Because it’s a new year, and because I do believe that everyone deserves a break at the start of a new job, I’d like to offer Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek a few pieces of advice. I thought Shalek was the less qualified candidate in last fall’s aldermanic campaign and I was dismayed by the extent to which he and his campaign demonstrated a blithe disregard for New Haven’s political realities.
This column is not an offer to bury the hatchet; the issues on which Shalek and I disagree are far too important to simply let slide just because election season is past. But I have no interest in seeing the Ward 1 alderman become increasingly isolated, or to divide, rather than unite, Yale students and New Haven residents. This advice is offered in the hope that things can turn out differently. To wit:
1. Until you’ve demonstrated that you have something else to bring to the board, you should really stop talking about the Yale-New Haven Cancer Center. I hate to disappoint anyone who supported you out of a passionate commitment to the project rather than from a long-standing desire to stick it to campus progressives, but this debate is decided, with or without your vote, and your chances of actually making a difference and helping the cancer center move forward immediately are absolutely zero. The cancer center was a great — if ugly — campaign issue because it tapped into a basic antipathy that many Yale students harbor toward unions and the working people who are empowered by them, while allowing you to claim that cancer trumped any other concern. Such rhetoric (and the accompanying suggestions that advocates of responsible development are insensitive to the plight of cancer patients) will go absolutely nowhere, and will only make you look out of touch. If you really want to have this fight and go down in principled flames, find a smarter way to do it than this.
2. Take a week off from work and do some reading. I’d recommend the political archives of the New Haven Advocate and most of the content of the New Haven Independent. With a few exceptions, both have livelier reporting and better connections and provide a better sense of what’s really going on across the city than the New Haven Register. It’s also a good idea to do a little research on the other aldermen and the people who have held their seats over the years; all of them are interesting people, and reading about the issues on which they’ve taken stands provides a good sense of what the different neighborhoods and constituencies in the city care about. Frankly, doing this reading will help you with your fact-checking, which was a problem during the campaign. You could afford to make mistakes about political history with student voters, but you can’t at City Hall.
3. Caucus with the Democratic Party. I hope there isn’t any question remaining about whether or not this is a good idea, because frankly, given the number of committee meetings you’ll have to attend and the conversations you’ll be shut out of otherwise, you’ll really regret it if you don’t.
4. Make it clear whether you actually care about workers’ rights in situations other than the cancer center or whether your statements during the campaign are just protective cover. New Haven values its unions not only because they’ve stood up for the city’s working people against historically insensitive businesses and management, but because they’re also the muscle behind many other progressive initiatives.
5. Get in touch with every campus leader who opposed you, and have a serious, honest conversation with them about their priorities in which you do most of the listening. Those people include most of the current Yale undergraduates with the deepest commitment to and greatest knowledge of New Haven issues and leaders. I don’t care if you disagree with their politics: Ultimately they will be your greatest resources in the student community, given that you promised to register your supporters back in states other than Connecticut after they voted for you.
6. Get ready to do some actual work. At some point, you’re going to have to do the hard work of calling people up and going door-to-door to gauge their opinions on issues and to turn them out when you need them, even if you didn’t need to do that this November. I can promise you that there will come a time in the next two years when you need bodies down at City Hall, and I can also promise you that it takes an enormous amount of work to get them down there. Elections are sexy; the work of governing is not.
But it’s tremendously rewarding, and it’s the way that real change happens. The best Ward 1 aldermen have embraced that hard work, not just to serve and represent Yale, but for all of New Haven.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.