Four years ago, Yale’s campus was abuzz with canvassers. That fall, two Yale undergraduates, Sarah Eidelson ’12 and Fish Stark ’17, were running in a hotly contested election to represent New Haven’s Ward 1. Canvassers papered the campus with flyers and knocked on — and even entered — Old Campus suites in order to woo undergraduate votes. Two years ago, with the memory of the 2015 race still in mind, older Yalies braced for a similar competitive onslaught. It never came.
When 18-year-old Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19 was elected in an uncontested race to represent Ward 1 on New Haven’s Board of Alders in 2017, he became Yale’s fourth student-alder to serve in the position in the last decade. Joining a decadeslong line of current and former Yale undergraduates who have represented Ward 1, Catalbasoglu followed in the recent footsteps of Eidelson, Michael Jones ’11 and Rachel Plattus ’09. Like Plattus, who served one term from 2007 to 2009, Catalbasoglu had a double claim on representing New Haven — he was born and raised in the Elm City.
Catalbasoglu, who was a constituent of New Haven’s Ward 2 before he moved onto Yale’s Old Campus in the fall of his first year at Yale, is the son of Turkish immigrants. His parents own Brick Oven Pizza on Howe Street, a fact he has frequently referenced during his campaign and tenure.
New Haven’s Board of Alders is the city’s legislative arm. Only two of the Elm City’s 30 wards are Yale-student majority districts. And only one, Ward 1, is overwhelmingly so.
Catalbasoglu ran his campaign on an acknowledgement of the gap between Yale and New Haven and promised, given his status as both a lifelong resident of the Elm City and a Yale undergraduate, to bridge it.
“We need an alder who is actively involved in both of these communities and can bring the two together,” Catalbasoglu wrote in an op-ed for the News shortly after he declared his candidacy in April of 2017. “For me, New Haven is so much more than Yale. It is my home, and I’m not leaving. My family is here, my friends are here and my heart is here. If I’m elected to be an alder, I won’t give up when things get too hard, because that’s never been an option for me, my family or my city.”
Ward 1 contains eight of Yale’s fourteen colleges — Branford, Jonathan Edwards, Grace Hopper, Berkeley, Pierson, Davenport and Trumbull — in addition to Old Campus, where the majority of the first-year class resides. Ward 22 contains the other six residential colleges. With the addition of Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges in 2017, Ward 22 is now also majority-Yale, but by much slimmer margins than Ward 1.
Each of the 30 members on the Board of Alders are elected to two-year terms at a time, and serve fewer constituents than do their counterparts in many cities of similar size. U.S. Census data puts New Haven’s population at just over 130,000. This means that on average, each alder represents a constituency of just over 4,000 people.
Yet despite the fact that Yalies constitute roughly 7 percent of the New Haven population, 17 percent of the Board of Alders boasts a Yale connection. Over the years, Yale graduate students and alums who remain in New Haven after graduation consistently serve on the Board of Alders. Two members of the current board, Ward 21 Alder Steve Winter ‘11 and Ward 7 Alder Abby Roth ‘90 LAW ‘94, are both student-citizens turned citizens of New Haven. And graduate students and alums — who often set down deeper roots in the city — have long found places on the board.
“The city benefits when students from Yale, and other local colleges, who are active in the community during school stay in New Haven and stay involved in the community after graduating,” explained Roth.
But traditionally, Yale College aldermanic representation has been limited to the Ward 1 seat.
And the challenge of Catalbasoglu’s promise — to bring Yale and New Haven together — was not lost on Yale students.
“One challenge of Ward 1 is not only the different motivations of its Yale-affiliated voters compared to other New Haven residents, but the internal differences between interest groups at Yale,” Jordan Cozby ’20, a former president of the Yale College Democrats, told the News.
“The University administration, Yale employees and undergraduate students often have different priorities. The Ward 1 alder has to reconcile these different groups’ interests in addition to considering the impact of local policy to the city as a whole,” Cozby said.
