If you want to get involved in state and local politics, often all you have to do is show up.
That’s true here in Connecticut, where the combination of low-key elected officials and publicly financed campaigns mean that anyone — especially young people — can make an impact.
I grew up in New Haven, just a mile or two down the road in East Rock. I’ve always been drawn to politics and public service, and when a class during my junior year of high school sent me to knock on doors for state Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven, Connecticut’s welcoming political culture pulled me in. Since that first experience in the fall of 2016, I’ve been lucky enough to intern at the state capitol in Hartford and work on campaigns around the state. Now, I’m the campaign manager for state Rep. Roland Lemar and the incoming co-chair for New Haven’s Ward 1, and I want you to get involved as well.
To get started, here’s a brief introduction to the people and issues that are driving politics in New Haven and across Connecticut. It’s a primer for the upcoming election — you live here, and we need your voice at the polls. I’ll start in New Haven.
For the past several decades, the Democratic Party has dominated New Haven politics. All 30 members of the Board of Alders (the equivalent of a city council) are Democrats, as are the mayor, Toni Harp, and the entire state delegation.
New Haven’s Democratic lean is hardly unusual for a Northeastern city. But the makeup of the governing Democratic coalition is somewhat notable. Despite the decline of the American labor movement over the past half-century, New Haven’s union presence is quite strong. Yale employees, in particular, are well-organized and politically active. Many current alders were elected in part because of door-knocking and voter contact efforts set up by Locals 33, 34 and 35, which represent the University’s graduate students and technical and blue-collar workers.
The most important issue in New Haven politics right now is the city budget. New Haven, like other cities across the country, is struggling with rising pension and employee health care costs. Additionally, New Haven faces a revenue problem: The city cannot collect property taxes on the multibillion dollar campuses of Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital, because those two institutions, like other nonprofits, are tax exempt. For these reasons and others, the city faces a $30 million structural deficit. The budget woes, which could potentially push the city toward bankruptcy or a state bailout in future years, have so far caused property tax increases, school closures and cuts to other city services.
We should all be rooting for a more prosperous New Haven. The fiscal health of the city is of tremendous importance to Yale and its student body, not to mention the diverse population of 125,000 who call the city home (of whom around 25 percent live in poverty). When city government is strong, crime is lower, the streets are cleaner and institutions like Yale thrive on the dynamism of city life and culture.
While deficits loom in New Haven, the state government, based in Hartford, is dealing with similar problems. Connecticut too faces a budget crisis. Despite tax increases in recent years, the chronic underfunding of state employee pension funds over past decades has left the state facing a budget deficit of approximately $4.5 billion in the next two years. With costs accumulating until 2032, Connecticut will be fighting to turn its books from red to black for the foreseeable future.
The statewide budget crisis has a lot to do with New Haven’s money problems. In the past few years, the General Assembly has cut state aid to New Haven, meaning city property taxes are rising, and everyone, including Yale, is being asked to chip in a little more.
Connecticut’s budget woes have had a big impact on state politics: Governor Dannel Malloy, ranked one of the least popular state leaders in the country, has decided not to seek a third term. Additionally, Democrats in the General Assembly have lost the big majorities they enjoyed when Malloy was first elected in 2010. Currently, the Democrats hold an 80–71 majority in the state house, while the state senate is tied 18–18.
These tight margins amplify the potential for Yale students to make a difference. There are toss-up General Assembly races going on in nearby towns, and the gubernatorial race, between Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Bob Stefanowski, will also likely be close. If you’re feeling inspired by national activism or anxious about the midterms, we need you on the campaign trail and at the polls this November. If you want to get involved, please reach out to me or Ward 1 Alder (and Brick Oven Pizza scion) Haci Catalbasoglu ’19, Ward 1 Co-Chair Julia Salseda ’19 or Ward 22 Co-Chair Lorna Chitty ’20. The great thing about Connecticut, for us as students, is how tight its networks are. We’ll plug you in.
Eli Sabin is a first year in Grace Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .