Yogi Berra once famously said that if you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.
With his victory Tuesday night, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has proven that he can, at the very least, emulate the electoral success of Richard “Dick” Lee, the only other modern-day New Haven mayor elected to eight terms, who held office from 1954 to 1970. But DeStefano is no Dick Lee.
While Lee was known for his populism and charm, DeStefano has relied on brains and persuasion, which all goes to show that policy, as much as personality, can be the key to longevity.
Although Lee has been widely acknowledged as New Haven’s finest mayor, DeStefano may be creeping up on Lee’s legacy, those familiar with both mayors’ tenures agree. But when pressed to make the comparison himself, DeStefano lets his own personality shine through.
“Well,” Destefano quipped last spring, “I’m much taller than Mayor Lee.”
A Change of Temperament
The temperaments of the two men could hardly be more different. An Irish mayor at the time of the Irish ascendancy in New Haven politics, Lee wielded an ebullient personality that easily attracted a large cadre of loyal followers enthralled by the short mayor and his grand visions for urban renewal.
“Lee was like a fabulous leprechaun,” said Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark, who moved to New Haven as a young woman in 1956. “He was short, small and larger than life. I can still remember him leading the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.”
DeStefano, meanwhile, has not had the luxury of being able to fall back on an overly warm personality, which is not surprising for a man who began his mayoral career less a politician than a technocrat, cognizant and undeniably fond of gritty details and numerical figures. Before being elected in 1993, he worked under former Mayor Biagio DiLieto from 1981 to 1989 as a budget analyst, development administrator and chief administrative officer.
As someone more accustomed to administrative intricacies than vote pandering, DeStefano could be overly serious in public and given to rash outbursts when he first entered office, aldermen and city officials said. Even now, they said, as he has grown more able and congenial in public, his jokes can still seem forced and awkward.
But even those who loved Lee said DeStefano’s legacy will likely be regarded more highly than Lee’s. City officials and Yale professors familiar with Lee’s tenure said his grand vision of “urban renewal” ultimately had a negative effect on the city, destroying neighborhoods to provide room for big industry and highways.
They said Lee blindly believed in the correctness of his own ends and means — using big government to radically redesign the city — which did not jibe with the increasingly skeptical political climate of the Vietnam War period.
In contrast, DeStefano has adapted to the changing needs of the city, political observers said.
Rob Smuts ’01, who wrote his senior essay on Lee and now works for DeStefano as his chief administrative officer, said the mayor has willingly adjusted his agenda to accommodate the city’s evolution.
“Lee’s understanding of the city didn’t keep up from when he took office in the 1950s through the late ’60s,” Smuts said. “But even as years have passed, this mayor has been just as effective. He’s much more tuned in. For example, [when he was first elected] there was nowhere near the undocumented [immigrant] population that exists today.”
Aldermen and Yale professors interviewed said the current mayor has not simply adjusted but welcomed a new, more “pluralistic” city.
DeStefano said the city’s policies for undocumented immigrants had been hotly contested, though not by those affected.
“The beneficiaries can’t vote,” he said. “A lot of people have strong opinions [on the city’s immigration policy]. It wins you some [support], it loses you some.”
As an example of DeStefano’s ability to adjust to new realities, Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison cited DeStefano’s prioritizing the reintegration of convicted felons into the population as the numbers of those who are released have risen. In comparison to Lee’s projects — which included a project Mattison helped defeat to construct a ring road around New Haven akin to the one in Washington, D.C. — DeStefano’s are less top-down, Mattison said.
Alan Plattus, an Architecture School professor who specializes in urban design and the history of cities, said Lee failed to represent all of New Haven. He said Lee’s moves were “too big and bold” and did not take into account those city residents principally affected by his decisions. In contrast, Plattus said, DeStefano recognizes the need for a new economic paradigm.
“He’s really presided over what amounts to a sea change in American cities in general,” Plattus said. “He came from an economic development background which, in those days, still hoped the city could redevelop their commercial base, bring back the shopping malls.”
Instead, he said, DeStefano shifted his focus to bringing residential developments to downtown, accompanied by a large arts and entertainment scene with the requisite restaurants and small shops.
Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen said the mayor’s tenure has been defined by large proposals, which recently have included backing the Yale-New Haven Hospital Cancer Center, the Elm City Resident Card and the Shartenberg tower construction. Outside of downtown and in several neighborhoods, city officials and aldermen said, the reduction of the number of blighted houses from over 1,500 to fewer than 300 and the execution of a more than $1 billion school-construction project will stand as lasting legacies.
