On a dreary, drizzly Saturday afternoon — across from a boarded-up liquor store and a dilapidated auto-repair shop — Cordelia Thorpe is handing out sponges.
“So you can clean up democracy, clean up the ward,” she tells one man who comes to the door of his room inside a senior living complex. “We need to go back to basics.”
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Then, she offers him a cupcake. He smiles and thanks her politely.
But the essence of Thorpe, one of the four candidates vying for Ward 22 alderman, is not only in the delivery of her symbolic sponges or sweets, but also in the way she approaches the next door in the Dixwell Avenue condominium.
“Democrat! Democrat! Democrat!” she shouts to introduce herself, knocking hard and moving onto the next door before the person inside even has a chance to ask who it is. Once someone answers the door, she virtually demands that the resident take a cupcake, and says, “Because you didn’t come to me, I came to you … I’m counting [on] you, mister, for your vote.”
Thorpe is outspoken, and no other candidate in the race compares in terms of pure audacity of delivery. But so far, Thorpe has not had a chance to bring her message to a citywide level. In the April 16 special election, however, Thorpe is determined to finally have that chance. She says she will not be deterred, despite the fact that she lost the Democratic endorsement, and in spite of her feeling that her presence is not desired on the Yale campus.
Since Ward 22 races generally see low voter turnout, Thorpe has been back to that senior living complex three times to canvass — a fact that some residents said frustrated them, but that others said showed her passion and dedication.
On one visit, she was accompanied by widely respected State Sen. Toni Harp, a close supporter. Harp says she thinks Thorpe would make a uniquely effective alderwoman and touts Thorpe’s hard work in helping Harp win her own races.
But Thorpe — who often wears shirts laced with gold thread and colorful designs — thinks that the powers-that-be are conspiring against her. She thinks Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and City Hall officials essentially handpicked the eventual Democratic nominee, Greg Morehead.
There may be some truth to her accusations, even though Morehead did decide to run on his own accord. At the endorsement meeting last month, it was clear that party elites were not friendly to Thorpe’s candidacy. She lost the Democratic nomination when Town Committee Chair Susie Voigt cast the deciding vote in favor of Morehead.
That night, City Hall worker and long-time DeStefano operative Brian McGrath was overseen handing Morehead a card and saying, “I’m helping you now.” To Thorpe later, McGrath joked that she “asks too many questions” to have any allies in City Hall. Thorpe smiled at the time, but in retrospect she says that McGrath’s words say it all: DeStefano does not want Thorpe in a position of too much power in the city.
DeStefano might have good reason to oppose Thorpe’s candidacy.
Although Thorpe advocates a full policy platform — a revived Dixwell Q House, more jobs and economic development, extra police presence, more block watchers and better Yale relations — she emphasizes “accountability” much more than her opponents do. She lists six specific points about accountability on a piece of campaign literature, including statements that “no one seems to have the courage to stand up to the administration to hold them accountable”, and that “democracy has been kidnapped” in New Haven and replaced by a “plantation style boss type political machine.” She accuses DeStefano of leading “through fear and intimidation rather than through inspired vision and competence.”
Thorpe, who was born in Georgia but has lived in New Haven since age two, is ambitious, so much so that she even has plans for a scenario in which she would be elected president.
If she were president, Thorpe — who lists idols ranging from God or the “Supreme Being” to James Brown — would transform the way the criminal justice system deals with felons. She says the current system brands them as criminals and thus leads them to more crime, whereas her system would give them a “fresh start.” She says her style of campaigning is unique because she reaches out to “all of God’s children”: Democrat, Republican or Green.
“We need changes in this ward, and she could be the one to do it,” says her friend, Angela Watley, echoing the sentiments of many ward residents who say recent aldermen have represented Yale and city interests more than those of Ward 22. “As far as I’m concerned, she’s the best. We need somebody over here in Ward 22.”
But Thorpe, some say, is too much of a loose cannon to do so. It was the implication in Morehead’s accusations earlier this week that she slandered him by spreading rumors “that didn’t even make sense.”
She is prone, sometimes, to speak in the third person, as when said this week that “Greg offers a pie in the sky, [but] Cordelia offers proven leadership and accountability.” And she draws upon symbolism often — sometimes epic and godly, and other times more domestic.
“I’m not a refrigerator,” she said. “I won’t keep things inside. I will tell the ward and the rest of the Democrats what’s really going on.”
For many, Morehead, Lisa Hopkins and Reggie Lytle are the safe choices for the upcoming election. But Thorpe, it can be said, is in a league of her own. One either likes her or dislikes her, seeing her outspokenness as either courageous or impolite.
Her supporters, acquired over several years in ward politics, may prove to be a formidable asset in the campaign. One of them even has come up with a jingle for her. As Thorpe canvassed this week, supporter Carrie Ritter sang it through the day.
“Vote for Cor-de-lia, Cor-de-lia, Cor-de-lia,” she sang. “Vote for Cordelia, Cor-de-li-a!”
Among recent aldermen, opinions are split. Former two-term Ward 22 Alderwoman Maeola Reddick said she has lent her support to Thorpe because the candidate is her own person.
“She tried to keep the ward together the best she knew how,” Reddick said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Former Ward 22 Alderman Drew King, whose resignation prompted the special election, simply laughed when asked whether he supported Thorpe.
Thorpe likes to laugh, too: She adopts humorous nicknames for those around her and self-deprecates with ease. But the upcoming election is no laughing matter for the retired city worker, who sees it as a watershed election. Always spirited, she says she’s running for divine reasons as well.
“I like helping people, and since I’m retired I have nothing to do but to help people and give to humanity. Service to humanity,” she says, “is the key to eternal life.”