As candidates running for Ward 1 alder start to roll out their agendas in anticipation of the municipal election in seven months, campaigns will spur discussions on campus and around New Haven about how Yale students should engage with city government. But students and city residents alike remain conflicted on whether or not a student voice should exist in city government and, if so, what the role of that representative should be.
On a late afternoon at the end of March, as sunlight filtered across Old Campus, Fish Stark ’17 stood behind a podium in the Dwight Hall common room.
The room, framed by Gothic columns, was mostly empty, occupied only by about a dozen members of Stark’s campaign team. Stark had declared his candidacy for Ward 1 alder earlier that month. His opponent will be incumbent alder Sarah Eidelson ’12, who is vying for a third term. To give freshmen, who will arrive on campus in August, a chance to learn about both candidates, they have agreed to run as Independents in the November election.
The composition of Stark’s team was mostly freshmen, nearly all of them members of the Yale College Democrats. The Annapolis, Maryland native had met most of them at the beginning of the fall semester, when he served as the organization’s membership coordinator.
As the campaign launch began, students trickled into Dwight Hall. Many, though by no means all of them, were freshmen. Stark circled the room, introducing himself to unknown faces and greeting old ones. Former mayoral candidate Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 — for whom Stark canvassed in 2013 — made an appearance.
When Stark took the podium, his speech was general; he spoke not so much of specific policy proposals, which he promised would come later in the campaign, but of his vision for the position.
“We need an alder who is committed to working every day to bring Yale students off the sidelines and into our New Haven community,” Stark said.
But Stark’s campaign speech bore resemblance to those of his predecessors — former Ward 1 alders who have garnered criticism from students for failing to deliver on campaign promises to foster meaningful town-gown collaboration.
Stark is the most recent student to file papers in hopes of becoming Yale’s undergraduate representative at City Hall. The current Board of Alders does include one graduate student representative, Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, who serves the Wooster Square neighborhood and was elected in 2013. But only the Ward 1 constituency is overwhelmingly student-based.
Ward 1 — often dubbed “the Yale ward,” one of 30 represented on the city’s legislative body, the Board of Alders — encompasses Old Campus and eight of the 12 residential colleges. While Ward 22, represented by Alder Jeanette Morrison, houses the remaining four residential colleges, its constituency splits half and half between Yale students and Dixwell residents. This seat has historically not been filled by a student.
Yale students living in Ward 1 have elected a fellow student or recent alum to represent them on the city’s Board of Alders for at least the last 16 years. During these next seven months leading up to the municipal election, Stark, Eidelson and perhaps others will engage Yale’s campus in discussion on policy initiatives and, most notably, how students should involve themselves in the New Haven community.
“There are some perceptions in the city that Yale students tend to be transient, dropping in and out,” Eidelson said. “But once students build a trust, there’s a lot of openness to collaboration in the city.”
This trust, according to Eidelson, is a commitment from students to stay in the city and follow up on community service projects begun as undergraduates.
But are the needs of New Haven — a city reliant on its legislators to attack high crime rates, unemployment and high dropout rates — beyond the capacity of a University student?
AN AGE-BASED CONSTITUENCY
The 30 local lawmakers on the Board serve a population of 130,660 residents — according to a 2013 Census Bureau estimate. The city with the next highest number of alders, Bridgeport, only has 20 members who serve 10 districts, despite being the most populous city in the state with 147,216 residents.
Because of the size of the New Haven’s legislative body, Vice President of the Yale College Democrats Jacob Wasserman ’16 said, the Board of Alders is actually more accessible to city residents: Each alder represents a small constituency of only about 4,000 voters.
“It’s really hyper-local government,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman serves as a co-chair for the 47-member Ward 1 committee within New Haven’s Democratic Town Committee, the municipal equivalent of the Democratic National Committee. Together with Sarah Giovanniello ’16, the other co-chair, Wasserman is responsible for engaging Ward 1 residents in the political process, from the local to the national level.
The size and structure of Ward 1 make its representative unique, Stark said. Close to 80 percent of Ward 1 residents are students living on Old Campus or in a residential college, and many of the remaining 20 percent of ward residents are Yale students living off campus.
“It’s kind of cool that Ward 1 is always an age-based constituency,” Wasserman said. “The alder represents the interests of young people.”
But the Yale alder does not often represent these interests for extended periods of time.
Since 2001, the Yale seat has been filled by five different alders — a turnover rate that is among the highest on the Board of Alders. And, of the five alders that have served, three did not seek re-election.
Eidelson announced in late March that she will seek a third term — a step that no former Ward 1 alders has taken in at least 16 years. With this move, the incumbent would challenge perceptions — on campus and in the city — that the Ward 1 alder is a city official in transition, leaving the ward and the Board after their commencement.
