When the Ward 1 Democratic Committee meets tomorrow to nominate a candidate for alderman, it will be acting as more than the judge in a campus popularity contest. Though the Ward 1 alderman plays an important role in shaping the interactions between Yale students and the New Haven community during his or her time in office, the committee makes a particularly loud statement about its own vision for the future of this relationship with its endorsement.
This decision comes at an important time — a strong community movement is redefining the way development happens in New Haven; Gateway Community College’s relocation will bring more students downtown; and Mayor DeStefano’s run for governor may bring shake-ups at City Hall. The right choice Wednesday can help perpetuate the role the Ward 1 alderman has played in bringing progressive change to New Haven. The wrong decision may jeopardize that role, leaving it to the next alderman to re-establish the relationships and the commitment to organizing that have made that change possible.
So far, much of what has been written about the endorsement race has missed this point entirely. Rather than focusing on the substantive differences between Rebecca Livengood and Dan Weeks, writers for both of the major campus newspapers have done their best to reduce this to a popularity contest. Writing about who is dating a member of the committee, who is in an a cappella group, and alleging that the Undergraduate Organizing Committee has some kind of undue influence over the proceedings (and there are how many communists in the State Department, Sen. McCarthy?) may be good for laughs, but it’s not particularly responsible journalism.
Rather than talking about who is most “mainstream,” why not discuss which candidate will be a more effective member of a governing body that does not remotely resemble the Yale campus? Rather than using affiliation with undergraduate organizations as a qualification, why not examine the kinds of coalitions both Livengood and Weeks would build during their time on the board? And rather than judging the candidates by the titles on their resumes, why not choose the candidate with the most commitment to the tough, unglamorous work of voter registration and constituent turnout, the bedrocks of ward-based politics?
Former Ward 1 aldermen have succeeded precisely because they were not mainstream by Yale standards. They were effective at building relationships and helping to shape New Haven’s political agenda because they were willing to immerse themselves in the life of the city far beyond Ward 1. That immersion, and that desire to prioritize the real, day-to-day needs of New Haven residents over pursuit of a trendy, think-tank-approved agenda, is what makes a Ward 1 alderman a good representative. That is not to say that the Ward 1 alderman should simply be a passive vessel for an agenda presented by the mayor and the other aldermen, but the right to be a leader on the board must be earned, not simply assumed.
One of the best ways to earn that role is by putting in the hard work to build coalitions on a wide variety of issues to embrace a broader vision of change in New Haven. That means acknowledging a wider definition of who has power in the city. Having established relationships with the people currently in office is all well and good, but those allies may not be at City Hall come this fall or the next one.
The only timeless currency of local politics is the ability to mobilize constituents. An alderman who can turn supporters out to hearings and rallies will never find herself alone when it comes time for a vote; in contrast, personal relationships can prove disappointingly ephemeral when it seems to his colleagues that an alderman has not provided them with the safety net they need. Power in New Haven often moves from bottom to top, rather than the other way around: City residents brought together by their churches helped to defeat the Domestic Partnership Amendment, and the Community Organized for Responsible Development (CORD) has made itself a formidable player in city politics by going door-to-door in the Hill and asking residents what they want New Haven to look like.
Bringing more people into the political process as voters, community advocates or volunteers is good for any city, regardless of the impact on individual pieces of legislation. The next Ward 1 Alderman must have the energy and commitment necessary to mobilize one of the most transitory populations in New Haven — as every September, half of the potential voters either leave town or have just arrived. Getting freshmen registered to vote and encouraging them to think of themselves as citizens is perhaps the most difficult task the next alderman will face.
In this context, the real difference between Rebecca Livengood and Dan Weeks isn’t one of experience — both of them have done a substantial amount of work on the issues that matter to them — but of philosophy. Weeks may be an excellent lobbyist, but that does not mean he is best suited to fill the Ward 1 alderman’s chair. Livengood’s commitment to bring a new generation of student citizens to City Hall, and to do the hard work to build the coalitions and mutually supportive relationships that will make progressive change possible in New Haven, makes her the best woman for the job. In endorsing Livengood tomorrow night, the Ward Committee has the chance to demonstrate that Yale students have moved beyond the romance of political deals in smoke-filled back rooms, and that we are ready to join our fellow citizens in the hard work and tough choices that make a better New Haven a reality.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a junior in Silliman College and co-chair of the Ward 22 Democratic Committee. This is the third and final part of a series on Ward 1.