New Haven is in crisis. No, not a financial crisis: Those, their peril having vexed the city for years, have been mercifully dispelled. So too has crime, which has fallen steadily and remarkably from its 2011 highs. The crisis I describe is of a different sort. Its nature is political, its causes secular, and for five years its storm has slowly gathered. There is no leadership at the top of city government: Its most crucial departments are rudderless.
The fall of 2011 was when the Yale unions took over the Board of Alders, setting in motion a chain of events that has led to the current state of New Haven politics. There are empty chairs at the heads of the fire and police department. A successful school superintendent has been driven from the city for no real reason. In short, the city government increasingly looks run for the benefit of certain unelected constituencies rather than for the sake of civic health.
Government has begun to fall in upon itself, a late-democratic model of civil collapse. The old ideas have run their course. Interest groups rule, while the people find themselves pushed to the side, the popular front of social progress steadily marching on. The malaise cannot, surely, persist much longer: The three critical agencies of city government have been decapitated. It may not feel like a crisis, but it sure looks like one.
Does New Haven, then, contain the political space for a vibrant conservative movement with — perish the thought — a seat or two on the Board of Alders? (Each of the 30 alders is a Democrat.) At the moment, probably not, at least not for the Republican Party as an explicitly political organization devoted to the pursuit of political power. The Democrats’ stranglehold over practically every board in the city, fortified by a well-oiled and union-funded campaign machine, sees to that.
This is not to say that the pursuit of conservatism in the Elm City is some sort of Sisyphean odyssey. The political space may not exist for Republicans in New Haven, but the ideological space does. Indeed, inclinations toward conservatism of a certain kind have already taken root at the highest echelons of the city’s government: Mayor Toni Harp doesn’t hesitate in declaring her government a “fiscally conservative” one.
On good-government grounds, the Republicans may be able to make some inroads. The current Board of Alders is a notoriously self-obsessed, secretive and hierarchical organization, given to provoking long-running feuds with other branches of city government over the most minor of slights. The Yale unions dominate the board — union leadership coincides nicely with the alders’ — and the (largely accurate) perception certainly exists that decisions are made in clandestine meetings at the union headquarters on College Street, rather than the rightful Aldermanic Chambers.
The Republicans say they’d change that: Their newly released platform calls for all decision-making to occur in public, before the unrelenting eyes of the press, and for a mandatory public forum before all meetings. If enacted, or even if followed as a general principle, public decision-making could go a long way toward loosening the influence of backroom deals and aldermanic feuds that only impede the efficiency and conduct of city government.
The problem with the Republicans, though, is that they’re the Republicans. It’s not exactly a racially inclusive label right now in national parlance. New Haven’s upstarts are not quite the party of Trump, but they bear the same name — that alone will suffice to consign them to the electoral scrap heap in this diverse, Democratic city. Thus any progress they will make must come ideologically, not politically: through introducing new ideas into New Haven’s tired echo chamber of the same tried-and-failed strategies rather than winning seats on the Board of Alders.
The state Republican Party has made that same argument: They argue that, after six years of Democratic misrule in Hartford, only the Republicans have the ability to cut through the mess and legislate into existence the efficiency this state so badly needs. At the state level, this argument works; in New Haven, no amount of civic failure would raise passions enough to cast the Democrats out of office. The long battle for conservative ascendancy in Hartford is fought at the ballot box. In New Haven, not so much. Only through proposing a new syncretistic set of ideas will conservatives see their movement achieve even the smallest gains in New Haven.
Thankfully, this city’s Republicans have done just that. And your civic duty, I daresay, is to give their platform a charitable read. Whether they can guide New Haven out of this crisis, and to a better place, remains to be seen.
Noah Daponte-Smith is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .