Four years ago, Frank Douglass Jr. stood on the front porch of his newly purchased Elm Street home, the first piece of land he has ever owned, and vowed to make a change. “The day I got the keys,” Douglass said, “I thought to myself, ‘I think I should run for alderman,’ and left it at that.”
Flash forward to September 2007: Douglass stands in the basement of City Hall and concedes to opponent Gina Caldor in his underdog campaign for Ward 2 alderman.
There are many ways a campaign strategist could have foreseen this outcome. Douglass made a late entry into the race, beginning his campaign only three months prior to Election Day as opposed to Caldor’s solid year of campaigning. His job as a beloved worker and self-proclaimed “King of Omelets” in the Trumbull dining hall also may have limited his chances. Although Ward 2 is made up of less than 20% Yale students, Elis have historically occupied the aldermanic seat, and Caldor, a Yale public health student, continues this trend. Nonetheless, Douglass made an impressive debut, losing by a mere 18 votes in the most highly contested ward race in this year’s election.
On a scorching Sunday afternoon, Frank Douglass Jr. sits on the front porch of his home. Frankie, Douglass’s eleven-year-old daughter, is upstairs eating cereal in the kitchen. Behind her, Connie, Frank’s longtime partner, is putting groceries into a refrigerator plastered with photographs of the couple’s four children. Next to the photos are Frankie’s acceptance letters to the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation summer program, which helps prepare New Haven middle schoolers for high school and college. Shunning the cool interior, Frank greets an endless stream of neighbors as he waits for his campaign volunteers to arrive. There are three days until the democratic primary, and for Douglass, who unlike his opponent works a full-time job, Sundays are crunch time.
Canvassing is hard work. It can take hours to cover a few blocks on foot, even longer to reach people who actually answer their doorbells — and on Election Day, who knows if these hasty front-door promises will translate into votes. Several weeks ago, Douglass spent almost an hour talking one of Mrs. Thomas’ grandsons into registering. Today he’s back to see if he can speak with the other one. It takes several minutes for a reluctant Mrs. Thomas to come to the door of her rundown Dixwell home. “I know you.” She points at Frank. “I get your stuff in the mail every day.” Mrs. Thomas is tired and says it is one of many bad days. Frank pauses, arms slung behind his back. “I’m real sorry to hear that, Mrs. Thomas.” Though heavy, Frank is not a tall man, barely bigger then Mrs. Thomas. When his face crinkles into a smile, worry lines appear on his forehead. There is no doubting his sincerity as he strays from the usual politician’s demeanor. This comes through to Mrs. Thomas, and she unexpectedly promises her support in the election. “Thank you, and God bless,” Frank says.
Encounters with neighbors are what inspire Frank. Families working two or three jobs to make ends meet are common. The people who answer the doors he knocks at, the kids living in abandoned houses, the directionless teenagers on the street corners — they all feel the same anguish. “It’s not their fault,” Frank insists. “It used to be a 14-year-old kid could get a summer job, no problem. Now they don’t let you work until you’re 16, and even then it’s trouble getting your foot in the door.” Frank’s son has a good job in a Yale cafeteria, one his father procured for him with difficulty.
“When you’ve got no hope, what can you expect?”
When Frank was a kid living in an old highrise Dixwell housing project, hope grew from community centers and youth programs. Yale students would come and play ball with kids from the neighborhood; the Big Brother program was active and thriving. There were options. There were role models. People, Frank thinks, used to be more open. Frank likes to tell the story of his band: it begins with a teenaged Frank wandering onto Old Campus looking for trouble and ends with him playing the bass in a band of Yale kids. Soon some of his Dixwell friends joined for a 13-piece Motown group. “There didn’t used to be boundaries like there are now,” Frank bemoans, shaking his head. “People used to do stuff, get involved. Now there ain’t none of that anymore.”
Frank is still in touch with a lot of his mentors. His Big Brothers are now in their seventies and eighties and his band-mates are doctors and lawyers spread from New York to Chicago. Everyone has moved away, everyone has moved on — but not Frank. Aside from a stint in the Marine Corps and a traveling gig building tracks for the railroad, Frank has lived in New Haven his entire life. New Haven, however, has changed. The youth-oriented programs that he held so dearly — the Q-House, the Dixwell Community Center — are all boarded up, closed down “by some cheap politician who just didn’t get it.”
While city politicians cite growing industry and an economic revitalization of the downtown area, Frank sees native residents alienated from their hometown, a community of people “pushed back, further and further up Whalley.” Why bother staying? I dare ask him. His eyes widen; he is horrified. “Because this is my home. That’s why. I am planted here. My roots are here.”
And this is why Frank dreams.
“If I could just build a structure, a strong 100 black men to set together to mentor the young,” he stares off into the distance. There are specifics to Frank’s plan: a Clean Streets team — with adults and youths working together to help the community, a model that he says has worked in other neighborhoods — and a mentorship program in which teenagers work alongside adult laborers to gain basic work skills. Frank only wants children in the community to have what he had growing up — after all, “you never know when you’re going to influence a child. Just look at me.
“I’ve seen the power and the good that politics can accomplish for people. That’s why I’m doing this.” This power to accomplish is what drives him from door to door — after his job, and on weekends, though by then he is tired from the labor of cafeteria work. It’s with this vision in mind that a man with no experience in politics summons friends from the neighborhood to work a last minute aldermanic campaign. It’s for the sake of new hope that Frank knocks on the door of a bunch of Yale students who, still half asleep on an early afternoon, stumble down to answer — two guys and a visiting girlfriend, still in her pajamas. “Hi, I’m Frank Douglass.” The tall, bearded boy’s sleepy eyes are soon alert. “Oh, I know you, I’m in Trumbull,” he says. “Trumbull College!” enthuses Frank, “the best college at Yale. And I love Yale. Now let me tell you about the way things used to be. Let me tell you about my band.”
He has them hooked.
“I think in the end the rain really put a damper on it.” Frank is sitting in the Trumbull college cafeteria, eating a quick dinner before five o’clock dining service begins. It was raining on Election Day. Frank believes Caldor’s youthful voters braved the weather, while Frank’s older supporters sought refuge in their homes. But the loss to Gina Caldor doesn’t faze Frank much. “If she does
a good job I’m just gonna work with her.” Douglass calls Caldor to discuss possible plans, to no avail. Still, Frank has left his phone lines open to supporters, to concerned citizens. “I’m not gonna stop living — I live here in my community, I have to go forward.” He pauses, leaning his fork on a now-empty dinner plate. “I consider myself the un-elected alderman.”