This past Election Day, three candidates for New Haven alder stood the legally mandated 75 feet away from the polling place in each of their wards. With temperatures hovering around 40 and rain starting to fall, candidates had their last chance to convince constituents before they voted.
Luckily, candidate for East Rock alder Charles Decker GRD ’18, who moved to New Haven to study political science, could take cover under a fellow Democrat’s nearby tent. Decker wasn’t reaching out to voters alone — his ward’s current alder, who knew the constituency better, chatted on his behalf. Until the polls closed at 8 p.m., the trio welcomed voters under the tent as they dashed from their cars into the polling place. Decker, an academic, also handed out bookmarks with his face and contact information. He wanted constituents who had never met him to know who he was and how to contact him. Though it was Election Day, he did not really have to convince anyone to vote for him. Decker was the only name on the ballot and was therefore almost guaranteed to assume office the following January. His ward was one of 22 — out of the city’s 30 wards — with uncontested races for alder. Out of the over 12,500 residents who voted for an alder, around 9,000 saw only one name on the ballot for their alder.
Downtown, Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94, a Democratic aldermanic candidate in Ward 7, stood outside the Hall of Records ready to meet voters. When the rain started, Roth, now a communications officer at the School of Medicine, had already been outside for 11 hours. But she was prepared: She pulled out an umbrella and continued to talk to voters even though she was running virtually uncontested. Her only challenger was an eccentric write-in candidate. Despite the miserable weather, Roth stayed positive. It was good to see the residents she’d met through canvassing.
Blocks from New Haven Harbor, Joshua Van Hoesen was greeting voters while soaked. Unlike Decker and Roth, he had no protection from the downpour. He had forgotten his umbrella, and the only thing he had to keep him dry was his signature sailor cap. It didn’t do a very good job. Van Hoesen, a 27-year-old software engineer, remained determined, waving at every car that passed and trying to talk to as many voters as possible. As a Republican challenging a Democratic incumbent, he needed every vote.
Early last summer, Jessica Holmes, the outgoing Ward 9 alder, told Decker that she wasn’t going to run for another term because of work and family commitments. Holmes first met Decker in 2011 when she knocked on his door during her aldermanic campaign, so it was fitting that she supported Decker as her political successor. Over the years, the pair, both union organizers, grew closer through Decker’s work on the Board of Zoning Appeals. Holmes sometimes came to the board’s meetings when its members discussed development in her ward.
Holmes didn’t ask Decker to run, but they talked about what she had accomplished in her three terms as alder and where she hoped the next Ward 9 representative would pick up. Though Decker said he would not have run if she had not decided to step down. He began discussing a run with her shortly after their initial meeting. She supported him right away.
When Decker’s campaign launched on July 13, just five days before the deadline for candidates to seek the endorsement of a political party, Holmes introduced his speech. Holmes also connected Decker to the ward’s most involved residents, those who were likely key votes.
Decker was not the first to benefit from an inherited election. Ward 9’s Roth first ran in a special election in 2009. Doug Hausladen ’04 called Roth the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day and told her she had until the following Tuesday to decide whether she wanted to run for what was then his position. Hausladen had to vacate his seat on the board to head the Transportation, Traffic and Parking Department under the newly elected Mayor Toni Harp.
Roth decided to run and triumphed over her Republican challenger 174 to 19.
But in 2015, Roth decided not to run for reelection. She was recently engaged and wasn’t sure if she and her fiance were going to move out of the ward. Alberta Witherspoon took over her seat.
Last March, Roth filed the paperwork to challenge Witherspoon, who told the New Haven Independent she was “feeling inspired” and “ready to go.” But Witherspoon never filed any paperwork. In July, she resigned from office citing “health struggles.”
Van Hoesen, the Republican running in Ward 18, came to the election with little experience with New Haven politics but strong opinions about government. His favorite section of “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine, which he carries with him wherever he goes, argues that “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”
One bureaucratic rigmarole serves a particularly strong example: Van Hoesen was ticketed for parking on the sidewalk, but he claimed he parked on the verge — the grassy section between the sidewalk and the street — and couldn’t get a straight answer from the city about whether the verge was legally considered a part of the sidewalk. In Van Hoesen’s eyes, the city needed to do a better job communicating with residents. And he thought he could do a better job than the ward’s current representative, Democratic Alder Salvatore DeCola.
