This past Tuesday a tide long overdue swept up New Haven in a not-so-subtle sea change. It was not a violent revolution if you could call it a revolution, but a pure triumph of democracy. And although it may be hyperbolic to say the tide was “red,” New Haven’s workers rode high upon the cyclical ebb and flow of city politics. In Tuesday’s aldermanic primaries, 14 of the 15 candidates backed by unions captured their seats against incumbents supported by the Democratic Party establishment of City Hall.
The Tuesday of Sept. 13 came and went just like any other Tuesday — a 24-hour blur — but the events of the day were set in motion long before the polls opened in the early morning hours. In the past year there has been increasing conflict between Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and the public sector workers of New Haven. Since he assumed office nearly two decades ago, the mayor’s relationship with the unions he once championed has never been this dire.
But to separate this past Tuesday from the others one needs context, a narrative.
On a dreary spring afternoon last March, an especially eclectic group of New Haven citizens marched around the City Green. Their final destination was City Hall. There were teachers, students, steal workers, experienced collective bargainers and curious passersby alike. Some wore signs displaying their values: “Community and Faith.” Some wore signs as badges of their marginalization: “Unemployed and Retired.” And some still wore signs to in-distinguish: “We Are One.” The “We Are One” rally sought to unite public and private sector workers and to reaffirm the collective bargaining rights of the community against a City Hall that was threatening to take away the jobs and wages of public sector.
As one participant simply put it, “bargaining rights are civil rights,” and many participants felt it was their civic duty to support their fellow citizens.
The scene was reminiscent of the Wisconsin state capital just a month earlier. There, more than 10,000 public union employees packed the Capitol Square and statehouse to protest against the budget plan by Gov. Scott Walker that would strip the bargaining rights of state and local workers. His state, like Connecticut, faced a budget deficit in the billions. As politicians stare blankly into the deficit abyss, their gazes often drift towards the contracts and pensions of public employees. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy is working with a deficit that is nearly 20 percent of the overall budget, and there’s no doubt DeStefano is similarly feeling the crunch. The “We Are One” protest, just a mere bud when compared to the flowerings of protest in Madison, urged New Haven lawmakers to step back and take another look before diving in and cutting out public employees of their benefits.
Still before the “We Are One” rally last March, in what was perhaps the precipitating motion, the New Haven Police Department descended upon City Hall with sirens howling and lights blaring. They were not there to apprehend a criminal per se but to protest the city’s plan to lay off 16 fellow members of the police force. Some officers even left their posts to join the rally as community leaders coldly urged the people of New Haven to arm themselves.
What’s striking is that Mayor DeStefano has long been an ally of the NHPD (his father was on the force from 1948-77), and in the ’90s he was the orchestrator of a police crackdown that did well to assuage crime. Generally, it’s one thing for a Republican politician to chip away at the public sector, perhaps even expected; but it’s another motion entirely for a very Democratic politician who once negotiated these labor contracts to reassess not just his policy, but seemingly also his ideology.
Perhaps we’ve entered an epoch in which the left can no longer be so liberal, something the national political discourse certainly reinforces. But a more likely theory is that the Democratic party establishment of New Haven has lost touch with its community of concerned citizens.
The front of union-backed candidates congealed this past August as endorsements for the primaries were made by Yale’s unions and other political organizing committees, such as Unite Here and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). With union backing, many aldermen not endorsed by the Mayor’s Office were equipped with the resources and organizational expertise to challenge the party machine firmly rooted in City Hall. Although many candidates downplayed their union ties stressing their community roots and neighborly dispositions instead, from Tuesday’s results it seems that union support may have been the first step in swinging the balance of power away from City Hall and back toward individual neighborhoods.
At the polls on Tuesday, one Yale student voting in Ward 22 explained that she was voting in order to disrupt the rampant idleness on the Board of Aldermen. She attributed this apathy, citing attendance issues as a manifestation of it, to the close ties between the mayor and his alderman and alderwoman of choice. It seems that productive adversaries ceased to exist in New Haven, and this reverberated poorly throughout communities.
A crucial instance of mayoral favoritism came to pass early last summer when Ward 2 Alderwoman Gina Calder decided to step down from her post for personal reasons. Rather than resign before June 31, in which case a special election would have been held, Calder ensured Mayor DeStefano’s right to handpick her successor by waiting until July 1 to retire. With this action, she defied the requests of 100 constituents who signed a petition asking her to resign before the impending deadline. (DeStefano chose Ward 2 co-chair Greg Smith to fill Calder’s vacancy, although Smith decided against running in Tuesday’s primary election.)
The petition was reportedly delivered to her by Frank Douglas Jr., whose efforts were nonetheless rebuked. On Tuesday, Douglass won the Democratic primary in Ward 2, defeating City Hall-backed candidate Douglas Bethea 358 to 172.
Douglass, a cook in the Trumbull College dining hall, was supported by a network of student volunteers and organizers from the Yale community. In the weeks prior to the primary, Yale students and Ward 2 community members were seen canvassing the ward, registering voters and arranging rides to the polling station.
“When student organizers came to my house they made it clear that my vote would make a difference in the outcome of the election and they informed me of the issues. Without these factors, I would have likely stayed home on election day,” Emily Villano ’13 said.
Many volunteers relished the opportunity to be a part of a community that often feels distant, sometimes even hostile. Others feel Yale as an institution has a duty to be more responsible in the community and are making their individual contribution.
Nathalie Batraville GRD ’16, who volunteered for the Douglass campaign, said a local election would be a great opportunity to make difference and “really liked” the idea of knocking on her neighbors’ doors. But when asked about the success of union-backed candidates Batraville was wary of calling it a trend.
“If there is a trend it’s that the people of the communities are going to have more power. The past Board of Alderman often stood in solidarity with the mayor, but Frank is someone who will be suggesting new ideas and accurately representing his constituency at City Hall. He is in touch with the people of his ward. He is a great listener.”
Jeanette Morison of Ward 22 also sought to engage the Yale community. In a message addressing all Yale undergraduates that was published on her website, Morrison asked students for her vote, saying, “I want to work with Yale students and community members to build a community where we feel safe and have the opportunities that we need to grow. … I’m looking forward to meeting you as I knock on the doors in colleges this week.”
It seemed to be an effective strategy.
Most volunteers said they initially decided to get involved in the campaign after meeting Jeanette in person and finding her platform impressive. Student volunteers from Morrison’s campaign claimed to have registered approximately three hundred new voters in the residential colleges alone, and throughout Tuesday students could be seen shuttling their peers to and from the polling station at Wexler Grant School. In the spirit of local politics the buzz in the greater community was mirrored on campus.
However, Tuesday’s primary elections weren’t just about aldermen — the mayoral primaries, as expected, brought a victory for DeStefano. Although he won handily, the current mayor failed to win a majority of the vote and at the end of the day closed with only 43.2 percent of the vote. (Jefferey Kerekes came in second with 22.4 percent, Clifton Graves in third with 17.5 percent and rounding out the field was Anthony Dawson with 15.7 percent of the vote.) At a victory celebration at BAR Tuesday night, DeStefano recognized that there’s resistance in the air.
“I had three credible opponents and I ran in a time when change is a powerful message,” he said.