Mia Cortés Castro, Contributing Photographer

The candidates for Ward 8 alder met in a debate that started amicably and ended with heightened tensions Wednesday night.

Ahead of the upcoming Nov. 7 municipal election, the candidates running to represent Wooster Square —  incumbent Democrat Ellen Cupo and challenger Republican Andrea DiLieto Zola — gathered at Conte West Hills Magnet School on Nov. 1.

In front of a room of about 40 people, the candidates took questions about their policies and personal values by New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass. The debate started with a discussion of issues including affordable housing, public safety and visions for the future of the ward’s public spaces, before culminating in more personal questions about what it means to support a political party. The event was organized and live-streamed by the New Haven Independent.

“The debate was a wonderful opportunity to bring the community together and for everyone to get to hear from both candidates,” Cupo said.

Zola was endorsed by the Republican Party in August after failing to receive the Democratic Town Committee endorsement, which went to Cupo instead.

Housing and development take center stage

In their answers to most debate questions, both candidates connected issues in the ward and around New Haven to a lack of affordable housing.

Cupo repeatedly highlighted her record of helping bring in $59 million every year through the restructuring of Connecticut’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes program and increased contributions from Yale. She said that she hopes to allocate some of this funding toward affordable housing, which she believes to be the most important issue facing the ward.

Zola explained that she was focused on parking and traffic regulation, which is affected by affordable housing development. She recalled her experience of watching a Ward 8 resident get hit by a car near her home by Wooster Square Park.

“Six, seven years ago when these buildings were not up and my storefront was operating, I wasn’t seeing things like this happen so often,” Zola said. “Because there are more people in this ward, and the ward is more populated, I’m noticing a need for more fees and traffic [control].”

When Bass asked whether the candidates would support an inclusionary zoning or “build build build” housing policy, Zola enthusiastically voiced her support for the latter and noted that the city already sets aside a specific percentage of housing to be affordable in each new building through the inclusionary zoning ordinances passed in 2022. 

Meanwhile, Cupo expressed her support for further zoning legislation to address New Haven’s housing crisis.

On the topic of public safety, both candidates expressed support for the implementation of cameras for automated traffic enforcement and crime surveillance, although Cupo emphasized the need for oversight to make sure surveillance devices are not being used to unjustly target people.

The candidates were also asked about their visions for policing in Ward 8. Cupo responded that she sees the ward as a “really safe place.” Zola disagreed, pointing to a recent comment made by Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray. Wray’s comments were about the war in Israel and did not mention New Haven.

“We can go around and we could 100 percent sugarcoat things and say we can rely on each other, and I can walk next door to my neighbor, and I can ask them for a cup of sugar,” Zola said. “Are we safe right now? When you see someone like Christopher Wray on the news say that we’re in a dangerous period, we need to make sure that we’re policing and we’re policing correctly.”

Cupo and Zola both expressed regret over the city’s removal of the “Tent City” homeless encampment, and both voiced support for the 2020 removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in Wooster Square Park.

Arguments arise over party representation

Toward the end of the debate, Bass asked about the meanings of the political labels that the candidates have assigned themselves. Cupo has described herself as a progressive Democrat, while Zola described herself as a “Blue Dog” Democrat.

“What do those phrases mean? Broadly, philosophically, but also, how do they apply day to day to local issues that you would deal with as an alder?” Bass asked.

Zola was first to answer, saying that she would have considered herself a Blue Dog Democrat before being endorsed by the Republican Party and that she now considers herself a proud Republican. Cupo then responded that being a proud Republican is an immoral choice.

Cupo’s statement kicked off minutes of back-and-forth arguing, including input from the crowd, between the candidates.

To Cupo, representing the Republican Party means standing by the policies that Republicans advocate for at the national level.

“It is the party that is denying trans kids health care,” Cupo said. “It is a party that denies climate change. It is the party that held an insurrection at the Capitol. None of that is moral.”

Cupo said she has voted Democratic all her life. She acknowledged that the party has faults but said she is proud to represent the Democratic Party and all it stands for.

Zola then asked Cupo directly why Cupo claims to be an open-minded person yet isn’t open-minded to more Republicans being on the ballot, particularly Republicans who have more in common with Democrats, like Zola, who is more liberal-leaning.

“Not all Republicans are the same,” Zola said. “The Democratic Party is currently failing all of us.”

Bass quickly moved the debate toward shorter personal questions, asking for only three-word answers. To conclude the segment, each candidate was asked to name something they admire in their opponent.

Zola got a chance to answer first and used the question to bring up Cupo’s limited attendance at Board of Alders meetings this term.  

“I admire and respect that Ellen is a great mother,” Zola said. “She has openly admitted that she was not able to come to 55 percent of her meetings. That is huge. I totally agree that a good leader is honest. And she chose being a parent before she chose anything else. So my response is, she’s a great mother.”

The comment elicited gasps from the crowd.

Cupo responded that her absences were due to the birth of her daughter in 2022 as well as family health issues, but that she is proud of all of the work she has done as chair of the Legislation Committee on the Board of Alders despite being employed full-time at Yale as a  senior administrative assistant for the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department and being a mother. 

Cupo complimented Zola’s work running a bridal beauty shop in Wooster Square.

During closing statements, Zola brought up Cupo’s involvement in Local 34, the union of technical and clerical workers at Yale, which had many members at the debate. 

“I am running because I want to create change,” Zola said. “I would like to break the city’s bonds to Local 34. New Haven is not Local 34. There are people who are living in our city who are destitute, they’re not being offered jobs at Yale, and they are not being offered jobs with Local 34. Those people matter. That’s why I would like to be elected because I care about those people.”

Once Zola said this, Cupo’s father, Aldo Cupo, who was sitting in the audience, yelled out in response that “Local 34 doesn’t hire people, Yale does.”

In her closing statement, Cupo restated her involvement in New Haven, the importance of holding Yale accountable and of expanding affordable housing and youth opportunities. 

“I am incredibly proud of the fact that through the work that I’ve done both in my union and in the city, Local 34 has actually always had a commitment to the city of New Haven in every contract we’ve ever had,” Cupo said in response. 

The municipal election will take place Nov. 7.

Mia Cortés Castro covers City Hall and State Politics, and previously covered Cops and Courts. Originally from Dorado, Puerto Rico, she is a sophomore in Branford College studying English.
Ariela Lopez covers City Hall and City Politics. Originally from New York City, she is a first-year in Branford College.