In April 2002, freshman alderman Brian Jenkins turned the annual Minority State of the City Address into a circus. Jenkins, no doubt inspired by his recent election as chairman of the Black and Hispanic Caucus, shocked many of his legislative colleagues when he lashed out at Yale administrators and top City Hall brass in a speech loaded with invective, poorly conceived metaphors, and a battery of dubious conspiracy charges. And despite his promise to be on better behavior this year, Jenkins did it all again on Monday.
A longtime community activist who defied political odds to win office over a City Hall-endorsed incumbent, Jenkins last year described a sinister “axis of power” in which Yale administrators and Mayor John DeStefano Jr. had systematically colluded to deprive minority residents of their basic civil rights. Following the speech, several members of Jenkins’ caucus — who had only recently elected him to the leadership post — called for his removal. Jenkins had delivered the speech without showing it to members of the caucus he was supposed to represent, even though sharing the speech had been common practice in previous years. But a year passed, and with the exception of rumors that Jenkins is mounting a bid to unseat DeStefano in this November’s elections, things in Ward 28 remained relatively quiet.
On Monday, however, Jenkins tried for a repeat. This time, he prepared two copies of his speech — one to show members of the caucus, and another to read before a packed aldermanic chamber at City Hall. The content of Jenkins’ speech this year was only a small cut above last year’s. In 2002, he misstated the age of the University by a century and botched Marie Antoinette’s most famous quotation; this year, Jenkins accused DeStefano of being “unchaste” and launched a salvo of personal attacks against the mayor.
Jenkins’ brand of disingenuous politics has no place in New Haven. His stunt in 2002 was sad and unfortunate; this year’s speech-switch was inexcusably dishonest. Members of Jenkins’ caucus should remove him from his position as chairman of the Caucus.
Despite his dishonesty in representing the city’s minority community, however, Jenkins still deserves a chance to represent his own constituency in Ward 28. His refusal to play by the rules of New Haven’s restrictive Democratic machine is often admirable. His against-the-odds victory over Bruce McClenning in 2001, his support for Sally Brown in her bid to unseat Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Susie Voigt, and his numerous one-man-stands before his colleagues all certainly point to an underlying sincerity.
Jenkins has long been a voice for the underprivileged and downtrodden in New Haven. The issues about which he has been most forceful — trying to correct a perceived disparity in the number of city contracts given to minorities, and holding Yale more accountable for its responsibilities to New Haven — need passionate advocates like Jenkins. Unfortunately, Jenkins seems unable to combine forceful advocacy with leadership. The city, and the Black and Hispanic Caucus, would be better served by a leader not given to such fits of dishonesty and unsubstantiated invective.