Dignitaries, community leaders, city officials and hundreds of New Haveners gathered in Battell Chapel Friday to mourn the passing and celebrate the life of John C. Daniels, New Haven’s first black mayor.
Daniels served as mayor for four years, from 1990 to 1994. He was a New Haven native, playing football at James Hillhouse High School in his youth and later working in the administrations of several mayors after graduating from Villanova University. In addition to serving as mayor, he was also a seven-term alderman for the Dwight, Westville and Newhallville neighborhoods and a five-term state senator from New Haven. He died just over a week ago at the age of 78.
In 1989, after the incumbent mayor Biagio DiLieto declined to run for a sixth term, Daniels won the election, defeating future Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in the Democratic primary. Daniels remained in office for two two-year terms before stepping down, paving the way for DeStefano’s 20 years in the position.
“From the Board of Aldermen to the State Senate, to the Mayor’s office, he was a trailblazer,” Gov. Dannel Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said in a statement. “He broke barriers and truly personified progress. Respected by leaders across Connecticut, he encapsulated what it means to serve the public.”
As per Daniels’s wishes, no politicians gave speeches at the service itself. Mayor Toni Harp, who served as an alderwoman from Dwight-Kensington during Daniels’s tenure and chaired one of the committees of Daniels’s 1989 election campaign, spoke at the viewing before the service. Harp described the late mayor as “an exemplary and great citizen and friend, who devoted himself to improving the lives of others.”
Daniels’s son and daughter both delivered remarks during the service, followed by a eulogy from Rev. John Henry Scott III. Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 and DeStefano attended the funeral but did not speak.
“If there’s anything we can take away from my father’s legacy — and I know it is hard to sum an entire life into a few words — I would say that he had a vested interest in his community,” said John Key Daniels, the late mayor’s son. “He lived and breathed New Haven. He never wanted to live anywhere else but right here in New Haven.”
Indeed, Daniels’s life was marked by extensive involvement in his community, both before and after his terms as mayor — whether as a senior deacon at the Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ, a public schoolteacher in the New Haven area, or a referee for high school and college football games.
Daniels governed a New Haven rife with hardship. During his tenure, violent crime posed serious problems, the homeless population was larger than ever and the city’s finances looked bleak. A crippling recession nationwide coincided with the beginning of his term, and inevitable property tax increases attracted substantial criticism.
But even in the face of such difficulties, Daniels ushered in significant progress in several areas.
As Harp noted in her remarks, New Haven owes community policing to Daniels. Through the hiring of New Haven Police Chief Nicholas Pastore during Daniels’s first term in office, the late mayor introduced community policing to the city, tactics still used by the NHPD under current Chief Dean Esserman.
And in the early 1990s, as AIDS became a national issue, Daniels pioneered tactics to combat the spread of the disease in New Haven. He instituted a needle exchange program in the city, which proved unpopular at the time but drastically reduced the risk of intravenous drug users’ contracting the virus.
“[Daniels] was a doer, standing for love, justice, mercy and faith,” Scott said in his eulogy. “Mayor Daniels was blessed and used his blessings to bless others. He didn’t want anything from anybody — he was a public servant.”
In recognition of Daniels’s service to New Haven, the city named a public school in his honor, the John C. Daniels Interdistrict Magnet School of International Communication, which provides dual-language immersion programs in English and Spanish.