Two years ago, first-year move-in day had an added layer of chaos. Campus teemed with the usual flurry of parents carrying Ikea furniture into imposing neo-Gothic dorms and students coated in grime from pre-orientation hiking trips, but it was also a political battleground: The race for the Democratic primary for Ward 1 alder, the representative for more than half of Yale’s undergraduates, was underway. Both the Fish Stark ’17 team, decked out in blue, and the Sarah Eidelson ’12 team, wearing her signature yellow, set up tables to register students to vote. The winner would join New Haven’s 30-person Board of Alders, which passes legislation and approves the city budget.
In the frantic two weeks between move-in day and the primary vote, the campaigns had descended on campus in such a furor that one student suggested in the Facebook group “Yale Ideas” that a do-not-call list be created so that students could opt out of incessant phone calls from campaign volunteers. Other students made do-not-knock signs for their dorms.
But this year — an election year — move-in day was uneventful. The race for Ward 1 alder is uncontested for the first time in a decade. This past summer, deadline after deadline passed for candidates to file with the town clerk, but only one did. Finally, in late October, the deadline for write-in candidates passed. No registrations.
That locked in the win for Haci Catalbasoglu ’19 come Nov. 7. A New Haven local. Son of Turkish immigrants. Political science major. William F. Buckley, Jr. Fellow. Former member of the heavyweight crew team. Brother of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Catalbasoglu seems to have stepped onto the political scene at the perfect moment, a time when politicians don’t need to run on policy to win. His slick campaign video emphasizes his authentic connection to the city — though for high school he attended a private boarding academy an hour and a half away from New Haven — and the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ethos of his family, which owns a beloved local pizzeria. His campaign slogan is even “I <3 New Haven.” But some wonder: Is his background enough?
Catalbasoglu started mulling over a run for alder during the spring of his first year. He mentioned the idea to two of his suitemates during one of their many late night talks in their common room.
“You don’t know how serious some things people say are,” said Cameron Koffman ’19, who lived in the bedroom next to Catalbasoglu. “But he talked about it and about the types of things he could do, and then he actually started doing it.”
Last winter, Catalbasoglu reached out to Yale politicos to form the core of his campaign team. They then asked Koffman, who hosts a political radio show on Yale’s radio station, to be their policy director.
“Haci was going to try to get policy experience concretely in that eight-month period before the election,” Koffman said. His role was to teach Catalbasoglu about the important issues in New Haven. “I don’t have much experience with New Haven homelessness. I’m from New York City. But I did learn a lot through my research, and I passed that on to Haci.”
Koffman’s first task was to prepare a multipage memo for Catalbasoglu about mechanisms at the local, state and federal levels to address homelessness, because, as the campaign has frequently mentioned, Catalbasoglu was appointed last spring to New Haven’s Homelessness Advisory Commission, which recommends policies to the mayor. Catalbasoglu said he was motivated to seek an appointment to the commission because “at that time and place that was probably one of the most effective ways for me” to help the people of New Haven.
The memo was the only project Koffman worked on for the campaign. He did not draft any policies before he quit after a month as policy director, citing the time commitment and the already robust and competent campaign team.
Catalbasoglu’s former crew teammate Cole Tilden ’18 rattled off the campaign’s pillars — education, immigration and small business — easily when I spoke to him. When I commented on how well he knew the campaign’s issues, he shrugged.
“It’s easy to remember his pillars,” he replied, reclining on a couch in the off-campus house where some members of the heavyweight crew team live. “They’re central to him as a human being.”
Catalbasoglu never competed on the crew team, but Tilden was impressed by his attitude.
“In the dead of winter, when it’s not pretty out, and it’s cold, and you’re like ‘fuck this,’ it’s really great to have someone hootin’ and hollerin’ and yelling ‘c’mon boys!’”
“Haci is just a really good guy,” Tilden added.
By all accounts, Catalbasoglu is the kind of guy you’d want to get a beer with. That is, if he were over 21, which he won’t be for more than a year. What seems to strike the people who know him is what a really good guy he is. But does that mean he’ll be a really good politician? Don’t politicians need policy?
