When redistricting brought a student supermajority to a city council district in Berkeley, California, the 18-year incumbent offered to step aside in favor of an undergraduate candidate.
Kriss Worthington, 60, said in a phone interview — as he was wheeling his bike home from a public meeting — that he would have liked last year’s vice president of Berkley’s student government to run in his place. When the student declined, Worthington said, he chose to defend his seat after all.
On the opposite coast of the country, in Blue State on Wall Street, Sarah Eidelson ’12 said this week she would not rule out running for a third term representing Ward 1 on the New Haven Board of Alders.
Simply by completing two terms, Eidelson will have stayed longer on the Board than all those who have represented Ward 1 in the past 15 years. Most run as undergraduates and then remain in town for several months as graduates to finish a single two-year term. If Eidelson wins a third term, she will be six years out of college by the time she completes it.
In both New Haven and Berkeley, small cities with large universities, individual municipal districts have come to feature an outsized student population. Indeed, cities and towns across the country have seen students lay claim to elected office.
Montravias King, a recent graduate of Elizabeth City State University, won a protracted battle last year to get his name on the ballot in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. King, a senior political science major at the time, ultimately won the seat, but only after a state elections board ruled that dorm residency fulfilled the residency requirement for local office.
In Ward 1, these debates have long been settled — and the shape of the student-dominated district is unlikely to change anytime soon. Students make up more than 80 percent of residents in the ward, which includes eight of the 12 residential colleges.
Still, the debate about the proper responsibilities of a Ward 1 alder is ongoing: someone who bridges the town-gown divide, represents Yale’s interests in New Haven or devotes his or her time to citywide concerns, untethered to ward-specific quality of life issues handled instead by Yale facilities. Perhaps all three is the expectation, even as the position is part-time and comes with a compensation of just $2,000 a year.
“TALKING WITH STUDENT GROUPS”
Only one freshman of 28 interviewed could correctly identify his alder. Varun Sah ‘18 said he learned Eidelson was his alder at a meeting of the Yale College Democrats. Five of those interviewed live in Ward 22.
Eidelson said communication with groups like the Dems is a key means of staying plugged in to student life. She said she has not reached out to freshmen at large yet, so as to not “blitz right away when freshmen move in.”
Instead, she has been engaged in “a lot of talking with student groups.” Dems President Becca Ellison ‘15 praised Eidelson, whom the Dems backed last fall against Republican challenger Paul Chandler ‘14, for staying connected to campus political activities.
Rachel Miller ‘15, also a Democrat and a volunteer in past municipal elections, sharply disagreed. She said Eidelson is absent on campus, and she questioned her ability to truly represent the student body.
Where once Eidelson used to publicize her weekly office hours and send updates about community events, Miller claimed, she is now virtually silent.
“I checked, and the last time I received an email from Sarah Eidelson was the day of the election, and I haven’t heard from her since,” she said. “It’s unacceptable that our elected officials only communicate with us when they want us to re-elect them.”
Miller said she notified Eidelson this spring of confusion over polling places during the February special election for Mayor Toni Harp’s old state senate seat. She said she has heard nothing by way of response.
One way Worthington, the Berkeley council member, said he remains engaged with Cal students is by nominating them to serve as representatives on city commissions, such as the housing commission. Young and armed with free time, these students have been some of the most effective commissioners, he said.
Similar opportunities are sparse in New Haven. But this summer, Jared Milfred ’16 was nominated to the governing board of the New Haven Democracy Fund, the city’s public campaign finance program.
Milfred said Eidelson was copied on many of the official correspondences he had with the mayor’s office, and that he mentioned the appointment to her last semester. “But there wasn’t any substantive communication between her and me,” he said.
Michael Herbert ‘16 is three weeks into his term as president of the Yale College Council and has still not had a conversation with Eidelson, he said.
“I haven’t reached out to her, either,” he provided. “There’s nothing particularly pressing. I guess it’d be good to meet her.”
King, the council member in Elizabeth City, Tennessee, said he does have regular communication with the student body president, but still finds it difficult to engage with students now that he is no longer one of them.
As a senior having just been elected, he said, the entire campus knew him when he walked around. “It’s not the same anymore,” he said, adding that he isuncertain about whether he will run for a second term. If a current student comes forward, he would seriously consider stepping aside, he said.
Eidelson said simply being a student does not make campus engagement more effective as a rule.
“It’s important for the ward to be represented by someone who’s deeply invested both in the ward and in the city,” Eidelson said. “It really is about the individual.”
She declined to make a commitment about 2015, but offered this faint appraisal of her position: “I love what I’m doing. I really feel like New Haven has become my home. I don’t have plans to leave.”
Among upperclassmen, Eidelson fared better in name recognition. Five could identify their alder as Eidelson, but 11 could not.
“Are we really the ones that need helping in this city?” asked Michael Berry ‘17. He suggested that the Board of Alders’ time and resources should be allocated elsewhere instead.
Eidelson remains the Board’s chief voice for youth issues. She chairs the youth services committee, having attended four of its five meetings so far this year, and has continued efforts to expand funding for youth programming and the accessibility of existing resources.
Eidelson has also supported her colleague Jeanette Morrison, alder for Dixwell and four Yale residential colleges, in her crusade to reopen the long-shuttered Dixwell Community “Q” House.
Having secured a series of youth violence prevention grants, Eidelson and her colleagues are continuing to administer those funds through a competitive grant process to local organizations.
Eidelson said an extended tenure has allowed her to see these projects through.
“The projects I’ve invested in have been large in scale,” she said. “We’ve been able to make steady progress.”
Jason Bartlett, who heads the city’s Youth Services Department, praised Eidelson for focusing the Board’s attention on youth issues, which dovetail with his projects in the administration. He credited her in part for a “sea change in how we prioritize youth development in the city.”
Eidelson said she is careful to separate her aldermanic responsibilities from her day job, doing graphic design and communications work for Local 34, a union of clerical and technical workers at Yale that has backed the majority of sitting alders in past elections. She would not speak about union matters at office hours, which she said are held during her lunch hour for precisely this reason.
Because being an alder is a part-time job, she said, everyone needs to find other work. Ellison echoed that sentiment, saying Eidelson is fully dedicated to constituents’ interests — and praising her youth agenda.
Sean Barry, a 2009 Cal alumni running to unseat Hollingworth on the Berkeley City Council, said he does not envision making a career of the position, should he win. Part of the reason is that he would ultimately like to see a current student or more recent graduate take the reins, he said.
“The person representing the district is a conduit fo the student body to the rest of the city,” he said. “The concerns of the student population are not inherently different from the rest of the city, but because of the different life stage, the city is experienced differently.”
Whether Ward 1 is better-served by a current student or an alumni is a case-by-case question, Miller granted, but there is a fundamental difference: “One isn’t necessarily better, but they’re different.”
Eidelson’s predecessor is Mike Jones ’11, who is currently studying at the University of North Carolina School of Law.