Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81, New Haven economic development administrator, urged the Yale Democrats to pursue a career in local government at a small talk Monday in the Branford College common room.
Nemerson remarked that he has been interested in government and politics since elementary school, when he campaigned for former New York Sen. Robert Kennedy and former Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso. In the 1990s, Nemerson served as the president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce and was the president and CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council before Mayor Toni Harp named him to his current position in 2013. Nemerson said the city needs bright young people to help solve the complex economic problems that modern cities face. He said that in addition to adding value to the operations of a city, working in local government can be personally rewarding.
“There are lots of fascinating jobs out there,” said Nemerson, who has lived and worked in the New Haven area for most of his life. “But when you’re actually working for your hometown, there’s nothing like it because if you do a good job, you feel really good about it.”
Nemerson emphasized the diversity of tasks he faces each day, from meeting with the mayor to courting potential city developers. He noted that he also has to address staff issues as part of his role. He gave the example of balancing the need to fire a government worker who is unproductive with the importance of respecting union demands.
Nemerson did not hesitate to acknowledge the difficulties city government officials face, such as federal and state restrictions on spending and demanding local citizens. Nemerson noted that he and his colleagues are often placed under close scrutiny by the New Haven Board of Alders and reporters who are eager to hold them to account.
“We have to deal with this very real world,” Nemerson said. “There’s no magic. It has to actually work … In government, there’s very little room to make an error.”
But in federal government work, Nemerson said, there is much greater room for error. While the federal government deals with more abstract aspects of government — such as tax and marriage laws — local government has to manage important yet unglamorous aspects of day-to-day life in a city.
Directing building permits, maintaining a law enforcement system and keeping the streets clean are these are the key roles of city government, Nemerson said.
“It’s clear that the federal government is broken; we can’t afford to be broken,” Nemerson said. “[City government officials] have to get up every morning and have to run a place where people actually want to live.”
Nemerson said most of the work he has recently done involves real estate development, including the construction of several luxury apartments and affordable housing. But Nemerson said Harp has asked him to focus more on improving New Haven’s economy by attracting companies to the Elm City that will “grow here and hire people.” Just last month, Alexion — a pharmaceutical company specializing in treating rare disorders — relocated to 100 College St., bringing 1,200 employees with it.
Nemerson said the city particularly aims to attract manufacturing companies that will offer a plentiful supply of jobs to local residents. Nemerson acknowledged the increasing difficulty of this task given the large number of companies leaving the Northeast to relocate to less expensive locations in the South and abroad.
Nemerson emphasized the obligation of the current generation of college students to address these problems.
“We need great people in government, and we need people who can wrestle with these issues,” Nemerson said. “These are complicated issues, and they’re only going to become more complicated.”
Nicholas Girard ’19 said the talk gave them a new perspective on local government.
Michelle Peng ’19 said she found the opportunity to learn more about New Haven government’s operations particularly compelling.
“I thought it was a really interesting look into local New Haven government,” she said. “It’s not a perspective that we see a lot as Yale students.”
Recently completed development projects by the city of New Haven include the Quinnipiac Terrace Revitalization, the William T. Rowe Residences Redevelopment and Science Park, Tract A.
Correction, Tue. Feb. 23: A previous version of this story misstated the number of employees Alexion has brought to New Haven.