“This city will be beholden to [DeStefano] in 20 to 30 years,” Clark said.
The Mayor of Yale?
But in one respect, DeStefano has taken after Lee — his ability to work with rather than against Yale, which during his tenure has become the city’s largest employer.
Janet Lindner, the mayor’s chief administrative officer for his first two terms and now the University’s associate vice president for administration, said the mayor has always recognized how vital New Haven’s relationship with Yale is.
“Instead of taking positions [against Yale] to win points for the next election, you’re looking into the future,” she said.
From a home-buyers program — in which the University provides a total of $25,000 over a 10-year period to Yale employees to purchase homes in specific neighborhoods — to promoting the growth of small businesses downtown, DeStefano has partnered closely with University President Richard Levin, who also began his tenure in 1994.
That in itself may have been one of DeStefano’s biggest breaks, aldermen and city officials said. He came into office just as Yale realized the need for a closer relationship with the city as a result of financial problems of its own and a bad image highlighted by the murder of Christian Prince ’93.
The relationship is mutually beneficial, Yale Emeritus History Professor Gaddis Smith said. Every time Yale expands — whether with a Yale Police Department substation and community center or the new University Health Services building — New Haven sees an increase in tax revenue.
While the state PILOT program reimburses the city up to 75 percent for revenue lost to tax-exempt nonprofit entities, the transformation of empty lots into new structures by the University brings in additional money, Smith said. He said the construction also creates jobs and pumps more money into the local economy.
So much for the opposition
But those interviewed disagree on whether it’s possible for opposition to take form, given the mayor’s dominance. Governing has gotten easier but is a mixed blessing, many of those interviewed said.
While no one suggested the Board of Aldermen is a mere rubber stamp for the mayor’s proposals, aldermen said the mayor now has a consistent majority that supports him. But they said this was because the mayor “always does his homework,” and rarely presents ideas that are not detailed and well thought through.
“You have to have a big ego to go up against the mayor,” Clark said.
But unlike Lee, who Clark said did not start receiving negative attention until after his death in 2003, people are not afraid to criticize DeStefano — even people “who appreciate his brains, but don’t actually love him.”
She said only one alderman who opposed the mayor, Ward 11 Alderman Robert Lee, won his Democratic primary race this season. Others who lost and were not backed by the mayor include Cordelia Thorpe in Ward 22 and Frank Douglass Jr. in Ward 2.
From an economic perspective, Mattison said, a long-term mayor provides welcome stability to the city.
“When developers are thinking of making development, they know that with a long-term mayor … promises that are made are going to stay made,” he said. “It makes it easier to bring in business.”
Still he said the mayor had dominated the landscape in a way that was not necessarily healthy for the city. Other aldermen said the mayor will likely only remain a couple more terms, but that possible alternatives or successors have been marginalized by the mayor’s control over the direction of city politics. Whether this has occurred through the mayor’s concerted efforts or simply because no can offer an equally compelling vision is up for debate.
It is difficult to know where the city will be when DeStefano leaves.
Yale Political Science Professor Douglas Rae, who was the chief administrative officer under DeStefano’s predecessor Mayor John Daniels, said the current mayor has been successful largely because of his ability, like Lee, to see a “very large canvas,” from promoting small business growth downtown to from his school construction projects. Nonetheless, he said the school construction would likely not improve the quality of schools substantially, saying that above a certain low threshold, better school buildings do not translate into better-performing schools.
Rae said his sharp mind and administrative talent would likely make DeStefano a better governor than mayor, though DeStefano lost to Governor M. Jodi Rell in last year’s gubernatorial election.
DeStefano’s domination in New Haven, Rae said, is at least partially indebted to Lee, who wiped out all opposition parties in the city by defeating the last Republican to be mayor in New Haven.
“In the city today, Republicans are crippled, and the Greens are crazy — no one takes them seriously,” he said. “The city would have been better off with more opposition, even if DeStefano might have found it annoying.”
But Clark said DeStefano’s only loss — to Daniels in 1989 — and the serious primary challenges to his control, especially by State Senator Martin Looney in 2001, taught DeStefano valuable lessons about never being complacent.
Still, no one expects the mayor to remain forever. Like Lee, who was famous for being able to obtain any and all federal grants, DeStefano has national recognition. He has experience on the national scene from his time as president of the National League of Cities in 2003. Aldermen said he might be a prime candidate for a presidential Cabinet position or other national appointed office if a Democrat wins the 2008 presidential election.