After a short but bitterly fought campaign, New Haven Democrats will go to the polls today to choose between incumbent Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and his challenger Sherri Killins.
With both candidates framing the election as a referendum on DeStefano’s 10-year tenure as mayor, the results will prove an important test of his success in reshaping both the city and its Democratic Party. In a race between a former CEO of the economic development organization Empower New Haven and the mayor who abruptly dismissed her last year, the two Democrats have sharply criticized each other’s agendas, leadership styles and campaign tactics.
The winner of today’s primary will run virtually unopposed in November’s general election, as New Haven Republicans have not fielded a candidate.
After speaking before a group of Yale College Democrats who are supporting his candidacy, DeStefano said Monday night that he was happy with the direction of his campaign over recent weeks.
“I feel pretty good,” DeStefano said. “I think I’ll do very well, and I think we’ll do very well in our aldermanic races, and it’s a real sign of the positive energy in his campaign.
DeStefano has the endorsement of the New Haven Democratic Town Committee — the official local branch of the Democratic Party, and he has far outraised Killins, having taken in $191,654 compared to $15,884 for his opponent.
But despite those advantages, Killins said on the eve of the election she was optimistic about her chances.
“When people got to hear me, they got excited about what they heard,” Killins said. “So I’m excited about tomorrow, and I’m excited about my chances of winning.”
Killins has largely focused on questioning the mayor’s success in bringing safety and prosperity to the entire city and criticizing DeStefano for employing a domineering leadership style. In particular, she has argued that the mayor has spent too many of the city’s resources on building schools without adequately ensuring quality instruction in the classroom.
The mayor has said the school construction is a result of his efforts to “keep promises” the city had made to build better facilities, and he said Monday night that he thought his greatest accomplishment was improving literacy rates among New Haven children.
Killins has also criticized DeStefano’s record of fostering economic development in the city and recent property tax hikes that have resulted from recent budget deficits. While DeStefano has touted his record of fostering economic growth — especially in the city’s downtown area — Killins says the mayor has not put a strategy into place for economic development.
In addition, Killins has said that on a wide range of issues — from the removal of arrest powers for constables at Yale-New Haven Hospital to the closing of the Coliseum — DeStefano has failed to sit down with the interested parties and has instead acted rashly and imperiously. Although Killins has declined to give her exact position on the closing of the Coliseum, for example, she said she would approach the issue differently from DeStefano.
The DeStefano campaign, on the other hand, has sharply criticized Killins as a divisive candidate who mismanaged Empower New Haven during her tenure as chief executive of the federally funded organization. The mayor has frequently contrasted his campaign slogan “Working Together” with his descriptions of a candidate that “is trying to divide us.”
In particular, the mayor has said that his support of same-sex domestic partnerships — which Killins opposes — illustrates his greater commitment to unity and inclusiveness in the city. DeStefano said last night that he expected a measure in support of domestic partnerships, which failed by one vote in the Board of Aldermen last year, would pass after this year’s elections.
DeStefano campaign manager Shonu Gandhi ’03 said Killins’ campaign had become more aggressive in recent weeks in its attacks on the mayor.
“I think we’ve definitely seen the other side get nastier and more hateful and smear their opponents in ugly and completely fabricated ways,” said Gandhi, who is a former Yale Daily News staff columnist. “We knew we were running against a group of nasty people, but we didn’t realize how hateful they were.”
In response to charges that his campaign had engaged in nasty rhetoric, Killins campaign manager Michael Smith ’06 said his campaign was simply a grassroots reaction to the DeStefano administration.
“We are merely providing an equal response to the ‘nastiness’ that they have been using from the very beginning,” Smith said.
The contentiousness of the campaign was underscored today by the scene of two SUVs with DeStefano signs and loudspeakers encouraging New Haven citizens to vote for the incumbent mayor. Trailing right behind the DeStefano supporters was a car sporting Killins signs and its own loudspeaker.
“He’s lying again,” the Killins supporter yelled. “Listen to the liar.”