Yalies power through local primaries
Three Yale College students and one Yale Law School fellow are preparing for November general elections in New Haven and Hamden.
Vaibhav Sharma, Photo Editor
Tuesday’s primary day in New Haven was quiet — only one race across the city was contested. But now, at least four Yalies are poised to take local office after attaining the Democratic nomination in their respective races.
The singular contested primary on Tuesday was for the Ward 20 Alder seat, which Devin Avshalom-Smith, a fellow at the Yale Law School, won resoundingly. Two unopposed Yale College students, Eli Sabin ’22 and Alex Guzhnay ’24, have earned Democratic nominations for Board of Alders seats by default. Mariam Khan ’24 won her primary for a seat on Hamden’s Board of Education.
In interviews with the News, candidates said their campaigns have consisted of countless conversations with voters and city officials. All four grew up in New Haven or Hamden, and they emphasized that their local upbringings contribute to their perspectives as candidates for public office. Some of them, like Sabin, have experience in local politics — Sabin has served as an alder since 2019, representing Ward 1. Others, like Khan, are newer to the political scene. But the 19-year-old Hamden native’s lack of political experience did not block her from success, and she ended up earning more votes than any of the seven other candidates seeking a seat on the board on Tuesday.
“I’ve been kind of numb [since the results were posted],” Khan told the News. “It was really, really surreal that a 19-year-old newcomer to politics had that much community support and has the power to do that.”
The candidates will face general elections on Nov. 2. Each of them is expected to easily beat any Republican challenger.
A young but familiar face on Hamden’s Board of Education
Although relatively new to politics, Khan is not new to Hamden’s Board of Education. In high school, she served as a student representative on the board. Back then, she did not know what she was getting into — Khan described only having “sort of an idea” about what the board did.
After she graduated, Khan saw that elections for seats on the board were open.
“After seeing that there were a lot of young folks in Hamden running, and that we had the chance to define what our schools and our leadership in our political ecosystem looked like post COVID, I knew it was time to run,” she said.
Her campaign team mainly consisted of 19- and 20-year-olds who went to Khan’s high school. The central team was around five people, she said, but the campaign included an event with over 60 volunteers attending, Also, Khan was able to enlist help from volunteers across the district and state.
The team helped her win 3,377 votes on Tuesday. Khan won alongside three other candidates — four seats were up for grabs — who ran together on a progressive slate endorsed by Hamden mayoral hopeful Lauren Garrett. But the campaign has been about more than just clinching votes, Khan told the News.
“This type of organizing, and this type of team building and relationship building, isn’t just for an election,” Khan said. “It’s not going to just, you know, build up to November 2, and then kind of fall apart. … This is about organizing when it comes to policy, when it comes to long-term change.”
The Yale sophomore has a large handful of issues she hopes to bring to the board. She said her number one priority is ensuring that the district’s COVID response is robust. Khan also said she wants to be accessible and transparent — that she plans to hold office hours and make all of her contact information easily available.
Khan also emphasized the need for an equitable school district, especially regarding the district being on the verge of shutting down several schools.
“A lot of that was due to financial reasons, but also racial reasons,” she said. “And I think we need to have a serious conversation about why those were the schools we selected.”
An upset in Newhallville
For 10 years, the Ward 20 alder seat was held by Delphine Clyburn. But Clyburn has retired from city politics and is set to be replaced by Yale Law School fellow Devin Avshalom-Smith. Avshalom-Smith has a background in community organizing and politics but has not run for public office before.
Avshalom-Smith’s biggest competition was Shirley Lawrence. Lawrence had the support of the Democratic Town Committee, but Avshalom-Smith ended up beating Lawrence 260 to 173 on Tuesday in New Haven’s only contested primary.
“I’m just extremely grateful to my neighbors in Ward 20 for bestowing their trust in me,” Avshalom-Smith told the News. “I’m really, really excited to get to work for them.”
Avshalom-Smith has lived in Newhallville for his entire life, and his family has lived in their current home for the last 61 years. Avshalom-Smith said he had “a good relationship” with Alder Clyburn before the race, but that he thought the ward could use a new face on the board — “the natural way for things to go.” With the added pressure of locals telling Avshalom-Smith he should run, he launched a campaign.
For Avshalom-Smith, the campaign trail consisted mostly of talking to voters, which consumed up to 50 hours a week of his time. The commitment meant using up his comp time from his job on top of some of his vacation time, he said.
While canvassing his neighbors’ doorsteps, Avshalom-Smith asked them about the issues that mattered to them. They spoke to him about gun violence, trash, a lack of youth recreation opportunities and trees. And those issues will be the ones he fights against in the aldermanic chamber, he said.
“Residents want results,” he said. “They would like to see these problems solved. … They understand that no one person can do that overnight. They want to see progress on the things that they’re concerned about, and they want to be informed — they want to know what’s going on in real time. And they want to weigh in.”
Avshalom-Smith is a fellow at Yale Law School through the school’s Access to Law School program, which provides 20 local students and adults with resources to eventually apply to law school.
Late Tuesday evening, Mayor Justin Elicker publicly congratulated Avshalom-Smith on his accomplishment.
“Devin is incredibly hard working,” Elicker wrote in a press release. “I spoke with Newhallville residents who said that Devin knocked on their door five or six times. His enthusiasm, positivity, and commitment will serve his constituents well. At no time in our city’s history have I been more optimistic about our future [than] I am now.”
Movement in Ward 1
The Democratic nominees for Wards 1 and 7, which did not have contested races on Tuesday night, are both Yale College students.
Eli Sabin ’22 has held the Ward 1 seat for the last two years. As an alder, Sabin helped write a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont requesting economic relief for undocumented immigrants, helped lead the Vaccinate Fair Haven campaign and worked with local businesses to close a portion of College Street to facilitate outdoor dining during the pandemic.
But Sabin, who will graduate soon, said he is ready to move away from the Yale campus, and with that, Ward 1. Instead, Sabin is seeking election to serve Ward 7 — which is adjacent to Ward 1 and surrounds Yale’s campus. The seat is currently occupied by Alder Abby Roth, who announced in June that she would not seek reelection.
“I think that Ward 7 is different,” Sabin said. “But it’s also similar. The challenges that we’re facing as a community in general, from the affordable housing crisis, to public safety and trying to provide more opportunities for folks in all of our neighborhoods, those are things that everyone in every neighborhood cares about.”
Replacing Sabin in the Ward 1 seat will most likely be Democratic nominee Alex Guzhnay ’24, who was raised in Fair Haven and said he always knew he wanted the position. Guzhnay — who is a first-generation, low-income student and the son of Ecuadorian immigrants — said his identity is an important element of his candidacy.
“Over the years, I’ve observed politics,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of representation in those areas and, people coming from these communities. So, that was definitely one big thing that sort of inspired me to take the dive and run.”
Guzhnay’s campaign has been a long process involving conversations with city residents and alders, he said. Right when he started his campaign, Guzhnay said he realized it would be a lot of work.
But he had help — there were Yalies on his side, and he was able to have conversations with around a third of the Board of Alders to seek advice and discuss ideas.
“It’s just been a wild ride but again, you know, I love doing the work,” Guzhnay told the News. “I love listening to people and their ideas.”
If necessary, a run-off election for the Nov. 2 general election will be held on Nov. 23.