By Aaron Bray
When the moderator of last night’s mayoral debate admitted to knowing nothing about either of the challengers to incumbent Mayor John DeStefano, it reflected the seven-term mayor’s dominant — and to some, controversial — presence in New Haven politics.
But DeStefano’s challengers, Republican Rick Elser ’81 and Green Party candidate Ralph Ferrucci, had plenty of opportunities to make a case for new leadership in the city. The candidates took turns answering questions from a panel of five local journalists before directly asking their opponents some questions of their own. All three candidates agreed that education, crime and economic revitalization were important issues over the next two years. But while Elser and Ferrucci said more of the same administration would not help the city, the current mayor emphasized his determination to continue the progress he said the city has made since he was first elected in 1993.
The challengers were not afraid to pointedly attack what they saw as DeStefano’s failed leadership. After DeStefano mentioned having never vetoed a piece of legislation in 14 years — a sign, he said, of being able to work well with the city’s Board of Aldermen — Elser said this example was actually DeStefano’s biggest fault.
“[It] could be looked at as the Board of Aldermen never does anything you disagree with,” Elser said, addressing the mayor.
After the debate, Elser said the mayor has stifled dissent on the Board of Aldermen, which, save for one Republican, is entirely Democratic. He said aldermen who disagree with the mayor publicly tend to find themselves in contested elections.
“The Board of Aldermen has been a spokespiece for City Hall rather than for their neighborhoods,” Elser said.
Still, Elser said during the debate that over the years, the Republican Party has done New Haven a disservice by not running better candidates.
But in response to Elser’s accusations of stagnant one-party rule, DeStefano said his administration has been marked by innovation.
DeStefano said novel solutions are needed to reduce the currently high incidence of shootings. Still, he said murders and rapes have declined under his leadership. But Ferrucci said that not all neighborhoods are benefiting from the supposed decrease in crime.
“Maybe downtown, maybe at Yale, but in the Hill, crime isn’t down,” Ferrucci said.
Meanwhile, Elser said violent crime stemmed from a basic disrespect for the law. He said New Haven needs a greater police presence to enforce routine laws against drivers who “ignore stop signs at 11 p.m.” or teenagers who “ride unregistered dirt bikes down the street.”
When Ferrucci questioned the city’s $45 million increase in spending this year, DeStefano said the 2.8 percent growth was only two tenths of a percent above the consumer price index — a measure of inflation of basic household goods — which is relevant, he said, considering 88 percent of the city’s expenditures are on personnel.
In addressing his opponents about town-gown relations, Ferrucci asked whether Yale should pay real property taxes as opposed to the voluntary contribution — $4.1 million per year, he said — that Yale pays now.
On this point, DeStefano said he agreed, though he qualified his support.
“Yale should do more in the city of New Haven,” DeStefano said. “But I don’t think a constitutional amendment [forcing Yale to pay property taxes] is likely.”
Rather, the mayor said Yale should increase its partnerships with public schools and local business. But Ferrucci said the University’s current contribution was not nearly enough, and that New Haven taxpayers were footing the University’s bill. He said Yale would have paid $36.7 million more in taxes than it paid voluntarily — even back in 2003.
While often in agreement in their opposition to the mayor, Ferrucci and Elser split sharply over New Haven’s new municipal I.D. card. While DeStefano defended the program’s necessity and legality, the other two candidates said the program was either too little, or too much.
Whereas Ferrucci said he would help illegal immigrants seek citizenship so that they would no longer be easy victims for unscrupulous businesses and federal raids, Elser said there should be a way to distinguish between I.D. cards of undocumented versus documented residents.
Noah Kazis ’09, who attended the debate with a few other members of the Yale College Democrats, said he learned a lot about each candidate in the race. Still, Kazis’ ultimate decision in the polling booth will reflect the choice the majority of voters have made for the past 14 years.
“When you look at New Haven in 1993 as compared to now, you don’t have to think twice,” Kazis said.
Elser and Ferrucci are hoping people do.