Jeanette Morrison, the Ward 22 alder who represents the rest of Yale’s residential colleges, told me that values correspond to policy: “When you think of seniors or safety, people know how I’m going to vote.”
When New Haven voters head to the polls this November, residents in 25 out of the 30 wards will not have a choice. Only five alder races are contested in this general election. One of the uncontested candidates, Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94, is running to regain her alder seat in Ward 7. When she canvasses, she tries to convey her responsiveness and accessibility. She sees two sides to the alder’s role. The first is concerned with constituents’ everyday problems, such as speeding cars, stolen packages and garbage pick-up. The other is concerned with policy.
Roth is not campaigning on a specific policy agenda, but she does have priorities, including the dysfunction of the New Haven Board of Education and the state of the New Haven Green and the Civilian Review Board, among others.
For her, a good alder doesn’t need extensive political experience, only to be curious and caring.
“No one would be expected to know, until they’re in the role, exactly how it plays out.”
When Stark ran for alder, his campaign released pages of single-spaced, detailed proposals for each of his 10 issues. The campaign even promoted these documents, posting a new one each day during the week and a half leading up to first-year move-in. In a Facebook group with the members of the class of 2019, Catalbasoglu, who was one of Stark’s freshman organizers, posted a graphic with the title “10 days until move-in, 10 visions for New Haven.” Stark, the son of a congressman, who ran a by-the-book political campaign, would seem like an unlikely supporter of a candidate without concrete policy proposals. But he’s served as a mentor to Catalbasoglu and an adviser to the team.
“There’s this thing in Yale where people want to play policy jeopardy,” he said. “Frankly, it’s kind of annoying and classist to negate everything he knew about the city from living here, working here, going to schools here, by playing policy trivial pursuit.”
What about Stark’s own intense focus on policy when he ran two years ago?
“I made it a priority because Yalies expect it. Yalies expect the bullet pointed list. No other alder campaign in the city does that. What most people do in New Haven is they say these are my principles and values I’ll have making decisions.”
Stark said he helped Catalbasoglu navigate the Yale political scene, “a world that is foreign if you didn’t go to Andover or Exeter or didn’t go through the Yale [College Democrats].”
Esul Burton ’20, the campus and community coordinator of the Yale College Democrats, was the campaign’s first press secretary before, like Koffman, she quit after a month. She anticipated the time commitment would increase as the election drew closer. Though she thought Catalbasoglu was a good candidate because he has a stake in what happens to the city, she had reservations about the team’s approach to policy.
“I personally felt a little concerned that there was no consistent policy or principled messaging in terms of what Haci would do once he became an alder,” she said. “That was one of my concerns because, after this huge structure dissipates, would there be any sustainable platform that he could use once he became alder?”
She was not the only executive board member of the Yale College Democrats to quit the campaign. The Dems’ legislative coordinator, Makayla Haussler ’19, served as the chairwoman and treasurer before she abruptly quit in late September. In an email explaining her decision she wrote that “Since Haci has no opponent, my role on the campaign was no longer essential.”
When I met with Yale College Democrats President Josh Hochman ’18, he wore a collared shirt, held a coffee and seemed prepared to give a statement.
One of the two factors that can qualify someone for office is that constituents trust the candidate to represent their interests, he said. “The second is that they need to have a grasp of solutions to challenges that constituents face. They need to have a strong grasp of policy.”
Concerns about Catalbasoglu’s leadership ability, in addition to his apparent lack of policy, emerged during Yale’s 2017 FOCUS on New Haven pre-orientation program, which aims to bridge the gap between Yale students and New Haven. FOCUS Co-Director Margaret Kellogg ’19 observed that Catalbasoglu, a FOCUS student leader in charge of a group of sophomores and transfers, came late and left early, skipping the breakfasts leaders were supposed to prepare and cutting short the evening discussions for his student group. Before the program started, Kellogg said he struggled to find a service site on time for his group late last spring as leaders were asked to do.
Catalbasoglu had to leave events early because one of the chefs at his father’s business, Brick Oven Pizza, left suddenly, putting pressure on Catalbasoglu to help out his family, explained Ben Mallet ’19, one of his campaign managers.
“He should have communicated that with us,” said Kellogg. “Had he said that, I would be much more charitable to him right now. I would respect him more. It seemed like he didn’t care about the program and his participants.”
