Nick Shalek ’05 is back to being a freshman, and the learning curve he has hit is steep.
Shalek ran for the position of Ward 1 alderman in November as an outsider candidate, his experience with New Haven not political but economic — based on his work with the Yale Entrepreneurial Society. And he arrived on the Board of Aldermen in the middle of a fierce fight for the board’s presidency, which was close enough that Shalek served as a deciding vote.
Needless to say, Shalek has been running fast to overcome gaps in his knowledge of New Haven and Yale.
“It’s one thing to talk about ideas on an abstract level in a campaign, but getting things done in reality is another thing,” Shalek said. “And as the youngest member of the board, I have a lot to learn in terms of who people are, and what their relationships to each other are, and what their priorities are.”
Shalek said his priority so far has been learning about the city from older aldermen, such as Board President Carl Goldfield, former Board President Jorge Perez, and Ward 14 Alderman Joe Jolly. In a letter sent to the News last month, Jolly spoke well of Shalek’s efforts thus far.
“[Shalek] has been very thoughtful in his approach to dealing with charged situations,” Jolly wrote. “[He] has quickly demonstrated that he brings positive traits to the board that will indeed be of benefit to the whole.”
Shalek was recently appointed to the board’s Finance Committee, where he said he hopes his background as an employee in Yale’s Investments Office will enable him to contribute. With additional appointments to the Human Services and Municipal Services committees, Shalek said he plans to get involved in local community and economic development, dealing with issues such as funding of municipal pensions and determining the budgets of agencies, such as Elmseed, that work on downtown development.
But as an alderman, Shalek has also had to shape himself into a community leader. No longer an independent running against history in a ward where no independent candidate had been elected in more than a decade, Shalek has had to build bridges with students who may have supported his Democratic opponent, Rebecca Livengood ’07, and introduce himself to political leaders he first met last fall.
“I’ve been reaching out a lot and talking a lot to students who are actively involved in city politics, a lot of whom were on the other side of the campaign,” he said.
But opinions are mixed as to how effectively Shalek has reached out to Ward 1 students. While some commend Shalek for communicating effectively with students who worked on the campaigns of Livengood, the Democratic nominee in November’s Ward 1 aldermanic election, and Dan Weeks ’06, who last spring lost the fight for the Ward 1 Democratic Committee endorsement, others say Shalek waited too long to make overtures to progressive students who supported Livengood and that he has yet to speak with cultural houses or minority student groups.
“He is our voice in city government, and I, as someone who worked on the campaign against him, am totally ready to sit down and talk with him,” said Helena Herring ’07, who was an active member of Livengood’s campaign. “That’s what representative government is about.”
Herring, now a Dwight Hall co-coordinator, said she met with Shalek in January to suggest that he reach out to the cultural houses, groups such as MEChA and Alianza, and some of the groups within the Social Justice Network that work on local issues. But she said she did not think he has contacted any of the other groups.
Shalek confirmed that he has yet to meet with representatives of the cultural houses, but said it is his top priority in the upcoming weeks. He said he has not yet met with them because of time constraints; in the past four weeks, he said, he has met with 25 students, and he said he already has meetings scheduled with “many more” for next week.
“It takes time to meet with everyone and … count on top of that board meetings and committee meetings, and meeting with aldermen,” he said. “I had a lot of issues to get up to speed on, like the board presidency.”
Some students said Shalek has been effective in discussing concrete issues, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the living wage, with groups that are already intimately involved with local politics, such as New Haven Action and the Yale College Democrats.
“It helps that it’s three months after the election, and that there are a lot more issues to talk about being alder than there are while running for alderman,” said Whitney Haring-Smith ’07, executive director of New Haven Action-Fund, which endorsed Livengood in the election.
Yale College Democrats President Brendan Gants ’08 said he first spoke with Shalek in late November and has had positive conversations with him about the Dems’ efforts to lobby for a state Earned Income Tax Credit.
“Nick, to his credit, takes a fairly cautious view of proposals that are brought to him … but he’s certainly been responsive,” Gants said.
Shalek has also been praised for supporting the appointment of two students, Cynthia Okechukwu ’08 and Hugh Baran ’09, as co-chairs of the Ward 1 Democratic Town Committee. Okechukwu and Baran have proposed opening up to greater community involvement the process of endorsing the Democratic aldermanic candidate. The system of endorsing a Democratic candidate for Ward 1 alderman in use last spring was a closed system in which only the approximately 50 members of the committee had a vote.
“If you look at the Ward 1 selection process … you saw everyone in the political community working together to find two candidates to support, and Nick helped build that consensus,” Haring-Smith said. “There were a lot of open lines of communication and a lot of time spent discussing and sharing ideas and eventually reaching a consensus.”
Shalek has said that he would like to see the existing committee turned into a type of a town hall, to be used to bring together campus leaders to discuss the state of Ward 1 and New Haven politics.
Yet some still criticize Shalek for not reaching out actively to members of Yale’s progressive community. During the November campaign, many of the more progressive groups on campus, such as the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, had supported Livengood’s candidacy.
“He maybe took a little longer than he should have to reach to people, so people got antsy,” said Suzanne Kahn ’07, who served as Livengood’s campaign manager. Kahn said she first met with Shalek in January.
Josh Eidelson ’06, a member of the UOC, said progressive students are interested in working with Shalek on such issues as the establishment of a living wage but that the alderman has not been as active or receptive as some would have hoped. Eidelson said the progressive community is receptive to working with Shalek, and that they are eager to see him take a proactive role in building aldermanic support for a proposal for a living wage for the city.
“My sense is that people are ready to work with Nick on those issues where they agree with him and in some cases have been disappointed with the reception they’ve gotten in terms of trying to set meetings,” Eidelson said. “Ultimately, those who are involved in progressive work in New Haven … are involved in that work because they want to see results and want to effect change and that is too important to let personal feelings get in the way.”
Eidelson is a columnist for the News. He said he has not yet met with Shalek but has a meeting scheduled with him for next week.
Shalek said he intentionally waited a few weeks to speak with some of Livengood’s supporters in order to learn more about the city, and to let the tensions of the election subside
“I thought it was reasonable to wait a few weeks to talk to people because I had a lot to learn about the board and because it’s useful to have a little time to cool off after the election,” he said.
As Ward 1 alderman, Shalek represents students living in seven residential colleges and on Old Campus.