Last week, Mayor John DeStefano announced he was going to run for an unprecedented ninth term, which would make him the longest-serving elected mayor in New Haven history. Although he already has one opponent, the chance that someone will be able to mount a successful campaign against him is slim. And unfortunately, without formidable opposition, the mayor is unaccountable to the electorate.
Currently, Mayor DeStefano’s actions have little effect on his ability to get re-elected. DeStefano has long had a stranglehold over New Haven politics. In fact, the closest election DeStefano has faced was the Democratic primary he lost to John Daniels, the city’s previous mayor, in 1989. But since his first election in 1993, he has won handily every two years, most recently winning 71 percent of the popular vote in 2007. He has survived scandal, including serious corruption allegations in 1998. Consequently, his actions as mayor have little impact on his electoral prospects. This is not to suggest that he doesn’t carefully craft his policy — I assume he does what he thinks is in the city’s best interest — but if each policy he enacted could cost him the election, it would undergo more scrutiny by both his staff and the public at large.
DeStefano’s power is compounded by the structure of New Haven’s government, which makes the legislative branch of the city, the Board of Aldermen, a relatively weak force compared to the mayor’s office. With 30 aldermen for about 125,000 people, each alderman represents a small community of just over 4,000. Aldermanic elections are often highly contested, so aldermen must regularly answer to their constituents to remain in office. Thus coalitions to thwart the mayor’s prerogatives rarely take hold. Admittedly, the limits on the aldermen are somewhat self-imposed; many on the board are DeStefano sympathizers. Yet even a hostile board would have a more difficult time stopping mayoral policy than do significantly smaller councils in other cities.
DeStefano’s stronghold on city politics has not been entirely detrimental; in fact, it has given him the latitude to push for innovative and controversial legislation that might not succeed otherwise. The municipal ID program would have been nearly impossible if DeStefano had had to worry about re-election. Furthermore, while the policy had a lot of support from the community, the direct beneficiaries would be unable to show their support in a general election. DeStefano’s political hegemony has also given him the ability to fight in atypical arenas; he recently had a spat with Governor Rell over programs to reintegrate prisoners into society.
But history shows that rule by popular mandate is not always best for a city. DeStefano’s announcement to run for re-election has drawn comparisons to the man he will surpass if he is elected a ninth time, former mayor Dick Lee. Lee, who presided over New Haven for 15 years, oversaw the city’s transformation through massive urban renewal projects, which he was able to pursue largely because he had few formidable opponents. In his zeal to transform New Haven into a model city, however, Lee and his administration enacted development policies that ultimately failed. Most of the urban renewal projects, including the Chapel Square Mall and Veterans Memorial Coliseum, have since been torn down or re-envisioned. The stores he brought in — Macy’s, Malley’s and the old Shartenberg department store — have long closed. And in his wake, he left destroyed neighborhoods and a damaged city.
While many of DeStefano’s policies differ substantially from Lee’s, it is concerning that he can enact wide-sweeping policies with relatively little oversight. He has poured money into a $1.15 billion effort to rebuild schools, and while students obviously need a functional place to learn, brand-new buildings cannot fix the systemic problems plaguing the New Haven public school system. While parents might not vote against DeStefano for his school policy, those who can afford to may simply avoid public schools altogether. For this reason, the lack of serious contenders in New Haven may spur the city’s residents to seek alternative solutions that often undermine DeStefano’s original vision.
DeStefano is not a bad mayor. In fact, I would probably vote for him in a seriously contested election. He just needs some competition to force him to tailor his policies and appeal to the broad coalition that got him elected in the first place.
Sarah Nutman is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays.