Just one week before the Democratic primary for Ward 1 alder, the campaign turned negative.
In a crowded Davies Auditorium last night, the two candidates — Fish Stark ’17 and Sarah Eidelson ’12 — met in their first and only public debate before next Wednesday’s primary. The debate represented a marked shift in tone for the Stark campaign. Previously, his campaign’s rhetoric had been positive and focused on his own policy proposals for change in New Haven. But over the course of the debate, he launched multiple attacks on Eidelson’s record as alder, criticizing her for an alleged lack of involvement on campus. Eidelson responded by saying she was proud of the way she had handled her dual commitments in City Hall and to her Yale constituents.
“No one can argue that I haven’t put the time and the legwork in the role, but I think the criticism is about where I have spent my time,” she said near the end of the debate. “I’m proud of the way that we’ve struck that balance [between City Hall and Yale].”
Stark’s criticisms of Eidelson’s performance as alder were simple: He said she has not had a strong enough presence on the Yale campus. In his view, the Ward 1 alder should serve a two-fold role as an organizer of students on campus and a representative for progressive interests on the Board of Alders; he accused Eidelson of having failed in the first of these roles.
Throughout the debate, Stark cited surveys published in the News over the last year that have shown that few students on campus know Eidelson is their alder. In one such survey published last spring, after Eidelson had announced her re-election campaign, only four of 37 students in Ward 1 could identify Eidelson as their alder.
One audience member asked both candidates whether they would pledge to support the winner of the primary in the general election against Republican Ugonna Eze ’16. Stark reiterated his pledge to support the nominee, a pledge he first made when he launched his campaign in March. He said his desire to see a progressive on the Board of Alders outweighs his own desire to serve as alder.
Eidelson, meanwhile, has already filed to run in the general election as an independent if she loses to Stark on Wednesday. Her refusal to commit to supporting the Democratic nominee leaves the door open to a three-way race that Stark says has the capacity to split the Democratic vote and lead a victory for Eze.
Asserting that Ward 1 traditionally has a November election, uncommon in the rest of New Haven where the Democratic primary typically determines the result, she said voters — especially freshmen — should have the benefit of nearly two extra months to decide their views. She said it was “unfair” to expect students to be informed voters by mid-September.
“I have always thought that this election should just be in November, because I think that is the way that we enfranchise the maximum number of students,” she said.
One of the debate’s more heated moments came in response to a question asking whether Ward 1 should exist as a political entity. Stark said it should, but he also said the Ward 1 alder should not take up leadership positions on the Board of Alders, which include president, majority leader and third officer.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the Ward 1 alder to serve on leadership in the Board of Alders,” he said. Those positions are for New Haveners serving New Haven neighborhoods.”
Eidelson, who was recently unanimously elected as Third Officer on the Board of Alders, pushed back against Stark’s comment.
“I’m a New Haven resident, and I have been for seven years,” she said to applause around the auditorium. She added that her leadership position on the board was a further example of her commitment to service in the city.
Both candidates were asked policy questions concerning police brutality, youth services, student activism and campaign financing. Eidelson and Stark held the same views on nearly every issue, from agreeing that the city’s Civilian Review Board should be strengthened to hold police officers accountable to bolstering youth services.
Both also supported Fossil Free Yale’s efforts to push Yale to divest from fossil fuels. Stark added that, if elected, he would push for New Haven to divest from fossil fuels as well.
“I don’t think there is any kind of substantive policy difference between the two of us,” Stark said. “The difference is: What are you going to do as Ward 1 alder?”
Eidelson agreed, saying the differences between her and Stark were primarily ones of approach to the role, not of policy.
In their opening statements, both Eidelson and Stark emphasized the time they have spent in New Haven. Eidelson talked about her experience canvassing for the Community Voter Project across the city; she said observing the community reaction to a shooting in Dixwell sparked her drive for civic involvement. Stark said he was inspired to run for public office in New Haven after interacting with community leaders while canvassing — only weeks after he arrived at Yale — for Mayor Toni Harp’s 2013 opponent, Justin Elicker SOM ’10 FES ’10.
Both Eidelson and Stark brought their bases of support to the debate. Among Eidelson’s supporters were alders Brian Wingate, Tyisha Walker, Frank Douglass Jr. and Dolores Colon ’91, along with a strong student contingent clad in bright yellow Eidelson shirts.
For Colon, Fish’s performance in the debate was unconvincing. She said Eidelson heavily engaged students in the effort to reform the Civilian Review Board and criticized Stark for his lack of involvements.
“I don’t remember seeing Mr. Stark until this year,” she said. “But he has been saying that, for the past four years, ‘We have done this, we have done that.’ What does he mean by that?”
Stark had his own representatives in the audience, many of them members of the Yale College Democrats. But his supporters also included Alders Darryl Brackeen, Jr. Delilah Quezada-Coello and Caroline Ricardo. Two New Haven Public Schools students and former candidates for student representatives on the Board of Education who have been canvassing for Stark were also there in support.
In addition to the Ward 1 race, seven other aldermanic primaries will take place on Sept. 16.