The voice of City Hall is about to speak with a different tone.
Today marks the end of Jessica Mayorga’s nearly four-year stint as Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s communications chief. The second-longest serving spokesperson for New Haven’s longest serving mayor, she is heading home to her native Washington, D.C. to become marketing director for the Latino rights organization the National Council of La Raza. Adam Joseph, the city’s lobbyist at the state legislature in Hartford and Mayorga’s replacement, starts work on Monday.
While she will not miss “all those 4 a.m. phone calls,” Mayorga said she is leaving more than just a job, but a way of life — and a very demanding way of life, at that.
Asked how he would remember Mayorga, DeStefano had no hesitation: “talking on the phone and texting at the same time.” DeStefano said the position required Mayorga to be available at all times, which often took her away from her husband and one-year-old son.
Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark compared the job to that of a White House press secretary, adding that what made the job most difficult was not necessarily the hours, but the need to be “credible” to the press and the public.
“I would never hear anyone in the press say about Jessica that she’s ‘pulling the wool over our eyes,’” Clark said. “A lot of times ‘PR’ is a synonym for ‘bull—t,’ but you would never say that about Jessica.”
MIXED HERITAGE, MIXED DRINKS
Clark added that Mayorga’s warmth and ability to look people in the eye was complemented by an air of professionalism.
“I never had any chummy conversations with her — it wouldn’t have felt right,” Clark said. “She always kept herself at arm’s length.”
Within a week of taking control of the mayor’s public messages in March 2007, Mayorga found herself in the middle of a public relations crisis: the city had to disband the police department’s narcotics unit after an FBI sting ended with the arrest of two of the unit’s officers on theft and bribery charges. There was a lot to read and a lot of long nights, she recalled.
In charge of the mayor’s message during some of the city’s most tumultuous times in the past four years, such as the murder of Yale pharmacology graduate student Annie Le GRD ‘13, and also some of its most hopeful times, such as the unveiling of New Haven Promise, Mayorga said her time in New Haven has been eye-opening.
“I learned how strong communities can be when there is an intention to include everyone, and that you really can have a transparent government,” Mayorga said.
One of the roles of the communications chief, DeStefano said, is to be an advocate for the media within government. City staff can sometimes be insufficiently responsive to the media, he said, but Mayorga succeeded at ensuring that all reporters had the information they requested.
Besides praising her for her temperament and work ethic, DeStefano noted a secondary benefit she brought to the Mayor’s Office: having come to it as the 1997 winner of the Miss Cuba beauty pageant, “she made us all dress a bit better.”
DeStefano did remember at least one time when Mayorga, who is also part Chinese and part Colombian, disappointed: despite being of Cuban descent, her mojito lost a taste test to that of former Community Services Administrator Kica Matos, who is Puerto Rican.
“There was a great debate about who made the best mojitos,” DeStefano said. “So we had a contest one night with two bowls of mojito put to a blind test, and when the votes were cast, Jessica’s mojito did not win.”
PREPARED WITH A PASSION
Mayorga came to New Haven in March 2007, three months before her husband Hector Rivera, then a Harvard Medical School student, started his residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital. When Rivera’s residency ends in April, he will join Mayorga and their son Jax in Washington, D.C., where Mayorga grew up and got her start as a radio journalist.
While an undergraduate majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, Mayorga was the national president of a Latina sorority and the host of a Spanish language radio show produced by Mega Communications. Mayorga, who continued working there as a radio personality after she graduated, led campaigns to raise funds for community initiatives and emergency relief. At one point, she was working 60 hours per week while a full-time student — good preparation for the rigors of the Mayor’s office, she said.
After earning a master’s degree in education policy from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Mayorga worked for the education non-profit Community Partners Initiative and Education Station, the for-profit corporation known for producing Hooked on Phonics. Because of her background in education, Mayorga said the most meaningful moment of her time in New Haven was the announcement of New Haven Promise, a college scholarship program funded by Yale.
“It matches what my passions are, and just to play a small role in getting the word out to the country about how New Haven is doing sweeping school reform has been wonderful,” Mayorga said. “We’re a model to watch.”
NOT A NOVICE
Joseph, her successor, knows he has big shoes to fill, but he is not completely new to Mayorga’s position.
In June 2009, while Mayorga was on maternity leave, the Supreme Court ruled against the city in the famous Ricci v. DeStefano case. The case drew particular attention not only because it dealt with the constitutional limits of affirmative action, but also because the ruling overturned the decision of then-appellate court judge Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 in the run-up to her Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
The court ruled that the city acted illegally when it threw out a firefighter promotions exam that it deemed was not racially balanced when no black firefighters passed. 19 firefighters, 17 of them white and one of them Hispanic, filed suit and eventually defeated the city at the nation’s highest court.
Joseph recalled getting a phone call from a producer for Lou Dobbs’ CNN talk show. Dobbs, who resigned from CNN in 2009, was a frequent and controversial commentator on issues of immigration and race.
“I said my priority was to communicate with local folks first,” Joseph said in an interview Thursday. “It was quite an experience.”
Joseph comes to Mayorga’s position armed with years of communications and public relations experience. Unlike Mayorga, who started working for the city within two weeks of moving to New Haven, Joseph is a veteran of Connecticut and local politics.
A native of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, Joseph moved to New Haven in 2005 to work as deputy finance director of DeStefano’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2006. Joseph stayed in Connecticut after the election, serving as deputy communications director to Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz ’83, now officially a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the 2012 election. In the fall of 2008, Joseph began his job as the city’s legislative liaison to the state legislature, a position DeStefano said he is now looking to fill.
Clark added that she thinks Joseph’s being a man will have consequences: in some ways, society views women as more approachable than men, Clark said. But she knows Joseph to be a “very nice guy” who has a good sense of humor, she said.
Joseph will be starting at the position with at least one handicap: Mayorga’s right-hand woman, Elyse Lyons, will leave along with her boss. Lyons, whose position has been supported by special funds, will be taking a job with the administration of New Haven Promise.
“It looks like the office will just be me,” Joseph said, adding he does not believe that Lyons’ position, officially the city’s “media program associate,” will be filled.
A GOOD FRIEND, A GOOD MOTHER
Joseph said the best way to describe his predecessor is “a good friend.”
“She will be an asset wherever she is,” he said in one of Mayorga’s last press releases.
Apart from the image of her multitasking on her Blackberry, DeStefano offered a more serious assessment. In addition to making sure the public “got the city’s message right” and “protecting the prerogatives of the mayor’s office,” DeStefano said Mayorga has been a great mother of her son Jax, who is a child of special needs.
Starting Monday, the city will speak with a different voice — a masculine, New Jerseyan one.
“As I was gathering my things in the office, it dawned on me that I was really leaving,” Mayorga. “There is so much that I’ll miss.”
While Mayorga told city officials when she took the job that she expected to be in New Haven only four years, her departure was not expected to come this soon. Mayorga said in an e-mail that La Raza asked her to start her new job in February, causing her to move before of the rest of her family just as she did when arriving in New Haven in 2007.
“It’s with a heavy heart that I leave the city,” Mayorga said. “Everything happened quicker than expected.”