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For candidates in a contentious three-way race, the Ward 1 hopefuls did a lot of agreeing.

Aldermanic candidates Katie Harrison ’11, Mike Jones ’11 and Minh Tran ’09 met Thursday night to engage in the first Ward 1 debate of the campaign season. The 90-minute town hall discussion, sponsored by the Yale College Democrats and moderated by Dems President Sarah Turbow ’10, centered on the bread-and-butter issues facing the New Haven community: public school education, homelessness and the current economic crisis. Though the questions asked by the audience — which had to be approved by members of the Ward 1 Democratic Committee — centered on specific policy issues, the three candidates’ answers often overlapped.

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The Jonathan Edwards Theater was packed with members of each candidate’s campaign team, but a few individuals from outside the Yale community were also in attendance, including Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s incoming campaign manager, Keya Jayaram, as well as New Haven Democratic Town Committee Chair Suzie Voigt.

Voigt’s question to the three candidates struck at one of the central themes of the debate: how to remedy subpar public school education in New Haven. In one of the rare moments during the discussion when each candidate made a conscious effort to differentiate his or his ideas, three plans to improve the quality of education in classrooms across the city surfaced.

Tran proposed an expansion of the Dwight Hall Public School Internship program and the introduction of a support program for at-risk children. Jones suggested that Mayor John DeStefano Jr. hold true on his promise to provide college scholarships to graduating students. Harrison, after lamenting the “back and forth” between parents, schools and the city, summarized the issue: “The contrast between what Yale students have and what students have in other schools is, well, painful,” she said.

Ben Alter ’11 asked the candidates whether they felt their primary responsibilities lie with the residents of Ward 1 or the New Haven community as a whole. While Tran and Harrison maintained they would be able to tiptoe the line between the two responsibilities, Jones admitted that, in the end, he felt his primary allegiances lie with the Yale students living in Ward 1.

“If I was lucky enough to be elected by the constituents of Ward 1, I think ultimately the people to whom I would have to answer are just those folks — the constituents who voted me into office,” Jones said.

The debate was fraught with name-dropping; Jones said he had lunch with Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts ’01 on Thursday, while Tran alluded to conversations he has had with Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield, Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark and Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs and Campus Development Bruce Alexander ’65.

When an audience member asked the candidates whether they believed current Ward 1 Alderwoman Rachel Plattus ’09 had done enough during her tenure in the seat, Tran took a more critical stance relative to his opponents. Jones and Harrison gave a nod to Plattus’ track record working with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, as well as her plans to initiate a local scholarship program.

Only Tran suggested that he found some aspects of her leadership unsatisfactory; he said Plattus did not spend enough time engaging with the Ward 1 community, vowing that as alderman he would spend more time discussing community matters with his constituents.

The tone of the debate was decidedly serious; the candidates seemed eager to paint themselves as the most aware of the challenging ties facing the city of New Haven, and most of the comic relief came when stage lights malfunctioned, plunging the inside of the theater into darkness.

Though most attendees were members of the candidates’ campaign teams, three students unaffiliated with the candidates said the debate did not radically alter their opinions on the candidates. The interviewed students agreed that all the candidates seemed knowledgeable about issues facing the city.

Aaron Littman ’10 said he was impressed with the quality of all three candidates as they sparred over issues of policy, but he wished there had been more opportunity for the candidates to pin down the differences between their platforms, he said.

Alter said he was glad the debate focused on talk of policies and concrete issues currently plaguing New Haven. But he reiterated that though all the candidates seem to be well-informed about their talking points, it was “hard to see differences” between them.

Rustin Fakheri and Eileen Shim contributed reporting.