The stage wasn’t quite as packed with candidates as the recent 2008 presidential debates, but the decision by all five Ward 22 and Ward 2 aldermanic candidates to set aside their differences and sit side-by-side for a forum Tuesday night at the Afro-American Cultural Center was a first in Yale-New Haven political history.

Once at the table, though, the differences between the candidates resurfaced as several dozen students listened in and submitted questions on topics ranging from the worker dispute at Yale-New Haven Hospital to how the candidates envision change occurring across the globe.

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Ward 2 saw the most substantive dispute, with Trumbull dining hall chef Frank Douglass Jr. demanding that Yale-New Haven Hospital allow a union to organize its workers immediately. His opponent, Gina Calder ’03 EPH ’08, called on students to prioritize issues such as safety and economic stability that she says are significantly more important to everyday residents than resolving an internal hospital-union dispute.

To the right of the Ward 2 table, a three-way debate between Ward 22 co-Chair Cordelia Thorpe, housing consultant Lisa Hopkins and incumbent Greg Morehead focused on issues of character.

Thorpe, who touts herself in pamphlets as the “Great Translator” of the real New Haven for Yalies, scolded that the poor are “invisible to some of the students at Yale.” Morehead told his opponents, over their shaking heads, that they lack “any” political experience, while Hopkins emphasized her ability to “empower” others.

According to organizers, it has been years — if ever at all — since all the candidates from Yale’s neighboring wards sat down in the same room for an open forum discussion. It was no surprise, then, that the relationship between the community and Yale was a frequent topic of discussion, whatever the initial question.

“There is a large fence between Yale and New Haven, between Yale and the communities, and I think that fence needs to come down, it needs to come down now,” said Douglass, 54, who has lived in New Haven since birth. “I feel like I have a connection to both sides, the University and the community … I see the power that you guys have. You could use it to open the doors for the community and the city.”

Douglass’ central position is his support for workers, who he said are consistently mistreated, a point that earned him the loudest applause throughout the debate. On other issues, he was less outspoken; when probed about his views on municipal ID cards, for example, he first responded, “I don’t know anything about immigrant laws.”

Calder, who said she also understands both sides of the “fence” because she is at once a member of the community and a longtime Yale student, said aldermen should be more concerned about the issues everyday residents truly care about — and issues that aldermen have real power to influence.

“It’s in the arbitrator’s hands,” Calder said. “Once the hospital situation is resolved, there’s still a lack of safety, there’s still issues including a lack of positive outlook for youth and a lack of economic stability.”

One comment Morehead made several minutes after arriving midway into the debate — he was at a Board of Aldermen meeting that overlapped with the forum — inspired head-shaking from the two competitors to his left.

“Everyone that’s sitting up here,” Morehead said. “They don’t have any political experience.”

“How could the ward chair not have political experience?” Thorpe said after the discussion. Morehead said in an interview that his first five months have been a learning experience in which he has tried to stake out his own position even in the face of colleagues trying to pull him in all directions; during the debate he discussed his frustration that the municipal ID card program has been changed into something only relevant to illegal immigrants, whereas its original purpose was to help all of New Haven.

Thorpe, who weighed in on the worker dispute by asserting that she was fired from Yale-New Haven Hospital because “they thought I was with the union,” said she felt that students sympathized with her message — but not its deliverer.

“The students liked the letter, but they didn’t like me,” she said, expressing regret that no one signed up to assist on her campaign, which is centered on the notion that Mayor John DeStefano Jr. runs a “plantation” style system of government.

Asked by an audience member to state the one reason “I should vote for you,” Morehead called himself a “go-getter,” Thorpe touted her “experience,” Hopkins described herself as a “straight shooter” who would act as a liaison, Calder said “I’m committed” and Douglass, leaning over his table toward the audience, his voice rising, said “there is a passion inside me that I care for this place, for this whole place.” In addition to the candidates, mayoral Green Party challenger Ralph Ferrucci and a handful of aldermen attended the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the Yale College Democrats.

The Democratic primary, the winners of which are expected to win the general election, will be held on Sept. 11 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Ward 22 voters — including registered residents of Swing Space and Silliman, Timothy Dwight, Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges — can cast their ballots at the Wexler/Grant Elementary School on Foote Street. The polling location for Ward 2 is the Timothy Dwight School on Edgewood Avenue.