Around 1990, in the midst of her college career at Skidmore University, New Haven native Danica Kelly’s phone rang. As soon as Kelly realized who was on the phone, she knew it meant business.
Lisa Hopkins, Kelly’s intense but adored childhood friend, was on the other line.
One of her classmates at Clark Atlanta University had just been murdered, Hopkins said. And to make matters worse, the shooting had occurred just outside the student housing gates. Clark Atlanta had no police force protecting students at the time, and Hopkins, now one of the four candidates for Ward 22 alderman, wanted to do something about it — with Kelly’s help.
“I would rather have been out partying, but those things were sensitive to [Hopkins], those things were important to her,” Kelly said years later from her office at the Yale School of Management, where she serves as Facilities Manager. “She did not go out and party. She was meeting at a place called the Mud where she would be strategizing, making decisions … That’s just who she was: she has just a great passion for making change.”
The phone call started what would turn out to be Hopkins’ successful letter-writing and sit-in campaign to bring a police force to the campus, which still exists to this day. It was also when Kelly, who knew Hopkins as her summer neighbor and close friend on Truman Street in the Hill section of the Elm City, realized that Hopkins — a lifelong community organizer — was “more than ready” for public office.
But it took nearly two decades for Hopkins, now 39, to feel the same way. Since returning to New Haven permanently, she has served as a community leader and business owner, but never a politician. For the past seven years, she has operated the Haven Group, an organization she co-founded and runs to help low- and middle-class families in the area to find better and more affordable housing. She has raised her daughter, Heaven Hopkins, 11. And she has served as an active president of the block association for Frances Hunter Drive.
Now, the single mother of one — with the mantra of “Home, Family and Community” — is also fighting an uphill battle for Ward 22 alderwoman, a position to be filled in a special April 16 election called after the resignation of Rev. Drew King.
“As long as I remember, I’ve always been organizing things,” she said in an interview. “I remember how spectacular Dixwell was when I was growing up. This was the mecca. This was the hub for all things happening for African-Americans. … But we can’t sit and stew in what went wrong in the past. What I want to do is pick up an approach to issues we’re facing now and try to get everyone to the table, draw up a five-year community plan to establish short and long term goals, and then we can roll up our sleeves and get things done.”
Although her three opponents — Reggie Lytle, 38, Greg Morehead, 29, and Ward 22 Co-chair Cordelia Thorpe, 45 — have been hesitant to attack one another publicly, Morehead suggested Thursday that Hopkins is running in order to amass power, not to serve the people. Hopkins disputed his claim, but answering the question “Why are you running?” satisfactorily is a challenge that all four candidates grapple with day after day in canvassing local voters and, increasingly, Yale students, who make up about a third of Ward 22 voters.
If you ask Queen McCullen, Stamford’s Fifth District city representative, “why” she thinks Hopkins is running, she gets excited.
“A lot of people who speak to you are not really real,” McCullen explained. “They get rid of you and are not really trying to help you. But Lisa is really there for us, yes, really for us, really there to help us. And it means a lot to us.”
Every time McCullen said “us,” she emphasized, even shouted, the word. McCullen, who knows Hopkins because the aldermanic candidate has conducted business in Stamford recently, said if Hopkins were running for city representative there, “she would definitely have my vote — and my family’s vote.”
But Morehead — who may be considered the frontrunner at this point given the endorsements he has earned from the New Haven Democratic Party, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and the Yale College Democrats — claimed that was at the root of Hopkins’ candidacy. Lytle and Thorpe could not be reached for comment.
“I care deeply for all the citizens and all the residents in the community, and other people — they’ve had hidden agendas, and they just care about votes,” said Morehead, a former drummer for Ludacris and an entrepreneur. “It’s not just about the power. I have my businesses, and I’m truly concerned about my people and what goes on in my ward. That makes me a better candidate.”
Hopkins said she too could have been satisfied by simply continuing work on her own company, but she chose to run because an alderwoman has “to make sure that when people come to the table in city government, that our ward is not forgotten.”
“I’m just not in it for the power,” she said. “My motivation in running for alderwoman is not connected to power. To make a statement like that it’s obvious that someone really doesn’t understand what it entails to be an alderperson.”
Regardless of whether she is in it for “power,” her friends say she naturally exudes it. When Hopkins was still a preteen, she was the only girl in the neighborhood who stood up to the relentless town bully — by turning around as he taunted her friends and punching him.
And her platform, not unexpectedly, is about “empowerment,” Hopkins says. Her deliberately simple platform focuses on the Stetson branch library in Dixwell Plaza as a future hub of student, senior and family life on the ward. She also proposes to table discussion of the reopening of the Dixwell Q House, a hot-button issue in Ward 22 since the community center went bankrupt. She also wants improved senior transportation, a better relationship between Yale and the ward, and more jobs for youth.
Hopkins, who turned in not the requisite two but nearly 50 signatures on her petition to run, also wants to serve as a “conduit” and a force for getting more residents involved in city government. Morehead touts DeStefano’s support — he says it will help him actually get initiatives passed if he is elected — but Hopkins notes that she might be the only of the candidates who did not request a meeting with the mayor to lobby for his support. She said she thinks the ward’s leader has been too often selected by Democratic Party elites outside of the neighborhood.
Kelly said she thinks Hopkins’ life experience — she chose to raise her daughter alone in order to escape an unhealthy relationship — will allow her relate to the unique demographic of Ward 22.
“There are single moms [in Ward 22], there are African-American families there, families who have their mom living there [as Hopkins does], or who are living with their child on their own, families struggling between placing the child in day care or having to go to work,” Kelly said. “That [ability to] identify is, to me, ultimately the most important thing in addition that once in the position, that someone is willing to go to bat for you. … And she is so, so that person.”
Whatever voters decide in the coming weeks, Hopkins will continue to advocate for her community as an “organizer” of those around her.
The mail-in deadline to register to vote in the ward is Monday, and the Yale College Democrats have made the required forms available to students who request them. Ward 22 voters can cast their ballot on April 16 at the Wexler-Grant School at 55 Foote St.