A familiar face returned to the Yale College Democrats’ annual kickoff event Monday night: Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who is heading into the last week of the most intense campaign for his seat since 2001.

While the event was not officially connected to the Sept. 13 mayoral primary in which DeStefano is attempting to fend off three challengers, the mayor did use the time to make the case for his candidacy for a record 10th term in office even as he implored students in attendance to get involved in local political activism.

As a small city with challenges that reflect those facing the nation at large, New Haven is an ideal place for young people to get involved in local issues, DeStefano said.

“You’ll find every good thing and every bad thing about America in New Haven,” he said. “Because of its size, you can be a real impact player, so make sure you get involved with something while you’re here.”

As the mayor took questions from the audience, mainly from freshmen new to New Haven, the event evolved into a forum about Yale students’ concerns as New Haven residents.

Many students crossing Elm Street to get to their classes fear for their lives as cars whip past red lights, said Nathaniel Rubin ’15, who hails from Alaska.

The city is hard at work with traffic-calming measures such as traffic circles and curbline bumpouts to keep pedestrians and cyclists safer, DeStefano said, before adding jokingly that “it would be a lot easier if for God’s sake you all just crossed at the crosswalks.” One traffic safety measure that DeStefano said he would appreciate the Dems’ support for as they lobby state lawmakers in Hartford is the use of red-light cameras to issue traffic violations to speeding drivers. That measure died in the General Assembly’s last legislative session due to concerns about drivers’ privacy.

Zak Newman ’13, the Dems’ campus and community coordinator, asked how New Haven is dealing with crime just two days after the city’s homicide count for the year reached 25, its highest since 1994.

Crime in New Haven, DeStefano said, has evolved since he first came to office in 1993 from being mostly driven by highly organized drug gangs to now resulting more from the presence of recently released prisoners who come to the city with low economic prospects. At any given time, he said, there are about 5,000 people in the city who are on parole, probation or early release.

Still, in the long run, the only way to reduce violence is to continue reforming the city’s public schools to better prepare students for higher education and employment, he said. New Haven Promise, the college scholarship program unveiled last fall with funding from the University, is an important step toward that goal.

DeStefano tied the city’s crime challenges into a broader theme: New Haven is a place where people strive for a better life, he said, especially immigrants. His proudest moment as mayor, he said, was the establishment in 2007 of the Elm City Resident Card program, which allows city residents to open checking accounts and borrow library cards regardless of their immigration status.

“It was the most hate mail and hate calls I’ve witnessed,” he said, referring to opponents’ claims that the card would make New Haven too welcoming to illegal immigrants. “But I was proud because we did an important thing in recognizing that communities are defined by character and values, not just by birth certificates.”

After his address, DeStefano praised the Dems’ tradition of involvement in city politics. Robert Smuts ’01, the city’s chief administrative officer, and former Ward 1 Alderman Julio Gonzalez ’99 were both involved with the Dems as Yale undergraduates.

Earlier Monday, DeStefano’s campaign received an important boost from the union of the city’s firefighters, traditionally a politically active union.

DeStefano faces former Alderman Tony Dawson, civil rights activist Clifton Graves and budget watchdog Jeffrey Kerekes in the mayoral primary Sept. 13.