So when the Republican Town Committee started recruiting candidates, he approached committee Chairman Jonathan Wharton, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut University, to tell him he was very interested in running. After Wharton first moved to New Haven in 2014, he found the “Democratic Machine” disagreeable, though he doesn’t consider himself particularly partisan. He said he reached across the aisle to City Hall and offered to do research. But a number of alders pushed him to become involved by organizing for local unions, including the Yale graduate student union, instead.
“I can understand. I was a graduate student,” he explained. “It was just assumed that since I was an academic that I ‘should just be on board with this.’ But I’m not a Yale graduate student. That’s not my battle. To prove my stripes, I shouldn’t have to do that. And I shouldn’t have to motivate my students to do that either.”
He then took over running the Republican Town Committee. This election cycle, Wharton had hoped to run six Republicans citywide. The committee ended up fielding a candidate in just four of the 34 races across the city: two for alder, one for probate judge and one for a seat on the Board of Education. Though he didn’t reach his goal, Wharton was proud of the committee’s well-attended fundraisers and revitalized online presence, including a new website and more activity on social media.
Van Hoesen was just one part of the committee’s efforts to increase its influence. Though the Republicans are competing against New Haven’s very well-established Democratic party and its powerful supporters like the unions. But he considers that a natural part of politics, not an unfair machine.
“Larger, more uniform organizations can have a larger influence in politics,” Van Hoesen said.
If the small Republican operation could win anywhere, it was Morris Cove. Though Republicans make up just over 6 percent of all registered voters in New Haven, many are concentrated in Van Hoesen’s ward. The most recent Republican on the Board of Alders, Arlene DePino, who declined to seek re-election six years ago, hailed from the same ward. And Donald Trump received more votes there than any other ward in the city.
He wanted to give his ward’s residents a choice. But he wasn’t sure if they would choose him.
Decker spent his summer balancing his dissertation research and canvassing three times every week. Even after he learned that he was running unopposed, he and his volunteers continued to knock on doors in East Rock. One day, he got a call from one of his friends who was volunteering for him. A resident wanted to meet him. So Decker traveled to the other side of the ward and sat down in a rocking chair on the man’s porch.
Over glasses of iced tea, the man, who has lived in East Rock for over 50 years, reflected on years of seemingly endless development. The two talked about how important community input is to these projects. The resident specifically referenced the inspiring work Holmes did to create dialogue between the developers of the Corsair apartment building and the community. Decker, who moved to New Haven six years ago, wanted to be as in touch with the ward’s residents as Holmes had been.
“As much door knocking as I’d done, she knows more people,” Decker said.
Roth also tried to meet as many of her would-be constituents as possible through canvassing. She said many residents did not know exactly what an alder does, so sometimes she explained that. The role has two parts. Alders are responsible for passing citywide policy. But they also have to take care of day-to-day constituent services. In Ward 7, Roth said she hears a lot about stolen packages and speeding cars.
After Witherspoon resigned, Roth, who raised a total $8,660, not including in-kind donations, over the course of her campaign, stopped fundraising. But she didn’t stop knocking on doors in her ward until the election in November.
Van Hoesen, the Republican running in Ward 18, started canvassing much later than Roth. It took the first-time candidate until September to pull his campaign together. First, he had trouble finding a treasurer, and once he did, they had trouble setting up a bank account for the campaign. Even after they had set up an account and made deposits, the bank told him the account was misconfigured and, therefore, invalid. So he couldn’t pay to print any campaign literature for voters.
“It’s not very straightforward on the [State Elections Enforcement Committee] website what you need to do to run,” he said. “I want the [Republican Town Committee] to put together that document, because it should be easy for people to get involved.”
He also thought it should be easy for people to find information online about city government. Until this past summer, the city government’s website had not been updated in 17 years.
“Do you remember the old website?” he asked me. “It was a joke. As a computer scientist, I can say that. And now with the new website, you still can’t find anything you need because every page is ‘in progress.’” When Van Hoesen finally was able to canvass, he targeted houses with Republicans, Independents and “soft” Democrats. He said that no one refused to hear him out because he was a Republican. But a few people did think he was a Jehovah’s witness.
“I had to say, ‘I’m not trying to sell you anything!’” he said, wearing all white, with his red leather jacket and sailor cap nearby. “Well, except myself a little bit, but that’s because it’s politics and it’s weird.”
