Proclaiming that his campaign will herald a never-before-seen partnership between New Haven’s black and Hispanic communities, former alderman James “Jim” Newton cast his hat into the race for New Haven mayor on Saturday.

Drawing a crowd of about 30 people at the Center Church on the Green, Newton called New Haven a “city in crisis” and accused current mayor John DeStefano Jr. of becoming distracted by his three-year Connecticut gubernatorial campaign. He said the Elm City is suffering from recent cuts to youth program funding, ineffective government spending, inadequate public education, scarce health care funding and New Haven’s growing reputation as a city of violence and drug abuse.

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“I ask, ‘Where was the mayor while this crisis was going on?’” Newton said. “The answer is: he was away seeking another job. He wants to be governor of Connecticut, not mayor of New Haven.”

Newton, who will be contending with DeStefano for the Democratic Party’s nomination, presents the most formidable challenge thus far to the mayor. A former alderman of Ward 5 — which encompasses the Hill neighborhood — from 1983 to 1987, Newton claimed an unexpected 28 percent of the vote when he ran on an independent ticket against DeStefano in 1999. This time around, the former alderman will also have to compete for votes against Green Party member Ralph Ferrucci and Democrat Willie Greene.

As a remedy to increased violence, high truancy rates and poor student performance, Newton promised to invest heavily in community-based youth programs, such as Boy Scouts and after-school sports. He also pledged to create an accountability fund to independently monitor education spending, which he said has gone awry in the past.

Newton also assured his audience that he would develop a better relationship with Yale-New Haven Hospital in order to expand health care services to more New Haven residents while streamlining city bureaucracy so that citizens would not have to face unnecessary tax burdens.

Though the candidate devoted a substantial part of his speech to future policy plans, his invectives against DeStefano’s city leadership dominated his presentation, during which he condemned the recent New Haven Police Department scandal and reiterated the theme of a “city in crisis.” The “crisis” has led to a large achievement gap mostly affecting African-Americans, Hispanics, other minorities and the poor, he said.

“Make no mistake about it: It is a crisis, and a crisis does not happen overnight,” the candidate said, repeating the point 10 or 12 times at the event.

Citing what he called the city’s lack of a checks and balances system, Newton also said New Haven is more a monarchy than a democracy and accused the government of stalling on real change by appointing ineffective commissions that have failed to deliver results.

Standing at the pulpit of the centuries-old Center Church, Newton invoked the building’s religious and historical significance, citing colonial leadership dating back to the 1600s and black leadership dating back to the 1800s. Prior to introducing Newton, former mayor John Daniels — New Haven’s first and only black mayor — recounted the city’s history of African-American political and religious guidance.

Sermons delivered in English and Spanish preceded and followed Newton’s address, but despite the bilingual language services, Hispanics at the conference numbered very few. Former Board of Aldermen President Tomas Reyes, one of the event’s distinguished speakers, said that more Latinos will rally behind Newton after they hear of his candidacy.

Reyes said DeStefano’s recent hiring of Jessica Mayorga as his spokesperson is evidence that the mayor is trying to improve his poor image with the Hispanic community. DeStefano’s move, Reyes said, follows the loss of Latino support he suffered over his endorsement of current Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield over competitor and Ward 5 alderman Jorge Perez.

“He’s trying very hard,” Reyes said. “When he did what he did to Jorge Perez — running a full-fledged campaign to get rid of him as president [of the Board of Aldermen] — it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that most of us are feeling very uncomfortable with supporting a mayor who clearly doesn’t care about the community.”

But even if Newton can claim Hispanic votes, Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah questioned Newton’s ability to demarcate himself as a leader of the black community, especially in light of what he called racially polarizing campaign rhetoric that places blacks and Hispanics against other races.

“The grandmother who’s taking care of five grandchildren … the pastors … those are the leaders in my mind,” Shah said. “People who want to talk about politics — they’re not necessarily leaders. It’s a very tall order to say that you’re an African-American leader. I don’t think that’s Newton.”

Shah also criticized the “crisis” depiction of New Haven, saying that all large cities face crime problems and that rising taxes are a nationwide dilemma. Crediting DeStefano with a successful record in city leadership, consisting of initiatives and visible results rather than rhetoric, Shah said Newton will face a very established candidate and will therefore be forced to present a substantial plan of action.

“As far as I’m concerned, Newton did not [express any real plans in 1999],” Shah said. “It’s not productive if you keep running and saying that you’re going to offer solutions to the community.”

Some voters, like Shah, said they cannot decide who to vote for until public debates between the Democratic candidates begin and more nuanced campaign platforms arise. But others such as Reyes have made up their minds.

“In 1999, I was one of the co-chairs of the DeStefano campaign, so that should tell you something,” Reyes said. “And I’ve been with John DeStefano since he became mayor. But he’s lost his compass. He really has. I think he’s a good guy, but I don’t think he should be mayor anymore.”