Before we get old enough for death and taxes, there are a few certainties Yale students can count on. Frats will deluge us with party invitations. Classes that meet before noon will prove suspiciously difficult to wake up for. And New Haven politics will continue to be the best show in town.
Yes, you read that right. New Haven’s municipal elections have more drama than any theatrical production that will grace campus this semester. Debates before the Board of Aldermen will be more contentious — and higher-stakes — than any resolution taken up by the Yale Political Union. And even though I don’t know of any particularly American Idol-worthy city politicos, I’d submit that the Elm City is even more engaging than any a cappella group. Now that I’ve got your attention by offending as many of you as possible, let me offer both my apologies for my rhetorical mischief and a quick guide to New Haven that may explain why I’m prepared to make a claim you may regard as outrageous.
The New Haven Board of Aldermen — New Haven’s 30-member city council, comically imbalanced with 29 Democrats and a lone Republican — is responsible for everything from laws that regulate landlords’ obligations to their tenants to zoning regulations. The Board is the battleground for many issues with significance beyond the city level: In 2003, a bill that would have given limited access to certain benefits for gay and lesbian couples began a city-wide dialogue about gay rights. More recently, a proposed expansion to Yale-New Haven Hospital has sparked a debate about responsible development and corporate obligations to the neighborhoods where institutions build.
Because aldermanic elections are often decided by mere tens of votes, citizens who turn out can have a real impact on their representatives on the Board. With a Democratic primary coming up on Sept. 13, registering and voting is more important than ever — getting to the polls can literally determine who your Board member is, and whether that person listens to you for the next two years.
In addition to serving two-year terms on the Board — a job that takes up a staggering amount of time and is laughably remunerated — many of the aldermen work full-time at organizations like AIDS Interfaith that serve the New Haven community. The campaign for Board president — the person who becomes mayor should anything happen to the person currently in that office — should be a race to compare with big-city politics anywhere.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. thinks big. State-wide, in fact. He’s a leading advocate for workers’ rights and clean energy who also pushed for major campaign-finance reforms and championed gay rights in his re-election campaign in 2003. DeStefano was also the first candidate to jump into the Connecticut governor’s race, and has a significant fund-raising lead on the people who followed him into the ring. That means Connecticut is watching New Haven closely for more clues about what DeStefano might be like if he made the move to Hartford.
It’s also why that race for the Board presidency matters so much: The person who wins the job has a serious likelihood of becoming New Haven’s next mayor, even if only temporarily. DeStefano has been in office since 1994, and it is almost impossible to imagine that he will not be re-elected this fall. But if he wins the governorship, DeStefano would leave office in New Haven with more than a year of his term to serve. The chance to succeed him a year before a race that would probably be a wide-open contest between four or five strong candidates is a political gift from New Haven’s charter.
Unions — New Haven is a union town, and other than the Democratic Party, there is probably no group of organizations better at turning out votes, or more important to have on your side come Election Day or an important Board of Aldermen vote. Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs sometimes plays a meaningful advocacy role; for example, it recently increased funding for Tweed Airport. But when it comes time to fill a room at City Hall, or go door-to-door to administer surveys, it’s Locals 34 and 35 (Yale’s clerical and technical workers), the Yale-New Haven Hospital workers fighting to form a union, and union-allied think tank the Connecticut Center for a New Economy that get the job done.
As rich and vibrant as New Haven politics are, they also aren’t — and shouldn’t be — intimidating or impossible to master. In fact, unlike most activities at Yale, civic participation is open to anyone. I never had the vocal talent to make a callback, but my roommate — who is president of the Glee Club — makes it to the polls on Bristol Street every Election Day.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.