Ward 14 Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale is a walker.
If it were up to her, New Haven would be a pedestrian paradise, flush with public transportation and safe, walkable streets. People like Sturgis-Pascale would never have to drive anywhere, particularly in a city where, she says, traffic should be the number one concern.
“I live on a bad, bad street,” Sturgis-Pascale said. “I kept running into people who have friends or friends of friends who’ve been affected [by traffic accidents]. My personal impression was that we have a problem.”
Of all the issues currently facing the city — increased youth crime, the revitalization of the downtown area and increasing low-income housing among them — traffic is a personal priority for Sturgis-Pascale. During her seven years as a city resident, she has seen a close friend die after being struck by a car on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and a neighbor dragged underneath a car for a half a block.
For that reason, this stay at home mom is one of the three new members of the Board of Aldermen. The winner of New Haven’s only contested aldermanic race this November, she was elected on a single-issue platform: increasing traffic safety by hiring an outside traffic engineer for her Fair Haven district — a plan she refers to as “traffic calming.”
Though she was encouraged to run in the aldermanic elections by former Ward 14 Alderman Joe Jolly, who stepped down to attend law school at Cornell University, Sturgis-Pascale’s rise to the city’s highest governing board has been anything but calm. Facing Evelyn DeJesus-Vargas, the only Latino candidate in New Haven’s Latino hub, Sturgis-Pascale was dogged by issues of race and city politics in an intense election.
DeJesus-Vargas received the support of the Green Party and several local unions, while the co-chairs of the Ward 14 Democratic Committee split over endorsing Sturgis-Pascale, with co-chair Rafael Ramos supporting her and the other co-chair, Joan Forte, endorsing DeJesus-Vargas. Forte said she supported DeJesus-Vargas because she felt DeJesus-Vargas’s background as a bilingual Latina from a poor neighborhood made her more suitable to represent the ward’s sizeable minority population.
“You have to empower other groups,” Forte said. “I felt you had to give people opportunities. [Both are] good, strong women, but sometimes you need to step aside and take a stand to give the little guy a break.”
Sturgis-Pascale’s unfamiliarity with Spanish was one of the major criticisms leveled against her during the campaign. She said it is a fair point — important enough to inspire her to take Spanish classes to improve her skills — but not strong enough to make DeJesus-Vargas the better candidate.
“I do think it’s a valid criticism,” she said. “Some people in my neighborhood just don’t speak English. However, just speaking Spanish doesn’t mean you qualify.”
Traffic is Sturgis-Pascale’s “point of entry” in her quest to improve urban life in the city. Beyond traffic safety, she wants to increase public transportation and make New Haven more walkable and easier to live in. In her backyard, she said, are remnants of an old trolley system that ran through the city but was discontinued years ago.
“Public transportation used to be effective,” she said. “The trolley system was taken apart. That was a crime that was committed against us.”
Sturgis-Pascale has not yet formed detailed positions on many other citywide issues. She has not gone to most of the meetings about, for example, the controversial youth curfew plan. But while she does not know much about the issue, she said she does not see how it would be effectively implemented.
“Where’s it going to be on the cops’ priority list?” she asked. “Someone calls and says, ‘I have a youth on the street.’ They’ll say, ‘I have a mugging on this street, a crash on that street. We’ll be there tomorrow.’”
While she is skeptical of the curfew, Sturgis-Pascale — a new mother herself — said New Haven is facing a “crisis” of irresponsible parenting.
There is no doubt that Sturgis-Pascale harbors a deep affection for her neighborhood, despite her struggle with Spanish. When asked about Fair Haven, she launched into a detailed history of the region, complete with loving description of the Quinnipiac River, which she called a “big, wide, shallow body of water that’s perfect for oysters.”
Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said she has been impressed by Sturgis-Pascale’s diligence and willingness just to sit back and take in the new environment.
“When you’re brand new, the best thing to do is keep your mouth shut,” Clark said. “And she sits and listens very carefully. She’s really doing just what she should do, which is learning the ropes.”