Ostensibly, Yalies will go to the polls in a month to elect a Ward 1 alderman. In reality, low registration and low voter turnout means that a radical fringe group will decide who represents students on the Board of Aldermen.
Most of us choose to vote in our hometowns instead of New Haven for a variety of personal reasons. Some of us care about more contested state races in places like California or Florida. Others succumb to inertia, never going through the paperwork to change our voter registration status. Many Yale students are just apathetic toward New Haven politics, not understanding why we need an alderman.
A few self-selecting students do choose to become New Haven voters. By all accounts, these (mostly) Democratic students label themselves as “progressive” and “liberal.” Over time, they have warped the role of the Ward 1 alderman to fit their particular ideology. Consequently, captured by an unrepresentative few, our aldermanic seat no longer pursues the interests of all those who live on the campus.
Many of those on the political fringe at Yale care deeply about New Haven. I do not doubt their sincerity. However, I question whether the status quo — in which they alone choose our local government representative — is good for the vast majority of Yale students. The solution is for all of us who live in Ward 1 to register to vote in New Haven and hold our alderman to account. We can do so up to a week before the election.
Yalies have real political needs. Those needs go unaddressed when our political system rewards fringe candidates. For instance, instead of advocating for brutalized and jailed students on the morning following last fall’s Elevate raid, Alderman Mike Jones ’11 drank a beer at a tailgate. He belatedly engaged in pro forma protest and acquiesced to a whitewashed police report. His main concern: preserving his personal relationship with City Hall in order to pass his leftist wage-hike legislation. As a result, his Yale constituents suffered when they needed him most.
One of the two aldermanic candidates, Sarah Eidelson ‘12, talks about fixing New Haven. Like Jones, she promotes a platform of citywide issues that panders to Yale’s far-left voters but is unappealing to even moderately liberal students, including reexamining the University-City contract that closes parts of Cross Campus to cars.
Eidelson’s main qualification for political office: working on the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, the extreme of the fringe and a political group in bed with the most virulently anti-Yale unions. Among other notable achievements in the past decade, those labor organizations blocked the building of the new (life-saving) Smilow Cancer Center in order to extract concessions from the University. UOC’s Eidelson is a viable candidate only because of our ward’s skewed and limited electorate, which encourages contenders to tack far left to gain electoral support.
Vinay Nayak ’14, the other candidate, offers slightly less radical policy proposals. Even he, however, feels the need to ignore the concerns of the campus and instead talk about ideological issues to gain the support of the minority who decide the aldermanic election. Case in point: his plan to prevent employers from knowing if prospective employees are dangerous felons.
The simple reality is that good aldermen (indeed, good elected officials) sometimes do nothing — no platform can be the best platform. Yalies do not need sweeping, left-wing legislation or flashy proposals for municipal government. They need someone with character who will be their champion at City Hall in times of trouble like the Elevate fiasco. And they won’t get that pragmatic alderman until the electorate expands to reflect their wishes.
Both Nayak and Eidelson talk extensively about the many students they have registered to vote. They will claim that I am wrong, that this year’s electorate will be different and more representative of the Yale student body. We have heard this story before. Every past Ward 1 election featured similar candidate-driven registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Those same elections saw an unrepresentative few show up to the polls. Jones won in 2009 in a race in which only 474 ballots were cast. In 2003, that number was 541.
Why do these past campaigns to get students interested consistently fail? At its core, the problem may be a catch-22. With the slate so radically leftist, moderates see little incentive to join in the political process. Unfortunately, without an electorate characteristic of the student body, it may never be viable for a more centrist candidate to run.
Unless the student body registers to vote en masse, a paltry fraction of the 5000 or so undergraduates will choose the next alderman to represent campus. Two years with Mike Jones has taught us how bad that result will be.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.