Drums reverberate and the piano roars during a three-hour Sunday service at Varick AME Zion Church, where the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93 preaches to a vocal audience about the power of God and then launches into an update about his unorthodox bid for the Yale Corporation.
“It can never be a true partnership if we aren’t at the table,” Lee says to the audience’s “amen” and “praise the Lord.”
By this point, his audience is fired up — really fired up considering most of them cannot vote in the Corporation election.
“This is a social contract we are talking about,” Lee says. “We have to stand up in the city where we have Yale. We have to say something, and let’s stop being reactive.”
Lee obtained more than 4,000 signatures to gain a spot on this year’s Corporation ballot, and he has been waging an active campaign that has transformed a normally quiet trustee election process into a saga featuring political endorsements and competing advertisements in the Yale Alumni Magazine.
Even as Lee argues that he would be a much-needed local voice on the 16-trustee Corporation, the $30,000 in union funding that his campaign received has led to suggestions that Lee would be merely a union pawn.
Lee is not “simply a concerned New Haven person interested in improving town-gown relations,” Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Kurt Schmoke ’71 said.
“That’s part of his rhetoric and clearly makes a very good veneer for what is really going on here, which is organized labor has selected a person to promote their interests on the governing board.”
Lee defends his acceptance of the union money and says that he would not be beholden to special interests — “No one pulls my string,” he says — but funding is not the only aspect of his campaign that has drawn criticism.
While in recent speeches Lee has praised Yale President Richard Levin’s commitment to working with the New Haven community, his tone has not always been so cordial. In September, Lee said, “Levin is probably laughing now but he won’t laugh after we get there.”
Whether defiant or conciliatory, Lee has burst from relative obscurity into prominence — and controversy.
“What concerns me about Rev. Lee are the inconsistencies in his statements. Who is the real Rev. Lee?” Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said. “Is it the one who appears to be challenging President Levin or the one who is complimenting him?”
“The wizard of Oz”
Lee, 37, says he had no sense of the Yale Corporation before this summer and was just sitting around one day with the Rev. Scott Marks, the Rev. Lillian Daniel DIV ’93 and other community activists when the idea for his Corporation bid was born.
Daniel is the president and Marks a co-founder of the Connecticut Center for the New Economy, a nonprofit group linked with Yale’s labor unions that has issued several controversial recent reports criticizing Yale’s relationship with the surrounding community.
Lee serves as vice president of the group.
The themes of Lee’s campaign and CCNE intersect — both talk about “social contracts” and “an idea whose time has come” — but Lee denies that he was sponsored by CCNE.
Daniel said the idea of a petition candidacy stemmed from frustration with the Corporation’s inaccessibility to union supporters and community activists who were trying to make contact with the University.
“Our attention kept being focused back on the Corporation. We would get referred to and never could meet,” Daniel said. “It kind of started to feel like the Yale Corporation was the wizard of Oz.”
Lee and his supporters readily admit that the campaign is not about the candidate.
“I guess if it wasn’t David, we would have found someone else,” Daniel said.
But Lee accepted the offer, perhaps with more than a little naivete.
“I don’t think any of us had really predicted the way Yale has gone after him in a personal way,” Daniel said. “None of us knew what we were asking him to do.”
A different sort of Corporation race
When it comes to Corporation elections, campaigning just isn’t done. Or so say Yale’s top administrators and at least one member of the Corporation.
“I worry that if major campaigns become the norm that many outstanding alums may be unwilling to run for the Corporation, thinking they would have to mount a huge campaign to be seriously considered,” University Secretary Linda Lorimer said.
Heidi Hartmann GRD ’74, now director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said she was approached in 1985 by Local 34, Yale’s union of clerical and technical workers, and asked to run as a petition candidate. Hartmann said she hoped to fight at the Corporation table for pay equity and comparable salary growth for women.
She said the University administration did nothing to hinder her campaign.
“I think they let it be known they weren’t happy, but it was pretty low key,” Hartmann said. “For whatever reasons the union also did not do very much in terms of campaigning. They were negotiating a contract and had much on their plate.”
In the current campaign, Lee says he does not regret accepting $30,000 from Yale’s unions to finance his first campaign mailing.
