Two New Haven residents competing for the same legislative seat — that currently held by 32-year incumbent Rep. Bill Dyson — will draw on significantly different bases of support as August’s Democratic primary approaches.
While Ward 20 Alderman Charles Blango has the backing several other aldermen — which provides, among other things, the access to Yale bestowed by Ward 1 Alderwoman Rachel Plattus ’09 — community activist Gary Holder-Winfield, who is involved in various criminal-justice and community-youth organizations, will have to rely on a network of grassroots advocates combined with an appeal, somewhat unusual for an activist, that emphasizes his knowledge of how Hartford works.
In a telling example of what institutional support can mean, both contenders for the Dyson’s 94th legislative district — for which the incumbent has not declared publicly whether he will seek re-election — had the opportunity to meet with the Yale College Democrats this last week.
But whereas the Monday-afternoon meeting with Blango attracted about two dozen interested students, Holder-Winfield only had the chance to speak with three active members of the group during a more hastily arranged meeting Friday afternoon. Dems President Ben Shaffer ’09 said more members know Blango because he has come to Dems events in the past.
“It’s regrettable that more people couldn’t attend the meeting with Gary,” said Shaffer, whose organization does not endorse in primary elections. “I think the Monday time was a bit easier for people, and some actually already knew Alderman Blango from before. He’s been around. … The important thing going forward is to make sure people have as complete info about both candidates as possible.”
Not that either candidate will be relying on the Yale vote. The primary, which takes place in mid-August, is likely to motivate only the most dedicated students to apply for an absentee ballot.
Blango’s status as an alderman makes neighborhood canvassing all the more important for Holder-Winfield.
“[Blango] has more instantaneous name recognition,” Holder-Winfield admitted. “But in elections, what really matters is being willing to go out and be at people’s door. While name recognition opens lots of doors [for the candidates], people still don’t necessarily know who they are.”
For Blango, that name recognition comes primarily from serving as the Ward 20 alderman since 2001. His supporters on the Board of Aldermen point to his tremendous advocacy on behalf of his neighborhood and his interest in key Democratic concerns at the state level as reasons for their support.
“I know he’s committed to the same issues I am,” Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar said. “He and I both want quality health care, a state earned-income tax credit, a strict gun-reporting law.”
If he were elected, Blango would call on the state to stop dropping off released prisoners in front of the Whalley Avenue jail and advocate for greater vocational training in schools to better prepare youth for a competitive job market.
Plattus described Blango as “a real progressive who has done wonderful work for the city.”
Meanwhile, Holder-Winfield, originally from the Bronx, only moved to New Haven in 2000. He lived downtown when he first arrived, before moving out to Newhallville last July because, he said, he wanted to be a part of the community in which he was already involved as an activist.
Holder-Winfield lobbies in Hartford on behalf on the American Association of University Professors union for his alma mater, Southern Connecticut State University. He also works as an Empowerment Zone representative in Newhallville, is a board member with Family Re-entry — which seeks to break the cycle of incarcerations — and is the chair of Connecticut Federation of Black Democratic Clubs.
Other local activists who know Holder-Winfield are excited at the prospect of his candidacy. They said it is unusual to find someone willing to work inside the political process while still engaging in direct, on-the-street activism.
Sally Joughin, a member of People Against Injustice — which deals with issues such as criminal-justice reform — said she had been aware of Holder-Winfield’s presence in the activist community and last fall invited him to judge a youth poetry-and-art contest centering on criminal-justice issues in New Haven. After that, she said, he became heavily involved in the group, helping it create a logo and generating ideas for improving its organization.
“He doesn’t just sit back,” Joughin said. “He brings his ideas forward, and that’s what I think he’d do at the legislature.”
Joughin said she has always supported Dyson, and said she thinks Holder-Winfield, who has called Dyson his mentor, would be a great replacement for the current legislator. Still, time is of the essence, she said.
“He didn’t wait for an announcement [as to whether Dyson is seeking re-election],” she added. “He needs to put his name out there. His name is well-known in certain circles, but you have to be known by all the people who live in your district.”
Blango, in contrast, has so far proceeded more slowly with his campaign. He has refrained from discussing his candidacy much publicly and declined to comment for this article, although he has talked to the News previously about his run for the 74th-district seat.
Still, Holder-Winfield’s activism will not by itself win him the support of fellow activists.
Al Marder, who heads the New Haven Peace Commission and is president of the Amistad committee — and knows both candidates — said he is waiting for the race to truly begin, when both candidates begin to speak about issues publicly, so that he can judge them on policies, not personality or background.
Dyson could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.