As a former member of the Ward 1 Democratic Committee and 2009 Endorsement Vote Board Member, I was disappointed to read of the recent decision to revert back to the practice of holding a closed vote to nominate a Democratic aldermanic candidate. Rather than opening the process, as Skilton and Herring claim, this decision will do the opposite. In a political environment as vibrant as New Haven’s, there is no room for Yalies to be sitting on the sidelines.
The Ward 1 committee originally decided to hold an endorsement vote in response to widespread criticism of the closed process, which concentrated power in the hands of a small group of well-connected Yalies who were not representative of the Yale student body or Democratic voters on campus.
After much deliberation, the Ward 1 Committee decided to hold an endorsement vote. This vote was almost exactly like a primary, with all registered Democrats in the ward eligible to vote. We believed that elections open the process, both to candidates who might otherwise not have had the support of the ward committee and to students who would now be engaged by robust campaigning.
Skilton and Herring bring up the fact that a spring endorsement vote makes the fall Democratic primary obsolete. Though they argue this was a negative consequence of the endorsement vote, in fact, that was one of the primary reasons to hold an endorsement vote. The Democratic primary is held in September, mere weeks after students arrive back on campus. That leaves little time to mount an effective primary campaign. Therefore, in the past, winners of the unrepresentative closed committee vote sailed to the Democratic nomination in the primary. While it is possible to mount a successful independent challenge — it was done in 2005 — it is unlikely.
Skilton and Herring contend that a spring election disenfranchises incoming freshmen who will actually be served by the would-be alderman. However, this is the case only if you believe that there will be an independent challenger. Since incoming freshmen are likely to be Democrats, and more likely to be unaware of the issues facing New Haven, they are the most likely to take partisan cues and vote for whomever is the Democrat on the ballot. Again, this serves to close the process, not open it, as the winner of the committee vote is unlikely to ever face a credible primary challenge so early in the school year.
In the system Skilton and Herring have returned to, the winner of a closed vote, without clear rules or input from Ward 1 voters, is likely to prevail in both the primary and the general election. This diminishes the role of elections as the primary check on elected representatives. Elections should be decided by voters, not cherry-picked groups of political insiders.
While I regret that this decision has been made, I know that the thoughts of an alum waxing philosophically about the good ole days are unlike to change anything. However, I hope that steps can be taken to temper the effects of this decision.
To Amalia and Mac, you must strive to fill the ward committee, as you have said, with students who are not “politicos.” This will not be easy and will require significant effort on your part. It will require effort to find these students. And it will require resolve to resist the “politicos” who will seek to turn the ward committee into their own Tammany Hall. In deciding to revert to a closed vote, you have made a commitment to open the ward committee. It has never successfully been done and I hope you have greater success where others (including myself) failed.
To the rest of Yale, I encourage you to get involved in the ward committee and New Haven politics in general. Unfortunately, recent events have brought to the forefront one of the negative ways in which Yale and New Haven can clash. There are many positive ways in which Yalies can get involved in New Haven to make a positive change. Whether it is combating homelessness, pushing for education reform, making a greener city or fighting for fair policing, political engagement is key. I hope you can find the future ward committee a place to advocate for your interests to make New Haven a better place, for students and non-students alike.
Ben Shaffer is a 2009 graduate of Berkeley College and a former member of the Ward 1 Democratic Committee.