Kyung Mi Lee

A new flag flies over the New Haven Green. Its right half bears the traditional Pride rainbow of six bright stripes; its left, a black-and-brown-and-cyan-and-pink-and-white chevron, overlapping the rainbow, symbolizing the inclusion of transgender people and people of color in the queer community. On Sunday, citizens and activist raised this “Progress Forward” flag, marking the commencement of this year’s New Haven Pride. The week-long festival has been held annually for 21 years, but this is the first time that a LGBTQ+ flag has flown on the Green. 

Urn Pendragon, one of three mayoral candidates in the 2019 municipal elections, watched the ceremony from the crowd. A self-described policy wonk, Pendragon has run something of an anomalous campaign, eschewing fundraising effort and declining to organize a campaign committee. But she takes her campaigning seriously. Earlier that day, Pendragon and I sat down at the Starbucks on High Street to talk rivals, referendums and town-gown relations. 

The interview has been edited and condensed

What are your ties to New Haven?

I’ve been part of the unseen of New Haven for five years. I’ve lived in over a dozen different places in the past thirty-five years. No place has really ever felt like home. New Haven is a great amalgamation of everything I like about other cities. I like the diversity of different kinds of foods, stores like Starbucks, local businesses. They’re all here in one place. Not to mention that there is a really big, about the biggest LGBTQ community in the state, here in New Haven. Lots of opportunities, lots of friends to make, lots of activism that needs to be done. This is where home is for me.

You recently finished your master’s degree at Southern Connecticut State University. Can you tell me more about how that’s played a role in your run for mayor?

After President Trump was elected, I decided to pursue a degree in political science. The city is now adopting my master’s thesis about inclusive affordable housing as a part of its “New Haven Green Deal.” I jumped at the opportunity to try to become a political analyst or get involved in politics. I had never dreamed of ever running for mayor. I had kicked around the idea in my last two or three months of school.  

I thought, at the time, that I would maybe run for alder or pursue activism in different areas. It wasn’t until attending one of the many city meetings in the last year that I decided to run. 

If you’ve ever seen how big the Boards of Alders chamber is, imagine it being packed. Not just the seats, but against the walls, even in the middle aisle, and people crowding in the front right next to the alders’ seats. That just set me off somehow, knowing that there’s so much inequality in the city. That vision set me off to run for mayor and put political pressure on the office and the Board of Alders. To show them, ‘Look, these are things that need to be improved: housing, the city budget, and police contracts now coming up on almost four years of sitting idle.’ 

Housing seems to be a big issue for you. Why is it such a big part of your platform?

I myself have always been in the lower, lower-middle class, even though I was raised in a middle class rural American family. I can directly identify with housing struggles because I’ve been homeless twice in my life under no fault of my own. What tugs at the heart strings is when you see a place that you’re in love with suffering with these same issues, these problems compounding to become worse and worse, and you have the ability to incite change. Housing is at the base of the problem, and jobs come second. Those are two areas that I’m trying very hard to advocate for. 

How do you distinguish yourself from Justin Elicker? 

We have a lot of the same visions and same ideas. The key difference is that he is more of a figurehead who’s been involved with the community for longer than I have. But I’m more of a policy guru. That was my focus in political science: urban affairs and public policy. I do advocacy not to run for the title of mayor, but because it is work that needs to be done. So, we have a methodological difference between us. But a lot of the things that we want to do, the things that need to be done in the city, are similar.

We’re friends. We’re basically political rivals but we’re not enemies. He doesn’t take hot shots at me and I don’t take hot shots at him. That isn’t to say that I haven’t been giving criticism. He’s not much of a policy person. That’s where my strengths are. But I’ve also said that he has the ability to rally people to him. That’s his major strength.  

Whichever one of us wins, it doesn’t matter. Because we vowed that we’re going to work with each other. I’m not really in it to win it. I’m here to put the political pressure on city hall to make sure that things get done. 

How has your identity as a transgender woman affected your political run and your political views?

As someone who has transitioned, I am now starting to understand both sides of the gender role. I understand how male minds work but also how female minds work. Having that perspective helps me to understand policy.

Going from a majority to a minority changes your life very fundamentally. That got me thinking more and more about how people who live paycheck to paycheck. 

I’ve learned that dynamic of what it’s like being a minority, a minority within a minority. That gives me the ability and experience to learn what that’s like. Having done that, that’s how it shapes how I view policy and how I view my life.

I want to know a little bit about what you think of Yale. Do you have any specific thoughts about the Yale-New Haven relationship? 

I was aghast at how much Yale is its own city within a city. I don’t dislike Yale, but I’m not in love with it either. Yes, Yale does bring a lot of opportunities to the city but it’s not as much as they claim it to be. The city pays for all the roadways, walkways, entrance streets, public utilities and services for the University. It is a reverse Robin Hood with the rich profiting from the middle class and the poor. We need to sit down and chat with the University about fulfilling its promise to become a part of the New Haven community.

Most Yale students are temporary residents of the city. We spend a few years here for our degrees and we leave. How should Yale students engage with New Haven politics?

It’s going to have to be up to the person to decide to have an interest in politics. There really is a big divide between so many different classifications of Americans. 

I’ll say this: any person who goes to school in or lives in or comes in and out of New Haven has an opportunity and a right of their own choice to get involved in civics in some way, shape or form. I think that political involvement speaks to a connectedness to the place that you’re living in, especially if you’re spending a lot of time and money, even as a temporary resident. Even if you were to attend one city meeting, that would help to bridge the gap between Yale and New Haven as it is. 

Anything I didn’t ask?

I think we should put on the ballot a referendum on affordable housing and green energy this year. 

What might that look like, specifically?

It would force the city to adopt some type of provision, a commitment to the residents of the city: ‘Yes, we’re not just talking about it. We’re going to really commit to this.’ It’s also a way to learn from the voters whether they back something or not. This brings attention to the public eye that the city is interested in pursuing these policies but also educates people and puts them in the know.