With two terms under her belt, Eidelson is as seasoned an alder as West River representative Tyisha Walker — the Board of Alders’ president-to-be.
“[That experience] is not something to be tossed aside or taken lightly,” Giovanniello said. “It’s made her a more connected alder and leader of the city.”
But whether her experience alone is a reason to vote for Eidelson, or whether students should weigh other qualifications in determining the best fit for the ward, remains hotly contested.
Stark noted that, while the other 29 alders must address the daily concerns of their constituents, including potholes or illegal dumping, the Ward 1 alder serves a Yale campus well maintained by the University. As a result, the Ward 1 alder fields fewer day-to-day requests from constituents, former Ward 1 alder Mike Jones ’11 said. The absence of these requests, he added, allows the Yale alder to spend time on long-term projects that they believe will best impact the city.
But each alder has a distinct vision for what this impact should look like.
A UNIQUE PLATFORM?
Without day-to-day maintenance tasks draining time and energy, Jones said, one of the privileges unique to the Yale alder is the opportunity to look back at the work of predecessors and push for further progress on unfinished initiatives. But the majority of Ward 1 alders have started anew at the beginning of their terms, repeatedly refocusing on issues of personal interest.
Eidelson, for example, chairs the aldermanic youth services committee. During her tenure, she has spearheaded two key initiatives: the city’s acquisition of state youth violence prevention grants and the launch of the New Haven Youth Map, an online tool designed to connect city youth to affordable after-school and summer programs.
Eidelson said her extracurricular involvements at Yale spurred her investment in youth issues in New Haven. As a freshman, she participated in the Early Childhood Education Fellowship through Dwight Hall, a program that places Yale students as assistants in local day care centers. Stark plans to make use of the same fellowship this coming summer.
Her experience as a fellow, Eidelson said, made New Haven her home and inspired her to run for alder.
Although both Eidelson and Stark have shown interest in pursuing policies related to city youth services, past Ward 1 alders have chosen to focus on a host of other issues. Jones, Eidelson’s predecessor, said his interest in policy reform drew him to the aldermanic legislative committee.
“I found [the legislative committee] to be a pretty advantageous place to be,” Jones said.
Jones, who served one term as alder from 2009 to 2011, said his principal project on the Board was proposing legislation to raise the city’s living wage.
And he graduated in the middle of his term, said he chose not to run for a second term because he wanted to focus his energy on searching for a job. This decision is not uncommon. Of the past five alders, Eidelson is only the second to stay on the board for more than a year after graduation. Nick Shalek ’05, a former Ward 1 alder, was elected in the fall after his commencement and served one term.
“People assumed initially that I would be like other Ward 1 alders,” Eidelson said. “It took some time for people to understand that I was really very seriously invested in New Haven.”
Several alders pointed to Eidelson’s service in the youth services committee as evidence of her personal investment in New Haven. But she has spent less time on a second part of her campaign agenda, a commitment to encouraging student engagement in the city. In fact, in 2013, after two years with Eidelson in office, student participation in the municipal election plummeted almost 20 percent from 2011.
THE ACTIVISM DISCONNECT
This year, Yale students organized against wage theft, racial profiling and police brutality in New Haven. But none of these activists identified the Ward 1 alder as a resource to bring about specific policy changes in the city. Only members of the Dems, who worked closely with Eidelson during her 2013 aldermanic campaign but are not endorsing a candidate this year, reached out to her as a partner in pushing legislative reform in municipal and state government.
“I see [Ward 1] as a vehicle for taking all the energy on campus and focusing it towards New Haven,” Wasserman added.
Wasserman highlighted his work with Eidelson to build relationships with New Haven officials in order to bring student concerns to the city Democratic party and the Board of Alders. He cited a resolution to endorse the National Popular Vote — a bill that would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most votes — drafted by members of the Dems and passed unanimously by the alders in 2013. After it was passed, the resolution was sent to state legislators.
But Hedy Gutfreund ’18, communications director for the Dems, said this sort of collaboration between the Dems and the Ward 1 alder is atypical.
“The bill was stalled, and reaching out to the Board of Alders was an attempt to move it forward,” she said. “There wasn’t any special desire to work specifically with the Board of Alders. ”
Ava Tomasula y Garcia ’17, former publicity chair for MEChA de Yale, a coalition of Latino students invested in social justice, took part in student protests against wage theft at Gourmet Heaven. She said that while student activists in MEChA worked with several local nonprofit groups, including Unidad Latina en Accion, they did not contact Eidelson or Morrison for guidance during the protests.
“Establishing links between campus and city activists and those holding office in New Haven [can always] help,” Tomasula y Garcia said.
