Kienan O’Connor is not kidding when calls his campaign for Ward 26 alderman an uphill battle — O’Connor is running on the Republican ticket, and out of New Haven’s 30 aldermen, only one, Arlene DePino of Ward 18, is currently a Republican.
The struggle of New Haven’s Republican party to successfully get candidates elected is not new. The party has had to contend for decades with Democratic dominance of local elected office and with local suspicion of the national Republican party, Republican Town Committee chairman Richter Elser ’81 said.
O’Connor’s candidacy, however, represents an attempt by current party leadership to revitalize the New Haven Republican Party. Rather than struggling to find candidates to run in each ward, the Republicans are supporting a limited slate of five candidates and are emphasizing the candidates’ ability to advocate for their wards’ needs while checking the office of Democratic Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who has held office for 12 years.
Elser said the Republican Party’s long-term goal is to recreate itself as a viable alternative to the Democratic Party and be able to hold the Democrats in office to higher standards of accountability. Government works best when there is active debate about the city’s direction, but that level of debate has been diminishing over the years, he said.
“Are the policies [the city is] pursuing really the best policies? There may be good answers, but we’re not getting them,” he said.
But some local Democrats said they question whether four or five new Republican aldermen could change the agenda of the Democratic party.
Susie Voigt, chairwoman of the Democratic Town Committee, said political discourse in New Haven has not diminished but is instead confined to debates within the Democratic Party. Voigt said that because the discussion happens mostly within the one party, there are certain issues that New Haven politics does not address.
“I’m glad everybody’s a Democrat – it means we’re not having the conversation of ‘Should we cut Medicaid?’ for example,” she said.
O’Connor, running in Ward 26 against incumbent Democrat Sergio Rodriguez, said he is optimistic about his chances of being elected because of the positive reception he and his wife have received. O’Connor, who grew up in New Haven, said his campaign has focused on the quality of public schools, high city taxes, and the need to keep crime down in the city.
“My goal was to get to every single door in Ward 26, which is about 1000 households … and we’ve probably done 800 or so,” he said. “I would never have considered running if I didn’t have a chance of winning, but when I saw the support of people from all different political backgrounds, I realized that it was a good opportunity for me to actually stage a viable campaign where I had a legitimate chance.”
Elser said he thinks there is a declining quality of political dialogue in City Hall, which is partly the fault of the local Republican leadership.
“The Republican Party, through not really identifying credible people, has managed to work its way into irrelevance,” he said. “We’ve found a smaller group of more credible candidates and are trying to be realistic in our goals.”
Elser said the party also struggles to convince voters of the differences between the local and national parties. Most issues that come before the Board of Aldermen, Elser said, are not ideological but practical issues about local economic redevelopment and municipal contracts.
“One of the difficulties is getting people to realize that you’re asking them to think about local day-to-day politics, and whether or not you support George Bush or Governor Rell really doesn’t resonate,” he said.
O’Connor said he has had the most success campaigning about education and other issues important primarily on a local level. He said he has found that many New Haven residents are “closet conservatives” on certain issues, such as educational and fiscal policy.
Democratic Ward 28 Alderwoman Babz Rawls-Ivy said she did not think that a few new Republicans on the board would significantly affect the board’s agenda.
“The majority rules, so I think the agenda would change dramatically if the Republicans became the majority,” she said. “It’s one thing to raise the issue; it’s another thing to put power behind the issue.”
But music professor John Halle, a former Green Party alderman, said that as a minority alderman, he was successful in getting onto the board’s agenda many issues that the Democrats had not wanted to address.
“If the Democrats don’t want to talk about something, it doesn’t get talked about, but if you’re outside of the system, it’s easy to bring up any number of issues that they don’t want to talk about,” he said. “They’re no longer able to close ranks, and that’s why it’s so important to have oppositional politics.”
In addition to O’Connor, the Republican Town Committee has endorsed Juan Montalvo for Ward 14 against Democrat Joseph Jolly and Ira Johnson for Ward 3 against Democrat Jacqueline James. Elections will be held Nov. 8.