Rarely do substantive disagreements impede consensus on New Haven’s Board of Alders, where 30 Democratic lawmakers have little trouble finding common ground. Yet beneath procedural objections lie deeply felt divisions — a legislative disunion that members of a once-vocal yet now-dwindling opposition bloc say persists despite the exit of their outspoken leader.
When Mike Stratton, a trial lawyer and former alder, resigned from the Board in June, he left behind a small set of disgruntled lawmakers whom he had helped organize, just six months earlier, into the People’s Caucus. The dissenting coalition debuted in January, mere days into the new term, promising allegiance to the people alone.
Three of its members — Stratton, East Rock’s Anna Festa and Quinnipiac Meadows’ Richard Spears — were five days into their first terms at the time, losing no time declaring their independence from Democratic leadership and unions representing clerical, technical, maintenance and service workers at Yale. They were joined by three well-tried lawmakers, two of whom once counted themselves among the labor-backed majority.
The Caucus came out swinging, staging a guerrilla press conference in the city clerk’s office and drawing more than 70 residents to its kick-off meeting. But as the term wore on, and as debates over the budget raised the stakes of dissension, what seemed like collective opposition became the battle of Stratton alone. Frequently sparring with his colleagues, he crusaded to slash school spending and impose fiscal discipline.
Then Stratton, 49, resigned in June amid private unrest that went public when police announced they were reinvestigating a domestic dispute between Stratton and his 20-year-old girlfriend. The former alder will appear in court this week on charges of assault and breach of peace.
With Stratton having been the People’s Caucus most public face, the coalition was left on shaky ground by summer’s end.
The most recent indication that opposition voices remain came last week when Claudette Robinson-Thorpe, alder for Beaver Hills and a founding member of the Caucus, delayed the passage of a development act set to go to city-wide referendum on Nov. 4.
“No,” she said repeatedly, denying unanimous consent — an expedited means of approving certain legislation — for several items on the agenda.
At the same time, the incident revealed how low the stakes of this brand of opposition are. The act — called the City and Town Development Act, which re-passed every few years with residents’ approval — was ultimately endorsed unanimously two days later, at a special Board meeting whose agenda featured the single item.
“I support the principle of the City and Town Development Act but strongly object to the timeliness and process that all too often takes place,” Robinson-Thorpe said, noting she had not received advanced warning about the vote and so could not have been expected to make an informed decision.
Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison said that was nonsense. She said the special meeting was “wasting [her] time” — that pending legislation is forecast in notes she prepares from every meeting between Board leadership and the mayor. But Robinson-Thorpe said she had not received these. The culprit was the city’s faulty email system, alders on both sides decided.
But Spears, nine months into his first term representing the Quinnipiac Meadows neighborhood, said Robinson-Thorpe’s dissent was significant as part of a larger effort to challenge Board procedure.
“Right now it’s a monopoly,” he said. “They say it’s done in leadership and that’s that. There’s no need to share the information in a timely manner because they know they have at least 16 members who will vote with the machine no matter what.”
The lack of term limits on leadership positions, including president and majority leader, amplifies the problem, Spears said: The same individuals have been deciding the city’s priorities for years.
Perez defended the length of his tenure — 27 years as an alder, 7 nonconsecutive years as president — by saying the Board is well-served by members who know the ropes.
“It takes a while to move up the ranks in any legislative body,” he said.
Spears said the dissenting People’s Caucus is still alive, though “maybe not as brass and bold” as it was under Stratton’s leadership. He said five or six members of the Board still align themselves around certain issues, such as giving individual wards more independence in setting funding priorities.
Keenly aware that 5 individuals have little power among 30, Spears said the group is trying to bring in new members, including some who are now on the fence. By aligning with the Caucus, Festa said, alders can feel empowered to use their own “individual voices.”
“You don’t have to go with the norm,” she said. “You can vote on your own.”
Local 35 Vice-President Brian Wingate, who represents part of Beaver Hills as alder in Ward 29, took umbrage at the suggestion that certain alders care more than others about the people.
“Not only am I a union member, but I’m also a taxpaying resident and a citizen of the city of New Haven,” Wingate said, adding that it “wasn’t wise for these members to separate themselves along these lines.”
For its part, the mayor’s staff offered measured words about the People’s Caucus, whose policy initiatives have largely targeted Harp and her running mate, City Clerk Michael Smart. Tomas Reyes, her chief of staff, applauded Stratton for bringing to light neglected city issues. Harp’s new liaison to the Board, Joe Rodriguez, said he will work with every alder — and every caucus — to strengthen the mayor’s agenda.
Stratton, meanwhile, is keeping the coalition at arm’s length. “No,” he said in response to a request for comment, “staying away from Board politics.”