Tomasula y Garcia added that a central goal of MEChA’s activism against wage theft is advocating for state Senate Bill 914 — an act that, if passed, would allow victims of wage theft to recover twice the initially denied pay — and Bill 106, which protects immigrant workers from employer retaliation. MEChA, however, has not pursued any policy reform at the municipal level.
In February 2014, while MEChA activists rallied for justice on Broadway, the alders were cloistered within City Hall, engaging in a collaborative effort between the New Haven Police Department and the Connecticut Department of Labor to arraign Gourmet Heaven owner Chung Cho. Alders and students shared a vision of fair labor standards, but activism at City Hall was disconnected from activism on city streets.
Alexandra Barlowe ’17, social justice chair of the Black Students Alliance at Yale, took part in several student-organized demonstrations against police brutality following a jury’s decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Barlowe said that, while she and fellow students pursued municipal policy reform , they never contacted Eidelson or any other alders for support.
Stark said this is a missed opportunity. Eidelson said that the majority of her ideas as alder have been conceived during discussions with students. But these conversations tend to take place only when students reach out to Eidelson.
The recently passed city bill to place student representatives on the Board of Education, according to Eidelson, represents another example of collaboration with constituents. Eidelson said she began speaking to members of the Dems who had served as Board of Education representatives in their hometowns and were eager to see a similar initiative in New Haven. The Alders passed legislation allowing two elected student representatives in March and the first elections will occur in June.
That is what makes Ward 1 unique, according to Mayor Toni Harp. She said that, because Yale students hail from a range of cities, states and, indeed, countries, they can offer fresh points of view to deepen debates around significant urban issues.
“Sure, some of what we do day-to-day is potholes and snow,” Harp said. “But we also have to think critically about policy. Oftentimes students bring refreshing perspectives to those debates based on what they’re learning or how things are done in their hometowns.”
POTENTIAL PARTNERS OUTSIDE WARD 1
In the absence of collaboration with the Ward 1 alder, some Yale students have found alternative means of engaging with city government.
For Jared Milfred ’16, an opportunity came in the form of the Democracy Fund, the city’s public campaign financing program. The fund finances campaigns by matching low-dollar donations and offering grants to candidates.
But Milfred said he had “next-to-no contact” with Eidelson during his confirmation process as chair of the fund.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be involved with New Haven government,” Milfred said. “It’s been enormously rewarding, but I do wish more students were involved. The position of the Ward 1 alder is an important one in making sure Yale students have a role in the city.”
Student demonstrations around the same issues that are debated at City Hall prove that collaboration opportunities between students and city officials exist, and many who were interviewed expressed eagerness to partake. But many question whether the Ward 1 alder should be responsible for fostering this collaboration.
The Ward 1 alder’s primary responsibility is to the city, Giovanniello said. She added that the bulk of the alder’s work is at City Hall — out of constituents’ view. Giovanniello specifically cited Eidelson’s youth projects, such as the New Haven Youth Map, as initiatives that indirectly benefit Ward 1 residents.
If the Ward 1 alder’s work touches constituents indirectly, then Yale students seeking more direct avenues to engage with New Haven may find a home at Dwight Hall.
Johnny Scafidi ’01, director of development and alumni relations at Dwight Hall, said Dwight Hall has long served as a link between Yale students and the city.
Program Director Mark Fopeano added that, in his experience leading fellowship programs through Dwight Hall, he has found Yale students to be tremendously engaged as thoughtful citizens. Students are often inspired to care about the city by community activists they work with through Dwight Hall’s service programs, Fopeano said.
But even though both Dwight Hall representatives and Ward 1 alders tout similar visions of encouraging student engagement, currently Dwight Hall does not collaborate with the Ward 1 alder to organize its service work in New Haven, according to Fopeano.
Harp said this activism in the city could be strengthened if students and city officials join together.
“One would hope that student alders would bring some of the debate that’s happening on campus to City Hall,” Harp said.
LOOKING OUTSIDE OF YALE
Few other universities in the country have districts almost entirely composed of students, like New Haven’s Ward 1. New Haven is the only city home to an Ivy League university that has a student serving on its legislative body. In 2013, Logan Leslie, a Harvard junior, ran to be the first-ever university student to serve on the Cambridge City Council, coming in fourth place at the polls.
Even at institutions where districts akin to Ward 1 exist, the elected council rarely features a student voice.
Berkeley, California is one such example. Home to the University of California at Berkeley, this city across the bay from San Francisco has one council seat that serves mostly student constituents. With a total population of 116,768, according to a 2013 Census Bureau estimate, Berkeley has about 14,000 fewer residents than in New Haven, but UC Berkeley’s population is close to three times that of Yale. In Berkeley, students represent over 30 percent of the city population, while Yale students, who occupy a ward and a half, represent less than 10 percent of New Haven.
