because she feels he is the candidate with the most integrity.
In 1999, Gibbs won re-election in a contentious campaign against Pete Stein ’99. During the campaign, former ward co-chairs Pete Gray and Linda Cox circulated a racially inflammatory letter accusing Stein of “carpetbagging.”
This year, the Gibbs campaign has distributed campaign literature in Morse and Stiles, and Gibbs said she hopes students become more involved in the neighborhood, particularly its schools.
Both Riddick and Gibbs were forced to gather signatures to earn a place on the ballot after the ward committee failed to endorse either of them.