Before the start of the program but after all of the leaders returned to campus, the program unexpectedly faced a bed shortage, forcing some group leaders to sleep in common rooms. Catalbasoglu volunteered to sleep on an air mattress in the common room.
“I could not figure out this ‘air mattress’ thing so I will be ko on the futon,” he wrote, using the text shorthand for “knocked out,” in a message to the group chat of FOCUS leaders. “Be not alarmed; though I look like one, I’m not a homeless intruder.” After I asked the campaign press-secretary about the message, Catalbasoglu sent me a statement apologizing if anyone was offended and calling it a self-deprecating joke. But the message was striking because the so-called joke was at the expense of a marginalized group that Catalbasoglu, as a member of the Homelessness Advisory Commission, is charged with aiding.
“In the end, it’s too bad he’s running unopposed,” Kellogg said, naming a few friends who were also FOCUS leaders. “We don’t feel comfortable with him being our next representative. … I hope that he does a better job than he did at FOCUS.”
(The audio above is an excerpt from an August interview with Catalbasoglu.)
“What does FOCUS have to do with this?” Catalbasoglu shot back at me after I asked him to confirm that he was a FOCUS leader. Every few minutes a friend of his passed us on Cross Campus, and he took a quick break from my questioning to greet them. I replied that since he’s campaigning on bridging the gap between New Haven and Yale, FOCUS, which aims to do the same, seems like a good way of working towards that goal. He evaluates my justification before accepting it. During the six-day program, his group built a sign for a community theater. “If that’s a microcosm of my campaign, then I’ll be happy.”
Though he told me that, because he’s running unopposed, he won’t have to “learn the ropes” and can “hit the ground running,” he admitted that the “first day, to be honest, doesn’t look too, too different from what’s going on right now.” The campaign’s strategy is to rely on conversations to crowdsource ideas.
But, in the seven months since announcing, his countless conversations have generated little concrete policy. When asked to clarify if he had any ideas for policy, he paused.
“This isn’t a policy, but one thing I learned throughout discussions with people is that many people are a proponent of programs that help bring resources to kids within the city.” He’s been working with the crew team to create a program that would offer rowing lessons and tutoring to local kids.
While Catalbasoglu couldn’t articulate why the campaign had yet to announce policies, then–campaign chairwoman Haussler gave a succinct explanation. They haven’t announced any policy “for the sake of it” because that would “shut down conversations with groups Haci is taking meetings with.” In other words, the campaign was focused on dialogue over bullet points.
“Haci sees the role as connecting students and these assets with the city. It would be a waste of that to say, ‘This is my entire policy platform, and I consider all the views of my students to be irrelevant.’”
Haussler also serves as the Yale College Democrats legislative coordinator, responsible for leading the group’s advocacy of bills before the Connecticut General Assembly. However, six months into a local election campaign, Haussler said it was too early to announce any policy.
Two weeks after this interview in September, she quit the campaign.
Since I spoke to Catalbasoglu and his team, they announced, what his press secretary called, “a comprehensive policy initiative.” Catalbasoglu held a rally on Cross Campus to announce his plan to increase the number of bike paths. Weeks after that announcement, his website not only has no information about the plan but also does not have the word “bike” on any of its pages. He told a News reporter that the funding for the bike plan was “a bit of a tug and war.”
The election two years ago was also a tug of war. In the primary, Stark and Eidelson each struggled to pull Democrats to their side. And, again in the general election, Eidelson and Republican challenger Ugonna Eze ’16, fought for votes, dividing students in the process. In the end, Eidelson topped Eze with a narrow margin of victory: 17 votes. But there’s no need for such strong-arming this time. And no need for phone calls, or door knocks, or debates.
Instead, Catalbasoglu will quietly assume office next January. Students have been spared the nuisance of aggressive campaign tactics.
All it cost was their vote.
THIS IS THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF A THREE-PART SERIES THAT WILL APPEAR IN THE YALE DAILY NEWS MAGAZINE.
Correction, Nov. 3: A previous version of this article said that Catalbasoglu is a member of the crew team. In fact, he is a former member of the team.