Catalbasoglu is a registered Democrat, but he ran unaffiliated, even in a city that has long been a Democratic stronghold. He filled his campaign team with members of various political affiliations: His campaign manager, Ben Mallet ’19, previously managed the failed campaign of Republican Paul Chandler ’14 for the Ward 1 seat in 2013. At various times, Catalbasoglu’s campaign was staffed by members of the Yale College Democrats and Republicans alike. As proof of his bipartisan campaign, Catalbasoglu was endorsed by both the Connecticut Young Democrats and the Yale College Republicans.
The message was clear. Whatever their political views, Catalbasoglu wanted to represent the Yale student, in the student’s capacity as a resident of New Haven. The rhetoric of his campaign revolved around this message — as did the campaign’s literature and stickers, all of which proclaimed, in strategically blue and red bold font, “Haci <3 New Haven.”
But even as no other opponents materialized and it became increasingly clear that Catalbasoglu would win the seat, his campaign was subject to criticism on campus. The Yale College Democrats, for instance, issued a critical statement of the candidate just days before the election.
“The Ward 1 alder should ideally be someone who has dedicated substantial time to service in the city,” the statement read. “Previous candidates have better fit this description. We have noted Haci’s limited involvement in campus and city activism, service, or politics prior to his campaign. Once he becomes alder, Haci must make a greater effort to be present in these spaces.”
As the final weeks of the race came to a close, several senior team members working on the Catalbasoglu campaign quit. The campaign’s chairwoman and treasurer, Makayla Haussler ’19 left in September, two months before the election. Haussler, then the legislative coordinator for the Yale Democrats, told the News that the reason for her departure was partially because she believed — in opposition to other members of campaign leadership — that the campaign should have further prioritized legislation.
In a recent interview with the News, Catalbasoglu said that the focus on policy in his race was unrepresentative of the nature of alder elections. Candidates in other wards, he told the News, are not expected to bring policy proposals to the table.
Stark, one of the candidates who ran against Eidelson in the 2015 Ward 1 race, threw his support behind Catalbasoglu in the 2017 race, despite having run on a detailed legislative agenda during his own race two years prior.
In an email to the News, Stark wrote that Catalbasoglu approached his campaign with “an understanding of the issues and a clear set of values.” He justified his own campaign strategy in 2015 as a political necessity — Yalies, he wrote, expected it.
“The criticism that came Haci’s way in the last election was based on a fundamental difference between the way Yalies understand politics and how politics in New Haven actually works,” Stark wrote. “If Haci had turned up at City Hall with folders full of footnoted policy memos, he wouldn’t have been taken seriously.”
Despite external criticism — and the turmoil within the campaign itself — Haci, as he is known around campus, was elected the “Yale Alder” in November with 244 votes — fewer than the population of one of Yale’s residential colleges, but more than five times the amount cast during the Democratic primary in August. Voter turnout is historically low in Ward 1, which Haussler attributes both to the aggressive tactics of previous candidates and, more broadly, a “lack of student engagement” in politics at the city level.
“I’ve worked on elections every year I’ve been at Yale,” Haussler said. “And students are always the most annoyed by the efforts of Ward 1 campaigns, as opposed to, say, when we canvass students during presidential elections.”
Catalbasoglu began his tenure as alder on a disruptor’s note. During his campaign, he had written an op-ed piece for the News titled “Accountability,” criticizing what he identified as a lack of transparency in the way city politics was run. He criticized the Board of Alders for the manner in which it used meetings of the Democratic Caucus, with which all, or most, Board members in recent history have affiliated.
“It’s time to change how New Haven government works,” Catalbasoglu wrote in his op-ed.
Without a feasible party opponent, the city’s contentious political debates often take place within the closed-door meetings of the Democratic Caucus. The public Board of Alders meetings often move quickly and procedurally.
During his campaign, Catalbasoglu set his sights on assuming the role of minority leader on the board. He assumed that his lack of affiliation would allow him to take on the role, given the lack of Republicans on the Board.
But Catalbasoglu was himself a registered Democrat, complicating the rules surrounding the election of a “minority leader.” Ultimately, he decided to caucus with the Democrats, choosing to be in the room where most decisions are made. If all 30 members caucus with one party, the minority leader position becomes an internal appointment by the majority party leadership.
