Rebuking constituents who “sit on their butts” when it comes to political activism may not have been the best campaign strategy for outgoing Ward 10 Alderman Edward Mattison LAW ’68.
Mattison, who was upset in his bid for reelection by Green Party candidate Allan Brison on Nov. 6, was criticized by some Ward 10 residents toward the end of his tenure for emphasizing city-wide issues over the needs of his constituents. Other aldermen interviewed said they will miss Mattison’s leadership on issues such as community development and homelessness.
But despite Mattison’s protests that it was difficult to wade through New Haven bureaucracy without the active participation of fellow Ward 10 residents, the majority of his constituents rejected his seniority and candid demeanor last Tuesday for the promises of dramatic change — such as making the Board of Education an elected rather than an appointed body — offered by his opponent, who waged a spirited, hard-charging campaign.
“There was a somewhat unrealistic notion about what an alderman can do,” Mattison said of his loss last week. “I am one of 30. There are reasons to be frustrated.”
After six years of serving on the Board of Aldermen, Mattison became an authoritative voice on issues ranging from community development and homelessness to the relocation of the Hooker School located in his ward.
Mattison has been active in city life since 1985, when he began a five-year stint as deputy corporation counsel, a job he described as “the city’s lawyer.” In 1990, Mattison founded the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, an nonprofit organization that provides legal aid for patients in psychiatric hospitals.
He currently works as the director of the non-profit South Central Behavioral Health Network, which is devoted to treating substance-abuse and mental-health problems.
Mattison first entered city politics in 2001, when he was appointed Ward 10 alderman after his predecessor moved to Boston with little warning. When the seat came up for re-election a mere two months later, Mattison won, handing Brison electoral defeat.
Mattison said the job initially appealed to him because he felt a close connection to his Oakville neighborhood and wanted to help tackle the issues facing community members. The controversy over renovating the neighborhood’s Hooker High School and relocating and constructing Hooker Middle School — formerly located in a run-down Catholic school in his ward — came to define Mattison’s tenure as alderman.
Mattison said he spent “an enormous amount of time” attempting to secure a new site for the middle school. The battle was not an easy one, he said, and animosity from community members over the placement of the school continued even after the city had settled on a final location.
After city officials agreed to locate the school on the corner of Whitney Ave. and Everett St., some residents of Mattison’s ward, a number of who were concerned about the potential for congestion and noise in the area, challenged the decision by suing the city. Although Mattison successfully defended the construction of the school, which he said will begin in January, the fight cost him significant time, energy and political capital.
Ward 13 Alderman Alexander Rhodeen said Mattison handled the challenges of the Hooker Middle School issue with grace.
“East Rock as a neighborhood derives lots of value from the school,” Rhodeen said. “There is a lot of emotion on the issue. Mattison worked very hard with the neighbors to come up with the best solution, but not everyone was thrilled.”
During his time in office, Mattison also struggled to strengthen Ward 10’s deteriorating infrastructure, advocating for replacing sidewalks, paving streets, clearing drains and increasing police presence.
But both Mattison and ward residents agree there is more work to do to improve the community for all residents. Mattison attributed the slow progress to City Hall red tape and a lack of activism among the residents of the ward.
His critics are less willing to let Mattison off the hook. Several online commenters responding to a Nov. 7 post-election article in the New Haven Independent attacked Mattison as a “rubber stamper” and criticized him for focusing on his “pet issues” at the expense of neighborhood concerns.
“Hooray for Alan Brison,” an online user named Evst1 posted last Thursday. “We’re sick of Mr. Do-nothing Mattison. Whether you’re for or against the ‘new’ Hooker school, Mattison has been a one-issue politician. Meanwhile, taxes continue to skyrocket, the sidewalk ‘replacement’ has been more of a lick and promise than anything else.”
Not all Ward 10 residents are as virulent in their criticisms of the former alderman. But policies aside, Mattison may have been hurt in the race against Brison by a lack of a visible presence in the Ward 10 neighborhood.
While she has not lived in the neighborhood for very long, resident Linda Pancoast said Mattison’s campaign was not as aggressive as his opponent’s.
“Brison made a great effort,” Pancoast said. “He went to every house in the ward. Mattison didn’t.”
But if his effectiveness is debatable among his constituents, Mattison’s colleagues on the Board of Aldermen generally said his role as a broad-minded senior leader and chair of the Community Development Committee made him an invaluable voice in city politics.
“I found him to be a very thoughtful person who always looked at the whole perspective — not only what best served his particular needs,” Ward 28 Alderman Mordechai Sandman said. “He always explained issues on a greater level than just the micro-level. Not only was he a highly intelligent guy and very passionate about what he was doing, but he had a sense of fairness.”
Several aldermen said Mattison’s seniority made him a good resource for incoming board members, whom he taught about the dynamics of their new positions. Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar said Mattison’s departure will leave a hole in the board.
“Allan can’t fill that hole,” Lemar said. “He will not be on par with Ed Mattison. Mattison was an invaluable asset to all of us. Brison will be a first-year alderman, not knowing who to contact or how to get things done.”
Mattison’s signature issues included increasing aid to the homeless, the mentally insane and released prisoners, groups on behalf of whom he has long advocated in his private and professional lives. Rhodeen said these issues might suffer from the loss of Mattison’s tireless advocacy from inside the New Haven government.
Mattison’s former colleagues said he was an effective alderman, and many suggested his recent loss was due to his lack of skills as a politician rather than a lack of dedication to his office.
“Ed wasn’t a politician,” said Lemar. “It was really as simple as that. He is going to speak bluntly and give his opinion. There is always a way to couch things, but he didn’t believe in that. If he didn’t believe it was possible, he would say, ‘You’re right, but I don’t think I can get that done.’”
Despite the disappointment of Brison’s upset, Mattison said he will continue to work on the issues most important to him.
“I’m not happy that I lost, but the politics is not the be-all and end-all,” he said. “I think we should work with whoever is the alderman to solve the problems of the ward.”
–Jorge Castillo contributed reporting.