Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield has a deep, abiding and somewhat unorthodox love for New Haven. He insists, for instance, that it is the absolute best place he can think of to raise his kids.

Hannah, now 19 and taking a year off from Columbia University to work at the Paris Review, and Nora, a 15-year-old at the Hopkins School, both learned to ride the bus downtown before they graduated middle school. New Haven is not so big that Goldfield had to worry about losing track of them, he said, and not so small that he had to worry about scheduling play dates for them.

“Kids in the suburbs, man!” Goldfield says, head shaking. “Crazy. So glad we found this city.”

Carl Goldfield is Connecticut-born and bred, down to the “aw” in his “honestly,” and migrated back to his home state after stints in New York and on K Street.

“The skills you learn there? Only useful in D.C.,” he said. “There are a lot of people walking around the city with grandiose titles who haven’t seen their constituents in 15 years.”

And Goldfield is hoping New Haven will be glad to have found him, too. Nearly a month into his term as president of the Board of Aldermen, Goldfield is riding high from the success of a campaign finance reform bill he has been pushing.

A battle over the Board

Goldfield’s narrow election, by a 16-14 margin, capped off what was undoubtedly one of the most contested races in the history of the Board of Aldermen, said New Haven journalist Paul Bass ’82. Bass has been writing about city politics since graduating from Yale, and he got to know Goldfield when the alderman helped him incorporate his Online Journalism Project.

Part of the contention was due to the fact that two factions of the 30-member board, which Goldfield nicked from incumbent aldermanic president Jorge Perez, were arguing about fundamentally different quantities, Bass said. Perez’s supporters applauded that their candidate did not play “plantation politics” — Bass’ term for passing over issues in indigent or underrepresented communities in favor of bringing in more jobs — while Goldfield’s thought that too much time and energy had gone into playing the politics of symbolism, into fighting petty battles.

But a bigger part of it might be due to a little clause buried in Title I, Article V of New Haven’s code of ordinances, which says that if Mayor John DeStefano Jr. wins his gubernatorial campaign and moves into the State Capitol this November, Goldfield will spend a lot more time in City Hall, as the default mayor.

The most common criticism of Goldfield centers on his close relationship with DeStefano, a relationship augmented by his wife’s position as DeStefano’s campaign treasurer. But Goldfield noted that he has earned the mayor’s ire on numerous occasions, most notably with his initial push for campaign finance reform, in the aftermath of the ethics scandals that dogged DeStefano in the early 90s.

“I’ve always said that it takes as much courage to say no as to say yes, because you’re going to be accused of being a lackey,” Goldfield said.

But according to Bass, City Hall’s support for Goldfield’s candidacy, despite the fact that a splintering in the city’s main legislative body could not help the mayor, was a sign that Perez would have been worse in the eyes of City Hall.

“I would say that if the mayor didn’t have such a problem with dissent, he might’ve asked Carl not to run,” Bass said. “On the other hand, Carl might’ve said no.”

Goldfield said his candidacy did not originate in City Hall; in fact, one of the things he is most proud of about his campaign is that it was a natural outgrowth of discussions he had with colleagues. A group of aldermen — mostly fluid, with some regulars — met outside of the aldermanic chambers for coffee and complaining, eventually deciding that they were all just “treading water,” Goldfield said, and that Goldfield should run to change the tenor of the place.

Hence his mission statement: “I want to change the Board from a reactive Board, which just functions as a check on the mayor, to a pro-active Board, which generates its own initiatives,” Goldfield said.

The political learning curve

Goldfield’s eight-year push for campaign finance reform in New Haven is something of a case study, both of his complex relationship with City Hall and of his approach to politics.

Goldfield said he wanted to erase New Haven’s “pay to play” image: With reason or not, contractors who donated to political campaigns were laboring under the impression that they were guaranteed some business in return, Goldfield said. He tried to ban city contract holders from donating to political campaigns.

He quickly realized the flaws to this approach. New Haven had no jurisdiction over contracts outside of New Haven, meaning that a New Havener running against an out-of-towner for mayor — as DeStefano did against State Sen. Martin Looney — would potentially face a huge disadvantage. Since the power to award city contracts does not rest explicitly with the Board of Aldermen, it was not clear that the Board had any jurisdiction over the city’s own contracts, either.