Councilman Kriss Worthington has served the student district in Berkeley, District 7, since 1996. The District 7 spot has only once been filled by a student. Nancy Skinner held the seat from 1984 to 1992 while she was a student at UC Berkeley. But Assistant to Berkeley City Manager Matthai Chakko added that recent redistricting has included even more student constituents in District 7, which may impact future city council elections.
Justin Murphy, a sophomore at UC Berkeley, said that, while he participated in the election this past November, the majority of his peers did not cast votes. Only close to 10 percent of constituents in the seventh district voted in the election. Voter turnout in Ward 1 was more than double that in Berkeley. Together, Eidelson and Chandler — the 2013 candidates for alder — drew 798 votes, which represents close to 20 percent of registered Ward 1 voters.
Students may not seize the chance to elect a peer representative in Berkeley, but in College Park, Maryland, home to the University of Maryland, students do not have much of a vote at all.
The student presence in College Park is even more pronounced than in Berkeley, with the student body comprising more than half of the town’s population. Still, Cole Holocker, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, is the only student voice on the town’s council.
As student liaison, Holocker serves the city council in an advisory role and is not given a vote in issues. While the Yale alder is chosen by popular vote, in College Park, student liaisons are appointed to the city council by council members themselves. The only student input in the appointment process is a final approval of the chosen candidate by the university’s Student Government Association.
Though many colleges push for a student voice in legislative action in the area surrounding campus, students in some towns have found other avenues to partake in municipal affairs. Amherst College, for example, recently pushed to put a student representative on the local Chamber of Commerce.
However, Claire Carpenter, a sophomore at Amherst, said the initiative was not publicized.
“If there is a representative on the Chamber of Commerce, Amherst students do not know about it,” Carpenter said.
NECESSARY, DESERVING OR NEITHER?
Yale’s campus presents a similar picture when it comes to knowledge of student representation in the city. Of 50 students interviewed, 37 were Ward 1 residents, while 11 lived in Ward 22 and two in Ward 2. But, of those 37 in Ward 1, only four could identify Eidelson as their alder.
Still, Morrison said she believes that Yale students should have a voice on the Board of Alders.
“Yale is such a big part of New Haven,” she said. “It’s very, very important that students have a vote.”
The opportunity to elect a peer to the Board of Alders is a privilege students should value, added Vincent Mauro, chair of the town Democratic committee.
“It’s someone you can hold accountable,” he said. “You can grab a coffee with them and say, ‘Hey, here’s what I’d like to see.’”
Eidelson’s office hour, which she holds from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Friday mornings at Blue State on Wall Street, is a chance for constituents to grab the coffee Mauro suggests. But when Eidelson changed the time of her office hour fromThursday evenings to Friday mornings, she notified Yale students solely through her Facebook page — which has only 307 followers.
But beyond accountability, an effective alder, Giovanniello said, must have a strong knowledge both of activism on campus and of resources for activists at City Hall.
The best way for the Ward 1 alder to be visible on campus is to be a student and live there, said Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, former Ward 1 alder. He added that common sense, a willingness to listen to and analyze constituents’ concerns and a passion for the public good are also all essential qualities for the position.
“The further you are from being an enrolled and resident student, the less ability you have to engage meaningfully with this ward’s constituents,” he said.
Ben Healey ’04, another former Ward 1 alder, added that the Ward 1 representative has the power to mobilize Yale students who might not have otherwise been engaged in New Haven.
“The main thing is to communicate to the students that the good of New Haven is also good for Yalies,” Healey said.
The role of communicator, however, is a balancing act, according to Wasserman.
“You’re not going to be the YCC president, and you’re not going to be the mayor of New Haven,” he said.
The Ward 1 alder does represent the student voice, he added, but the job does not include pushing on-campus initiatives, such as reforms to sexual misconduct or withdrawal policy.
Yale’s campus is self-contained, said Mark Abraham ’04, director of Data Haven, a nonprofit organization committed to improving quality in life in New Haven by using public data to inform decision making.
The problem, Giovanniello added, is that many students do not exercise their right to vote. She added that students are to blame for their own apathy.
“It’s really our business and kind of our prerogative to make use of Ward 1,” Giovanniello said. “Student engagement in the city is an incredible opportunity that should not be wasted.”
Just as student voters have this chance to elect an accountable representative, candidates running for alder have the opportunity to take a student lens to policy issues within the city’s government.
“What’s wonderful about New Haven city government — and the city broadly — is that folks are willing to embrace Yale students who prove that they’re not just in it for the resume,” Healey said. “If students show that openness, the city is open to them in return.”