MADISON, Conn. — Cradling campaign literature, plodding along a Connecticut back road and shaded by a canopy of trees on a hot afternoon toward the end of August, Alex Taubes LAW ’15 explained why he is soliciting votes here, in his hometown.
“I think of myself as running for office not as ‘Oh, I’m so great, I have to be the one who runs.’ It’s more like, ‘No one wants to run, so I might as well do it,’” he said.
At 25, with a boyish face set off by a mop of black hair with wisps of silver-gray, Taubes is putting his legal education on hold to run for state representative in the 101st Connecticut House District, which comprises this shoreline town and a portion of Durham.
Another Yalie, Ted Kennedy Jr. FES ’91, is running for state senate in an overlapping district.
Taubes is hoping to unseat Republican incumbent Noreen Kokoruda, who has held the seat since 2011. If he wins, he will take the spring of 2015 off from classes, finishing his course work next fall, when the legislature is out of session. For now, he is shuttling back and forth between classes in New Haven and the campaign trail in Madison.
He is living with his parents in the same house on Wickford Place where he grew up. Their home is a bona fide campaign headquarters, also host to Taubes’ little brother, the campaign manager and his girlfriend, whom Taubes met on the intercollegiate debate circuit.
A debater’s wit and keen eye for detail are evident in the way Taubes answers even mundane questions about the race. Being a state representative is not actually taking time off from legal training, he said. In fact, he would be writing laws.
He explained his motivation to seek office in the form of questions as open-ended as the ones he would have probed in courses at Boston University, where he studied political science and philosophy.
“If a state legislature runs a state, who runs a state legislature?” he mused on the sidewalk in between homes he was canvassing for supporters. The state’s public finance campaign system, which both he and his opponent are using, makes it possible for legislators to be independent-minded. But the contrast between him and Kokoruda, 67, runs deeper than party affiliation and age, he said.
A woman on Lovers Lane opened her door to Taubes to announce she was in the middle of making dip and could not talk for long. Before he could finish his pitch, the voter finished his sentence: “it’s time for a change.” She promised her support.
Taubes was born in Illinois, where his dad was in medical school, before his parents moved to Fairfield, Conn. They settled in Madison when Taubes was five or six years old.
He attended public schools here, where he sparked political debates at the lunch table.
“I always had to read up to try to beat him when he would start hammering issues, like ‘Hey Nick, what do you know about gun violence in America?’” said Nick Gonsalves, a friend helping with the campaign.
Gonsalves said he has known since high school that Taubes would go into politics. The candidate’s parents agreed. His mother, Bita Taubes, said her son was always “proud of being the geek and the nerd — others would do sports, he would do debate and quiz bowl.”
Taubes’ mother said he is a natural organizer and advocate, describing how he spent time in law school lobbying the dean to hire professors from more diverse backgrounds. As the co-chair of the clinical student board, Taubes said he asked the law school to weigh potential for community contribution more heavily in hiring decisions, he said.
As a student, Taubes was involved politically both on the municipal and state level. In January 2013, in the wake of the Newtown school shooting, he did legal research and lobbied on behalf of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. That summer, he participated in an economic development clinic in New Haven.
Last fall, Taubes staked out a position in the mayoral contest between then-state Sen. Toni Harp and Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10. He contributed to Harp’s campaign by advising her on debate tactics and giving her a sense of “how the media was covering her.”
“She did a bad job with the white, Yale segments of New Haven,” Taubes said. “But people in New Haven feel like that group of people has received all the attention. What we tried to tell her is that you don’t need to pander to students and Yale professors to win.”
Harp spoke to a truer cross-section of the city’s population, he said. Seeing that first-hand taught him that “you are where you’re from,” even though neither candidate was actually born in New Haven.
Taubes began attending Democratic Town Committee meetings in Madison at the end of last year. When no other Democrat came forward, he decided to run, declaring his candidacy in the early spring. It was the advice of a law school friend that convinced him: He was advised that, as a young person, he would have the opportunity to draw a contrast and offer new ideas. At the same time, the friend counseled that Taubes’ roots in Madison and his legal education give him credibility.
Taubes uses the example of New Haven in explaining the ideological differences between him and his opponent. Democrats and Republicans in the district have similar goals, he said: good schools, stable jobs and a sustainable shoreline and environment. “The difference is [Republicans] feel like the things they want are in conflict with what New Haven wants,” Taubes said, while he sees investments in New Haven’s economy as fruitful for the whole area.
As urban opportunities expand, people will go to work and live in New Haven before moving out to the suburbs, he said. But instead of seeking to stitch these communities together, politicians have fractured them, he said.
“The biggest criticism people give me is that I’m an idealist. I prefer to say I like to tell the truth,” Taubes said.
Kokoruda did not return multiple phone messages and emails requesting comment. Two Republican members of Madison’s Board of Selectmen, including First Selectman Fillmore McPherson, predicted her victory.
“Noreen is wildly popular, and the general tenor of this town is toward the conservative side anyway,” McPherson said.
Kokoruda’s Democratic predecessor, Deborah Heinrich, disagreed. In Madison, where unaffiliated voters outnumber party devotees, the candidate’s work ethic and expressed vision matter more than party affiliation.
If Taubes wins, she added, the lesson will be that the shoreline is growing increasingly party-blind.
“People have a different way of looking at candidates here,” she said. “They’re more interested in what the candidate has to say, and Alex has a unique way of talking about our community’s long-term interests, whether it’s in education, affordable housing or the environment.”
Apart from jobs and education, what Taubes emphasizes most in conversations is demographics — Madison’s accessibility to multiple generations and to diverse residents.
At a campaign party that evening, one guest put it this way: “God, this community is so white.”
Taubes countered, saying the town is more diverse than it seems. “The stereotype is 80 percent true, so we assume it’s 100 percent true,” he said.
Verna Lilburn, a party guest who moved to Madison from Manhattan, said the town is slow to change, averse to new ideas. Change is slow, Taubes said on the campaign trail, echoing that view. But that means change is systematic — and that sustained effort has added value.
Even if he loses, Taubes said, he will keep at it in some way, concluding, “few things happen the first time around in Madison.”