According to former Ward 1 alderman Ben Healey ’04, the turnaround epitomized two of Goldfield’s strongest characteristics as a politician: his willingness to admit he was wrong and his acute awareness of his own place in the political hierarchy.

Goldfield said he prides himself on his ability to be flexible. As an example, he cited his “180-degree turn around” on the issue of a same-sex registry in New Haven, one of the most controversial initiatives he has backed.

“I started off with tremendous prejudice,” Goldfield said. “I’m proud to say that I was able to look at myself and say, ‘What is your problem? You have friends who are in meaningful, deep, loving relationships; what is your problem?'”

And though Healey said he took his cues as a rookie on the Board from Goldfield, who was deputy majority leader for years before running for the Board’s presidency, Goldfield was never self-aggrandizing.

“He was deputy majority leader, but he referred to himself as ‘the guy who always collects money in caucus for charity,'” Healey said.

So Goldfield regrouped. Working with DeStefano’s then-chief of staff Julio Gonzalez ’99, he studied public financing ordinances from around the country, contacted think tanks and put some feelers out at the state level. He constructed a bill to cap campaign spending and limit contribution size; in exchange, the city would subsidize candidates’ expenses from public funds. The plan aimed not only to put a ceiling on corruption in City Hall, but also to open up elections to political outsiders who often struggle to raise funding.

Finally, just two months ago and years after his statewide lobbying began, Goldfield managed to get New Haven hooked into a statewide bill to test the idea of publicly financed elections. The Connecticut bill allows for several “pilot programs” in public financing to take place this spring, and, since, as Goldfield said, “there isn’t anyone else knocking down the door,” New Haven will most likely be one of them.

On-the-job training

Goldfield gives a lot of credit in politics to “good people.” In that sense, he is a casual politician. When he first moved to New Haven, he said, the sidewalks were never repaired, the library was only open two days a week and the grass in Edgewood Park grew past his waist in summers. Goldfield got involved in the Board of Aldermen when his wife, sick of his complaining, reminded him of his own adage — that he did not have the right to gripe if he did not do anything about it. She suggested that he ask to replace his ward’s alderwoman, who had recently left the city midway through her term.

But if his start in the legislative business was a casual one, 13 years and several stiff challengers later, Goldfield as the politico is consummate and responsive. He tends to use his favorite talking points — like the line about a proactive Board — frequently. Goldfield’s favorite quote is “Any jackass can tear down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one,” by former U.S. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. It cropped up at least four times in 24 hours: twice during an interview, once at a speech he gave to nonprofit New Haven Action and once quoted secondhand by Healey.

Goldfield still has a hard time trying to explain himself to his constituents, he said.

“Everybody would like to have a new sidewalk, and everybody is convinced everybody else is getting one,” he said.

But most criticisms just roll off his back these days.

“I’ve learned that it’s just politics,” he said. “I’ve been called racist, and it would just be self-destructive to take that personally. I get annoyed with people, but there’s no long-term impact.”

Several aldermen who voted for Perez over Goldfield, including alderwomen Dolores Colon and Andrea Jackson-Brooks and aldermen Sergio Rodriguez, Charles Blango, Robert Lee and Perez himself, said they did not want to voice criticisms of Goldfield on the record, citing a desire to put a grueling presidency race behind them in favor of unity and reconciliation.

The jury is still out on Goldfield as president; as Healey puts it, “the critics or proponents will be proven right by how he acts in governance.”

Ward 1 alderman Nick Shalek ’05, who cast a deciding vote in favor of Goldfield, said he has been impressed so far with Goldfield’s tenure.

“He is a very reasonable guy,” Shalek said. “I think it’s great that he’s made such an effort to reach out to Yale students.”

Making time to reach out to anyone, particularly constituents far from his Ward 29 home base, is tough. Goldfield’s schedule is grueling: 6 a.m. jog with his 11-year-old mutt, who he asserts is more popular among his neighbors than he is, paying the bills with a 9-7 job as a lawyer for the firm Reneo Goldfield LLP and aldermanic meetings most nights.

Time with his family has taken a hit: He insists on family dinners, at whatever time he gets home, but, as evidenced by the mammoth mug glued to his fist, tea bag string hanging over the side, his days are long.

“It’s like running,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll find a rhythm.”