He even talked to one staunchly liberal couple, doing yardwork when he encountered them. Or, at least, he assumed they were staunchly liberal because they had a gay pride flag and a Black Lives Matter flag outside of their house.
“Perception would say that a Republican wouldn’t understand either of those things,” he said. “But I understand both of them. I really do.”
He didn’t mention to them that he was a Republican. Instead, he just told him that he was running for alder. The couple had recently moved, so they discussed what it was like to be new in Morris Cove. (Van Hoesen is relatively new himself; he bought his house in 2012.) He joked that anyone who has lived in the neighborhood for less than five years was new because so many people have lived there for 25 or more years. He thought he could represent all of the neighborhood’s residents better than their current alder. He just needed to convince them that that was true.
At 8 p.m. on election night, after hours outside, the candidates were finally allowed into the polling places to hear the votes counted. Though he was guaranteed to win, Decker stayed to hear the tally. After learning that he had received 331 votes, he stopped by Mayor Toni Harp’s victory party and headed home early. He didn’t want to speculate about why so many races were uncontested, but he acknowledged that both running for alder and being an alder are demanding.
Unlike Decker, Roth wasn’t technically running uncontested, but her write-in challenger turned out not to be a threat. Robert Kiley, who had lost when he ran as a write-in candidate in 2005 and 2007, did not win this cycle either. Roth beat him 456 to 1.
After spending only a little over a quarter of the money she raised, Roth announced that she would donate $6,000 to four local charities. Roth, like Decker, said that most people do not have the time or interest to become an alder. She also recognized that many people don’t know how to run.
“There’s also probably a sense that there’s a machine,” said Roth. “And if you’re not a part of that, then how can you run against the incumbent? It can be intimidating to run when most people are supporting the incumbent.”
It’s even harder to run when you’re a Republican. But Van Hoesen was upbeat.
“I just tried to impart to everyone to have pride in the process,” Van Hoesen said earlier in day. “I know most people have already made up their minds. Kudos to them for coming out. I was just trying to show them that I was willing to stand out there in the rain.”
Per Connecticut law, candidates are only permitted to enter the polling place once before the vote count — to vote. Van Hoesen made the most of his trip inside, buying dozens of boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies from scouts who had set up a table. (The cookies are now in his freezer — he likes to eat them frozen.)
Van Hoesen lost to DeCola 183 to 656, garnering about a fifth of the vote.
“I told Sal [DeCola], ‘In two years, let’s do this again.’ He was very friendly. He said, ‘Yeah, but don’t expect a different result,’” Van Hoesen recounted. “Twenty-two percent of his constituents thought I could do a better job though.”
Van Hoesen believes that his share of the vote shows that constituents want more choice. He said that Republicans don’t run because they think they will lose, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Until the next election, Van Hoesen said he has “commissions to join and rabble to rouse.”
Even the overwhelming majority of Democrats cannot explain why so few aldermanic races are uncontested. New Haven’s neighbor West Haven has only one Republican on its City Council, as an at-large councilman, but every single one of its races had a candidate from both parties. Admittedly, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is far higher in New Haven than West Haven. New Haven had the second highest percentage of votes for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 in all of Connecticut, with 86.4 percent. West Haven also went blue, but less drastically. Only 59.5 percent of voters cast their ballots for Clinton.
But Wharton, the New Haven Republican Town Committee’s chairman, attributed West Haven’s contested elections to more than the town’s demographics.
“Over there it’s about the personality, not the political party,” he said. “You saw that with [Mayor Ed] O’Brien not even getting support from his party.”
He might be right. O’Brien, West Haven’s current mayor, lost in the primary to a fellow Democrat, Nancy Rossi. After promising to support her campaign for the good of the party, he reversed his decision and launched a write-in campaign against her, inciting a heated three-way race for mayor. Both Democrats accused the other of misleading the public.
“If he cared about West Haven, he’d bring the Democrats together,” Rossi told the New Haven Register. She admonished him for causing infighting within the Democratic Party. But, in the end, O’Brien’s surprising decision showed democracy at work. Despite the same miserable weather as New Haven, so many West Haven residents showed up to vote that one district had to request more ballots to meet the demand. O’Brien ultimately lost to his Democratic challenger 4,825 to 3,265.
In West Haven, voters came out in droves to exercise their right to choose. In neighboring New Haven, the vast majority of alders had already been chosen.
This is the second installment of a three-part series that will appear in the Yale Daily News Magazine.