New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Democratic primary challenger Sherri Killins squared off in a heated debate Thursday night, offering very different pictures of the state of the Elm City almost 10 years into DeStefano’s tenure.
The debate began with the Nation Drill Squad and Drum Corps marching into the Hill Regional Career High School auditorium in support of Killins, and the volume remained high both on stage and off as the two candidates attacked each other’s records, proposals and campaign tactics. A crowd of about 150 people attended the debate, which is the last one before next Tuesday’s primary.
While DeStefano touted statistics to illustrate reductions in crime and improvements in the city’s schools since he took office in 1994, Killins, former CEO of the community development group Empower New Haven, said DeStefano has done little for New Haven during his tenure.
“The real question is: are you better off now than you were 10 years ago?” Killins said in her opening statement.
With no Republicans running in this year’s election, the winner of Tuesday’s primary will run unopposed in November’s election. DeStefano, who is currently in his fifth term, won the endorsement of the New Haven Democratic Town Committee, but Killins received enough signatures to get her name on the primary ballot.
Killins said DeStefano has spent too much money on school construction while not doing enough to ensure that schools have adequate resources. The two candidates also sparred on recognizing same-sex domestic partnerships — DeStefano supports such a measure, Killins does not — while they also argued over whether DeStefano has done enough to fight crime among New Haven youth, assist seniors and provide minority employees with city contracts.
But much of the debate focused on the personal histories of the candidates and the campaigns they have run in recent months. DeStefano said Killins’ tenure at Empower New Haven — which ended abruptly last October when the mayor dismissed her — was marked by mismanagement, and he questioned Killins’ ability to make tough decisions given the city’s tight budget.
“A distinction between my opponent and myself, whether at Empower New Haven or with Willie Greene at the Q House, is that I expect performance,” DeStefano said. Greene, the incumbent Ward 21 alderman who has been endorsed by Killins, has been accused of mismanaging Q House, a community organization in the Dixwell neighborhood.
Killins, in response, said her firing at Empower New Haven — as well as the impending departure of New Haven Housing Authority Director Stephen Yandle — were due to power-grabbing on the part of the mayor.
“It’s a clear sign of this mayor’s need to have power and control — regardless of who he says he supports,” Killins said.
DeStefano also said Killins’ campaign “started with racial divisiveness and is ending with racial divisiveness,” specifically citing a leaflet her volunteers had dropped in predominantly African-American neighborhoods titled “When Will We Learn?” In response, Killins said she was only creating targeted literature for limited audiences — a tactic she said was typical of campaigns with limited funds. Although DeStefano has raised far less money than he did two years ago when he ran in a primary against State Sen. Martin Looney, DeStefano had raised $132,175 through July, compared to Killins’ $9,152.
DeStefano’s campaign manager, Shonu Gandhi ’03, a former staff columnist of the Yale Daily News, said the mayor’s volunteers called police before the event because Killins supporters were tearing down signs in support of DeStefano. Michael Smith ’06, Killins’ campaign manager, said volunteers only took down the signs because they were on public property.
The level of personal animosity between the two candidates showed in their answers to a question asking the two candidates to say something positive about their opponent. Killins said DeStefano had done “a significant job to take credit for improving the schools,” while DeStefano said he was comfortable with the fact that Killins — now an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven and Southern Connecticut State University — is teaching a class the mayor’s son is taking at SCSU.
After the debate, supporters on both sides — whose loud cheers resulted in frequent delays during the event — remained sharply divided as to the performance of the two candidates and their prospects next Tuesday.
“I think it was very clear who won,” DeStefano campaign volunteer Alyssa Rosenberg ’06 said. “I respect Sherri Killins for running for mayor, but I don’t think she’s articulated any kind of platform for what she is going to do.”
Ward 28 alderman Brian Jenkins, a Killins supporter whose opponent in next Tuesday’s election has been endorsed by DeStefano, said the mayor was continuing a history of dividing the community.
“The bottom line is that it is clear that the mayor talks of unity, but the fact is that Dr. Killins wants to sit down with the people, not act with impunity,” Jenkins said.