In a recent interview with the News, without openly denouncing the campaign he ran, Catalbasoglu acknowledged missteps, misunderstandings and miscalculations, including his guns-ablazing criticism of the board.
He seems eager to move past that campaign, so much so that he follows up a conversation by writing to me to emphasize that the campaign — and the corresponding scrutiny — was, “a year ago.”
In his first year in office, Catalbasoglu has attempted to take the lead on policymaking just twice.
His first legislative attempt was last February, when he proposed a resolution in support of the legalization of recreational marijuana. The resolution, which Catalbasoglu submitted to the Board last February, called for New Haven to urge then-Gov. Dannel Malloy and the Connecticut State Assembly to legalize and regulate recreational cannabis in the Nutmeg State. Catalbasoglu opened his efforts by penning an op-ed for the News, in which he cited widespread social instability he said was caused by criminalization of the drug.
In the op-ed, Catalbasoglu wrote that he had lost a family member to overdose, and pointed to the risks of the rise of synthetic cannabis, commonly known as K2. Months later, K2 would result in a mass overdose of more than 70 people on the New Haven Green.
In late April — before the K2 overdoses — Catalbasoglu held a public hearing in conjunction with Yale University Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. All of those who testified, including academics and community members, were in favor of legalization. At the time, the resolution was still awaiting a hearing in the Board’s Joint Public Safety and Human Services Committee — the first step in passing any legislation in New Haven.
But support for Catalbasoglu’s resolution never materialized in the Board. For a piece of legislation to come in front of the full Board of Alders for the standard procedure of two readings, and then a final vote, it must first be pushed forward at the committee level. The legalization resolution didn’t even receive a committee hearing.
Catalbasoglu ticked off the boxes in his seemingly polished push for the resolution, penning the op-ed in the News, partnering with a relevant on-campus advocacy group and holding the public hearing. Still, despite the Elm City’s decidedly liberal politics, the resolution seemed doomed from the start.
In a write-up of the public hearing at the time, the New Haven Independent reported on the hearing in an article titled “Like, Maybe They’ll Get Around to Voting.” Although the Independent never explicitly questioned the viability of the resolution, the article’s title, references to the cultural associations of marijuana aside, seemed to give the underlying tension all away — the Board leadership, even as Catalbasoglu was still actively pushing for time in committee, was disinclined to actively pursue a vote.
Time dragged on, and as Yalies dug into final exams in May and then left New Haven for all corners of the world, the resolution went out with a whimper.
Catalbasoglu explained that, in his few weeks on the Board at the time, he had not taken the time to build relationships with other Alders and city officials and navigate the entrenched politics of City Hall.
“I wasn’t very successful,” he admitted. “And I wasn’t successful because I hadn’t built those ties.”
And if he were to propose something like the marijuana resolution now? Catalbasoglu says he is “confident” that, if the legislation was thoughtfully executed, his colleagues would support him. He has no immediate intention to rebroach the marijuana issue — it seems that Hartford, with newly-sworn-in Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont at the helm might not need the push from New Haven, as Lamont has repeatedly asserted that legalization of recreational cannabis is one of his legislative priorities.
Winter, who has worked with Catalbasoglu since Jan. 2018, told the News that Catalbasoglu was “thoughtful” and considers him a partner in policymaking.
Since the marijuana push, Catalbasoglu has proposed just one other legislative agenda item. This fall, he began speaking to relevant members of the Board of Alders and Board of Education to ask that Eid al-Fitr, an important Muslim holiday, be included on the school calendar as a day off.
Since Eid in 2020 begins on a Saturday and ends the next day, Catalbasoglu’s push seems strategically less aggressive. Getting the holiday recognized on the upcoming 2019-20 school year calendar won’t even require that Catalbasoglu immediately navigate the potentially tricky issue of scheduling a day off with relevant unions.
And if he is successful in getting the holiday acknowledged on the upcoming year’s calendar, it seems likely that he will have a stronger starting point from which to advocate for a day off in subsequent calendar planning.
