I got to know John Daniels in 1983, shortly after the Census Bureau announced that New Haven had climbed into the top 10 of America’s poor cities. Apparently believing that any self-respecting mayor should surely do something about such a presentment, incumbent mayor Biagio DiLieto called for the establishment of a “Special Commission on Poverty” in New Haven. Based perhaps on my very modest accomplishments organizing youth soccer for New Haven kids of all races and income tiers, DiLieto asked me to head that group. Given what the city would be prepared to do about its poverty, even a more potent leadership choice would have made little difference.
John Daniels, then a state senator, was easily the most important member of DiLieto’s Commission. He had grown up in New Haven, graduated from Hillhouse High in 1955 and gone on to Villanova, where he starred in football long before blacks were entirely welcome inside mainstream college athletics. By 1983, back in town, John was a successful businessman, an acknowledged leader of black civic life in our city and a powerful figure in the Connecticut General Assembly. He was widely respected as a legislator, and as a reliably sane advocate on public policy. He knew vastly more about New Haven’s people than I did, and had a much firmer grasp of the constituencies we would need to address with our commission’s report. Senator Daniels, consultant Harry Wexler and now-mayor Toni Harp provided much of the substance attained in our work together.
John Daniels died just over a week ago at the age of 78.
Daniels was as decent a man as I have known in my first 75 years on earth. Indeed, he was a kinder and gentler man than New Haven politics of the late 20th century deserved. In 1989, when poverty, crime and the school system had gotten even worse than in 1983, Daniels assembled a rustic weekend retreat up near Litchfield. Should he run for mayor? Most of us thought “yes” in the expectation that he would likely lose to incumbent mayor DiLieto in 1989, but position himself to win an open-seat contest when DiLieto retired from office. Shortly after Daniels announced his candidacy, DiLieto dropped out. Knowing roughly how large a wave of unfunded expense awaited the next mayor, he graciously retired from office. Defeating a then-youthful John DeStefano Jr., Daniels won office and served two terms as mayor.
If Daniels was not a gifted executive, he was assuredly an admirable mayor. His enduring legacy to New Haven has three main parts. First, he brought community policing to our city. As of 1990, New Haven police work was still built on a military, us-against-them model. Women were largely excluded from the force on the basis of an “agility test” requiring candidates to press a hundred-pound weight. How often is it necessary to bench-press a suspect? As we now know, police who walk the streets, and who ally the law with each neighborhood’s citizenry, are vitally important. In Daniels’ time, Chief Nick Pastore got the program installed with some help from a young officer named Dean Esserman — now the chief and a stalwart of community policing. Second, Daniels and Yale President Benno Schmidt began a constructive dialogue about Yale’s increasingly important role as New Haven’s dominant employer. There were doubtless some errors on each side, but the two-decade dialogue later carried out by Rick Levin and Mayor DeStefano grew from the seeds left by Daniels and Schmidt. Finally, Daniels built a coalition reaching across race and class in New Haven — no easy task.
In an increasingly diverse city like New Haven, reaching across race, national origin and linguistic heritage and bridging the town-gown divide will be even more important than in Daniels’ time. Harp, and her counterpart in Woodbridge Hall, Peter Salovey, will benefit from all three parts of John Daniels’ legacy. So will the rest of us.
Douglas Rae is the Richard Ely professor of management and professor of political science. He served as the Chief Administrative Officer of New Haven under Mayor John Daniels in 1990 and 1991. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .