When Joyce Chen ’01 says she is going to be “an independent voice” on the Board of Aldermen next year, it is hard not to believe her. After all, she does not have much of a choice.
Chen, who defended her seat in Ward 2 earlier this month, will be the only Green on the Board as she serves her second term. But even more importantly, she returns to the city’s council having defied an all-out effort to oust her by the city’s Democratic Party and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
In a year when the Democrats captured 28 of the 30 seats on the Board of Aldermen — beating out several of the mayor’s opponents within his own party in the process — Chen pulled off a second straight electoral surprise after becoming the first Asian-American and one of the first two Greens to be elected to city office in 2001. In the process, Chen’s election divided two of the most powerful institutions in New Haven politics: the labor movement and the Democratic Party.
Prior to Election Day, city Democrats had focused significant attention on the race in Ward 2, seeking to unseat an alderwoman who had been both an outspoken critic of some of the mayor’s policies and an opponent of domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. Yet on Nov. 4, Chen — with the support of a large number of volunteers affiliated with Yale’s unions — soundly defeated her opponent, Andre Nicole Baker, with over 56 percent of the vote.
For Chen, who defied expectations in 2001 by winning in the heavily African-American Dwight neighborhood, the results show that her constituents appreciated how active and visible she had been in her first term on the Board, despite being a young alderwoman in a minority party. She said the efforts of DeStefano and other Democrats to unseat her may have only increased her popularity in her ward.
“It was really amusing when [DeStefano] came out wearing a Baker T-shirt because so many people don’t like him,” Chen said. “People can smell whether you’re genuine or not.”
While DeStefano said he was “not losing any sleep” over Chen’s victory, it is unclear whether bad feelings will linger between city Democrats and the unions. Although the unions — who are traditionally affiliated with the Democratic Party in New Haven and throughout the country — campaigned for several other Democratic candidates and never officially made an endorsement in Ward 2, Chen said the unions know that they have angered the mayor because of their role in her campaign.
Local 35 President Bob Proto, who campaigned for Chen, acknowledged that union support for the alderwoman “obviously upset the mayor’s staff.” But he said union leaders wanted to recognize the alderwoman’s commitment to the unions during the recent strike of locals 34 and 35 and in her role on the Board — a commitment Chen said she would continue to make in her second term.
“The absolute main reason why we supported Joyce Chen was she was very supportive during our struggle with Yale for contracts,” Proto said.
Locals 34 and 35 are Yale’s largest unions, representing 4,000 clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers.
New Haven Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Suzie Voigt, who has long been active in the labor movement on Yale’s campus, said she did not think Chen’s victory would have a major impact on the Board of Aldermen. But she said she was disappointed the unions were so active in opposing Baker, who Voigt called a “more progressive candidate.”
“I recognize that Joyce had been and continues to be supportive of the unions at Yale,” Voigt said. “But I think it’s regrettable that of all the candidates in the city, this is the one place where they chose to make their most significant stand.”
The support Proto and other union leaders gave to Chen was particularly striking because the alderwoman said she did not specifically ask the unions for support.
“Bobby Proto initiated it,” Chen said. “He called me one day and said, ‘I’m supporting you.’ And the next minute, I had all these people working for me.”
Whether or not her victory has any long-term political ramifications for the city, Chen said she would continue to stand up for the issues she cares about — like the mayor’s proposed construction of a new campus for Cooperative Arts & Humanities Magnet High School in her neighborhood, which she said will displace local businesses.
“I’m interested in getting things done,” Chen said. “But I’m also going to speak out on issues I don’t agree on.”
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