“My church did not have $30,000 and say, ‘Yeah, go ahead and do this,'” Lee says. “We act like the union people are worse people. I see the unions are a benefit to poor working people who are consistently taken advantage of because they can’t defend themselves.”
To date, Lee has reported raising approximately $55,000 in campaign funds, including the $30,000 from the unions and a $10,000 anonymous donation. Despite criticism of the union contribution, Lee will not identify the unnamed donor and denies that he is beholden to any single constituency.
“I have a host of alumni who financially supported this idea,” Lee says. “I can’t dare just go in there and just speak up for unions.”
But University administrators disagree.
“I don’t think you can claim that you do not have some special interests when over 50 percent of your funding and the funding that launched your candidacy is one group,” Klasky said. “One group gave so much money to a candidate that it completely distorts the whole election process.”
Willie Jane Lee, Lee’s mother, said she tries to keep up with the campaign coverage and takes attacks against her son personally. She was angered by a Klasky quotation criticizing Lee’s fund raising, for example.
“She sounds just like they are paying him for something,” Lee’s mother said. “I mean, $30,000 is nothing. That can’t buy his dignity.”
The Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee of the Association of Yale Alumni nominated a more conventional candidate to run against Lee. The committee broke with tradition by selecting a single candidate, Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86, instead of the usual slate of two to five.
Since her nomination, Lin has refused to speak to the media, announcing in a letter that she does not wish for any statements to be perceived as campaigning.
In light of all the publicity, Daniel said, Lee has treaded carefully when discussing Lin’s candidacy.
“I think David was really careful not to say anything negative about Maya Lin,” Daniel said.
But Lee says he did not know what to make of the committee’s decision to nominate only Lin.
“Evidently someone is trying to tip the scales,” Lee says.
Lee says he sincerely believes that the Yale administration has no objection to his candidacy, but he adds that he is confused by some of the reaction to his decision to run.
“For Yale to go out of its way to ensure I don’t get on the board, what does it say? Why not have one at least from the community?” Lee says.
Lee supporters have expressed concern that the election is not being handled fairly. They cite the AYA’s election Web site, which contrasts Lin’s restrained statement upon receiving the AYA nomination with a year-old comment from Lee: “Yale has meet its Waterloo in the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. It is indeed our time.”
The election will last until the weekend after Commencement, when Levin will announce the victor. If he wins, Lee says he will nominate Lin to fill the seat that Schmoke will vacate in June, allowing the Corporation to have “the best of both worlds.”
And despite his impassioned rhetoric of improving Yale-New Haven relations, Lee says he does not have any specific proposals to bring to the board if elected.
“That’s one thing I really don’t know, but I do know one thing — we need to continue to strengthen the partnership,” Lee says. “Outside of that, once I get on the board there will be much deliberation and discussion about issues.”
Lee’s mother said she would not be surprised if he wins the election because she has “never seen him fail at anything yet.”
At speaking engagements, Lee frequently refers to his rise from the projects of Ansonia. He was born and raised in Ansonia and described his childhood as the “typical project life,” with seven kids living in a four-bedroom apartment in a large housing project.
Lee — who now cruises around Dixwell in a blue Lexus — says he will never forget the day when he realized his grandmother was a maid.
“I’m just fortunate,” Lee says. “There was no way a kid like me was supposed to get out.”
His mother was a single parent and said Lee has no contact with his father.
“It wasn’t easy because I had to work and support two children on my own, but we got through it. There was always food on the table,” she said. “It wasn’t like they suffered for anything.”
After high school, Lee accepted a full scholarship at Syracuse University to play Division I football. He lettered in each of his four years as a defensive back.
Lee met his future wife, Benita, at Syracuse and married her in 1992.
Lee never intended to become a minister during his time at Syracuse, instead planning to play professional football — until he injured his knee during his final college season.
He says he misses football but adds that his competitive spirit has carried over into his attitude toward the one-on-one race against Lin.
After his graduation from Syracuse in 1985, Lee sold cars for a period and worked at Phoenix Life Insurance in New Haven for three years.