The Ward 1 Alder has long faced a unique set of challenges in representing mostly Yale students in a city where Yale’s institutional influence is both unavoidable and often a point of contention among the city’s residents.
Yale and its affiliates, including Yale New Haven Hospital, are the city’s largest employers. By a significant margin, Yale is New Haven’s largest property owner. But due to its status as nonprofit university, Yale is exempt from paying taxes to New Haven on its academic property — property which includes the University’s residential colleges. Given the Elm City’s budgetary woes, the exemption has become an underlying point of community tension.
Distinguishing Ward 1 from New Haven’s other 29 wards is the nature of Ward 1’s alder-constituent contact. In most of the city’s other wards, some of the primary responsibilities of alders are providing constituent services like trash collecting and street sweeping. But most of Ward 1 receives its services from Yale, not the city.
In practice, the privileges and responsibilities of the Ward 1 Alder are notably different from the other 29 alders.
“The responsibility [of an Alder representing Yale students] is incredibly different,” Lorna Chitty ’20 told the News.
Chitty worked on the Catalbasoglu campaign last year and is one of two Ward Democratic Town Committee Chairs — and city Democratic Town Committee members — for Ward 22, the other majority-Yale ward.
The tension between town and gown is long-standing — Chitty said that while Yale students are not at odds with the city individually, much of the challenge comes from Yale’s institutional footprint — which can be uncomfortable for students to actively politically reject, even if it is in the interest of New Haven to do so.
Jeanette Morrison, the Ward 22 Alder, faces a similar challenge to the Ward 1 Alder in that a large swath of her constituents are Yale students; just over half are. And in her 2017 re-election campaign, bridging the gap between town and gown was also a major component of her platform.
But Morrison, who was born and raised in New Haven and is now a social worker in the city, also has a significantly larger and more vocal non-Yale population to answer to. Dixwell, the neighborhood encompassed by Ward 22, is a low-income neighborhood with a politically active, and distinctive constituency.
The “Yale Alder” has to answer to sometimes competing demands — and, as Catalbasoglu laments, grapple with what comes across as perpetual disinterest from Yale’s undergraduate student body. On any given month, Catalbasoglu says that “like, four people” contact him to discuss specific votes or issues.
Beyond the lack of engagement, there is also the discomfort of the dynamic between long-term resident and student.
“The fact that Ward 1 alders don’t have to focus on service delivery has led many to argue that this frees up the alder’s time to focus more on policy and legislating,” Haussler told the News. “But a Yale student making policy for the whole city can be complicated by the fact that the demographics of Yale undergrads don’t align with New Haven’s.”
Chitty is even more frank about the tension of students in their capacity as members of the Yale institutional community compared to their capacity as residents of New Haven.
“The way that our university has structured itself, and a lot of the burdens and tolls we have taken on the city, cannot be passively ignored,” she said.
For Catalbasoglu, his graduation in May is fast approaching and, with it, the question of what happens next.
“Are you asking me if I’m running?” he asks with a laugh.
Elections are not until November and candidates usually do not declare their intention to run until later in the year — Stark, the first entry into the 2015 race, declared his candidacy in May.
Catalbasoglu is only halfway through his current tenure, and he acknowledges that elections are still on the distant horizon.
But his answer is already yes.
For the first year after graduation — and with the implicit assumption that he wins a second term — Catalbasoglu plans to take a gap year and remain in New Haven.
For his second campaign, he said he would hope to build a team that, in contrast to the first, would include fellow alders and New Haven residents who are not Yale students.
“There’s a whole world of politically oriented New Haven college students who Yale students never interact with,” he said. “I will be a leader this time in a way that I wasn’t last time.”
Catalbasoglu is less sure about what is to come after that and makes clear that, even if he is to be re-elected come November, he would hang up his hat in 2021. For now, he makes clear that there are still things he wants to accomplish.
But beyond the immediate task of moving the Eid proposal through proper channels, Catalbasoglu does not outline anything specific as to what those things might be. Once defensive, he seems comfortable in the ambiguity of what he is promising.
Angela Xiao | firstname.lastname@example.org .