When two local clergy with close ties to Yale’s labor unions suggested he run for a spot on the University’s governing body last summer, the Rev. W. David Lee DIV ’93 never imagined the controversy he would inspire.

But 10 months after the initial launch of his unorthodox candidacy for a spot on the 16-member policymaking body, the normally sleepy process of electing an alumni fellow has been transformed into a war of proxies, pitting administrative spokesmen against union-affiliated activist organizations.

Lee, the pastor of Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church on Dixwell Ave., has mounted the first active campaign in Yale history for Corporation fellow. He advocates more Yale involvement in New Haven affairs with a place for New Haven at the Corporation table.

Lee is not the first candidate to take the petition route — 13 others have obtained a spot on the ballot the same way — but if elected, he would be only the third successful petition candidate. William Horowitz ’29, the first Jewish member of the Corporation, used the petition route to earn a seat at the table in 1969.

For better or for worse, Lee has burst from relative obscurity into prominence — and controversy — as he seeks to replace vacating alumni fellow David Gergen ’63.

Road to the ballot

Lee’s path to the Corporation ballot began in August 2001, when the minister sent out a mass mailing to alumni soliciting the 3,250 signatures he need to gain a spot on the ballot. Lee financed the mailing with $30,000 from Yale’s labor unions — funding that his detractors have argued will make Lee a union pawn if elected.

Since Lee began his campaign 10 months ago, the Yale administration has made it clear that it has no affiliation with Lee’s campaign.

Last January, Association of Yale Alumni Executive Director Jeffrey Brenzel e-mailed approximately 850 alumni representatives saying that the AYA and Yale had no association with Lee’s Corporation bid. Yale President Richard Levin later said that no candidate has ever campaigned for the Corporation. Throughout the campaign, Yale administrators have declined to comment on the specifics of Lee’s candidacy.

Lee officially launched his campaign with a fundraiser at his church Jan. 25, before a crowd that included top city officials, local labor leaders and several members of New Haven’s Board of Aldermen. At the gathering, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Stanley Welch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, endorsed Lee’s bid. In the months that followed, Lee garnered several more endorsements from prominent politicians including Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73.

DeStefano later withdrew his formerly vocal support after Lee criticized New Haven’s troubled school system in a March sermon. A picture taken at the fundraiser was used in a Lee advertisement in the Yale Alumni Magazine, and New Haven Alderwoman Lindy Lee Gold added her name to the fray when she claimed Lee “duped” her into endorsing him when she posed for the photograph.

Maya Lin, the other candidate

But the hoopla surrounding Lee’s candidacy kicked into high gear with the nomination of his opposition.

The Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee selected Maya Lin ’81 ARC ’86 — the esteemed architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.; and the Women’s Table at Yale — as the second and final candidate on the ballot.

Levin called Lin one of the most distinguished Yale graduates of the past quarter century, a departure from the University policy of not commenting on Corporation candidates. He also confirmed that the singular nomination marked the first time the nominating committee selected only one candidate for the alumni trustee ballot.

Throughout the campaign Lin has declined to speak with the media, saying she prefers the silence that has usually characterized alumni fellow elections and wants her accomplishments to speak for themselves.

Prominent alumni such as former University Secretary Henry “Sam” Chauncey have criticized Lee, saying that the minister will be beholden to special interests. Chauncey organized a group, Alumni for Responsible Trusteeship, in protest of Lee’s candidacy.

“I believe that a trustee who is beholden to a special interest cannot, by definition, represent the best interests of the University as a whole,” Chauncey wrote in a March column endorsing Lin. “Second, he has not disclosed this fact in his mailings and e-mails to graduates.”

End of the saga

As word of Lee’s unorthodox tactics and the vocal opposition he inspired began to spread, national media picked up Yale’s trusteeship saga. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post devoted features to Lee’s candidacy, and his bid was also mentioned in the Financial Times.

The University has retained an outside company, Mellon Investor Services, to count the ballots, marking yet another first in the unorthodox Corporation election year.

Voting concludes May 26, and Levin will announce the results the following weekend.

Lee, who says he has no official agenda other than representing New Haven interests, says that if elected, his first order of business would be to nominate Lin to fill the seat of vacating successor trustee and senior fellow Kurt Schmoke ’71.

But whether the victor is Lee or Lin, one fact remains indisputable — the University and the New Haven community have changed the way they view the Yale Corporation, and the normally quiet process will never be the same again.