Despite a brief interruption by a large, hairy man sporting a red wig and fishnet stockings, New Haven’s mayoral candidates battled head-to-head Monday night in their only general election debate of the year.
Over the course of the hour-and-a-half-long contest at the New Haven Colony Historical Society, Republican challenger Joel Schiavone ’58 attacked incumbent Mayor John DeStefano Jr. on issues ranging from arts funding to downtown development policy.
Making his appeal to the crowd of about 75 — more than half of whom appeared to be his supporters — Schiavone employed a litany of negative facts about New Haven in his critique of his four-term Democratic opponent.
DeStefano, who waived several opportunities for rebuttal during the debate, remained composed throughout, becoming visibly upset only once, when Schiavone attacked New Haven’s public school system. The mayor, who beat state Sen. Martin Looney last month in a contentious Democratic primary battle, preferred a more reserved debating style than Schiavone, whose harsh-tongued attacks were at times highly personal.
The debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Historical Society, showcased the contrasts between the two candidates, one a liberal Democrat and the other a free-enterprise Republican.
Schiavone used his two-minute opening statement to attack DeStefano’s development strategy and educational policies.
“The future of the city is at stake now,” Schiavone said. “We’re at a crossroads.”
Schiavone criticized DeStefano’s vision of downtown as a retail and office district and said the mayor has encouraged too much light-industry development on the waterfront.
Dredging up a dialogue from September’s primary, the two candidates also sparred over education.
Long a proponent of magnet schools and districtwide busing programs, DeStefano touted New Haven’s recent school renovation campaign and the district’s new joint parent-teacher accountability plan, which has garnered attention as the first of its kind in the country.
Schiavone, who supports capping neighborhood school enrollment at 350 students, criticized DeStefano for an alleged 80 percent busing rate within the city.
The two candidates also disagreed sharply over funding for the arts.
DeStefano held up FilmFest New Haven and the city’s Saturday night summer concert series as examples of what he said was his administration’s commitment to artists.
Schiavone said New Haven needs to partner with more corporations to pay for its arts events.
“There is a perception that New Haven has money to spend on the arts,” Schiavone said. “New Haven has no money.”
Throughout the campaign, Schiavone has claimed New Haven is near bankruptcy, surviving only through “handouts” from the state and federal governments.
The Republican also criticized DeStefano for his handling of the recent shooting in the Dwight neighborhood.
DeStefano has been hesitant to link the crime to gang activity, which Schiavone said is once again on the rise in New Haven. At the debate, DeStefano defended his administration’s community policing program and the recent 50 percent drop in New Haven’s crime rate.
The night’s only moment of levity came unexpectedly during the candidates’ closing statements, when a man campaigning for mayor as a write-in candidate ran to the front of the auditorium and began shouting at the panelists.
After he mumbled something about debating DeStefano, the man, wearing a halter top and sunglasses with his stockings and wig, was escorted out of the room.
Schiavone and his campaign manager, Ted LeVasseur, have repeatedly demanded more debates from DeStefano, whose self-admitted strategy since the primary has been to campaign as little as possible.
In an interview after the debate, DeStefano defended the strategy.
“I’ve done four debates with Joel,” he said. “That’s more than George Bush and Al Gore. I think this … has more to do with the fact that [Schiavone’s] campaign is having trouble generating interest and excitement.”
DeStefano campaign manager Julio Gonzalez ’99 said DeStefano does not need to campaign as heavily against Schiavone because the mayor has enough name recognition “left over” from his race against Looney.