Lee says he proved his love for Yale by walking away from a $40,000-a-year job at age 25 to enroll in the Divinity School, move in with his grandfather, and take out loans to pay for Yale.
“The one thing that angers me the most — makes me so angry — is that people have the audacity to think I don’t love Yale,” Lee says.
Divinity School and beyond
While Lee was a student at Yale, his cousin became a casualty of gang violence in New Haven, an event that Lee has repeatedly called the defining moment in his life.
Despite the personal tragedy, however, Lee calls his time at Yale a “grand experience.”
“As far as intellectual exercise and challenging you to push the envelope and be a leader, it is second to none,” Lee says.
After graduating from the Divinity School, Lee entered a doctoral program in social ethics at Drew University. In the middle of the program, his sister, who was dealing with a drug addiction, gave Lee custody of his three nieces and nephews.
“[School] was just too much to handle from that point on,” says Lee, now a father of four.
He dropped out of the program to focus on the church and served in several ministerial roles in New Jersey. In 1998, Lee’s daughter Jordan was diagnosed in the womb with spina bifida, and Lee requested a transfer back home.
In May 1998, Lee came to Parker Memorial Zion Church in Meriden. Four months later he was transferred to New Haven, and has been here ever since.
After graduating from the Divinity School, Lee says he only came back to Yale occasionally. He defends his lack of University involvement before launching his Corporation bid by saying that he was not in the New Haven community in the years between his 1993 graduation and 1998 appointment to Varick Memorial.
Pro-Lee, anti-Lee or anti-administration
Alumni response to Lee’s bid has been mixed. Former University Secretary Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57 formed a group of alumni to protest what he calls a special-interest campaign, but Lee’s Web site lists a substantial number of alumni donors.
George Booth ’53 mailed in a signed petition to get Lee on the ballot last fall.
“I wasn’t electing him, but it sounded good to me because he was a New Haven man, and he was black and he sounded very good,” Booth said.
As of this week, Booth said he did not know Lin had been nominated or that Lee had accepted $30,000 in union funds to finance his first mailing.
He said he would now shift his support to Lin, and said he was surprised to learn about the union financing.
“That’s interesting. At that time I sort of wondered how a minister of a church in New Haven — where did he get the money for this? That’s a pretty nice mailing, too,” Booth said. “I think it was something that wouldn’t have hurt him to put a little box in there.”
Jim Herlan ’57 said he has kept up with the Corporation elections every year and has never seen anything like this election.
“I look at those ballots every year, and it is just — nothing happens,” Herlan said. “You get two or three names and pick one. Lee is different.”
He said he has reservations about Lee’s campaign but added that the Yale administration has left him with little choice but to vote for Lee.
“I guess I am voting as much for Lee and also for the overreaction for the establishment against the guy,” Herlan said. “I am not sure if I actually do approve of campaigning as he is doing, but the Yale administration is so obviously campaigning for the other candidate. I just think it is kind of phony for the president and others to be running a campaign the other way.”
Herlan complained about the fairness of the different materials the AYA has mailed to alumni.
“This — stuff that goes to alumni is carrying a veiled attack on Lee. I’m an old white guy. I’m kind of conservative,” Herlan said. “And it just drives me up the wall that the administration is doing this. It is kind of embarrassing for Yale.”
George Pillsbury ’72 said he supports Lee’s candidacy because he was an activist in New Haven during his college years. Pillsbury, who works as an election reform and voting rights consultant, said he had no qualms about the campaign.
“I think it is good to have this type of issue-oriented campaign,” Pillsbury said. “I hope the campaign is being played on a level playing field. I expect it is not.”
An idea whose time has come?
Lee says he “never fathomed” that he would be able to possibly make good on a vow he made after his cousin’s death to improve ties between Yale and New Haven.
“I just really wish they did not make it personal and looked at the power of the idea,” Lee says. “It affects you as a person, but you always have to remember there is a remnant of those who do not want to change.”
Lee says he certainly thinks it is time for the Corporation to change.
“How many of the board members of Yale University have been inside a black church in New Haven or have walked the streets of the inner city and just met one of the people — just one — just one person that they can say they met and talked to and now know and have kept that relationship going?” Lee says. “None of them can say that. Not one.”
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