Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

A group of New Haveners, unhappy with the dominance of Yale unions in local Democratic politics, is seeking to challenge the incumbent party committee members representing nearly half of the city’s wards.

The new organization, called “New Haven Agenda” but offering no unified policy agenda, announced in a press release last week that 15 candidates were gathering signatures to qualify for the ballot in Democratic Town Committee ward co-chair elections set for March 5. The co-chairs, two in each of New Haven’s 30 wards, canvass voters and influence Democratic nominations.

“The process needs to be opened up,” Jason Bartlett, an organizer of the group and a Ward 6 co-chair candidate, told the News. “There’s lots of people in the city that don’t want to have to be 100 percent beholden to one particular interest group, to debate, you know, where the Democratic Party should go.”

The push to dislodge current Democratic co-chairs, which emerged from the defeated mayoral campaign of Tom Goldenberg, may face long odds against an established party infrastructure in the low-profile, typically low-turnout elections. Goldenberg ran on the Republican ticket in November after losing to Mayor Justin Elicker in the Democratic primary.

Joe Fekieta, an artist and longtime resident of the Hill, is running for Ward 4 co-chair after having volunteered for the Goldenberg campaign. Fekieta said Goldenberg invited him to a meeting with other potential co-chair challengers at the Annex Club in early January. Goldenberg declined to comment for this article.

At the gathering, Goldenberg discussed “how the New Haven political scene was kind of hijacked” by Yale unions, Fekieta recalled. The organizers distributed copies of a New Yorker article from October detailing the power of UNITE HERE unions in city government, dating back to 2011, when a slate of union-endorsed candidates won election to the Board of Alders.

It was Fekieta’s first time hearing about the unions’ influence, which he called a “political machine.” After sleeping on it, Fekieta agreed to run to be a co-chair. In three hours on Saturday, he collected 10 of the 43 signatures he needs to reach the ballot, he said.

Vincent Mauro Jr., the Democratic Town Committee chairman, disputed the “political machine” characterization, noting that union leaders did not initially back Elicker but have built ties with the mayor over time. He also expressed confidence in the current co-chairs’ reelection prospects.

“Everyone wants to blame UNITE HERE for things,” Mauro said. “I think what UNITE HERE has done to get voter engagement in this city is remarkable.”

Besides endorsing Democratic candidates, ward co-chairs interact with voters and drive turnout, Mauro said. To him, the incumbent Democratic Town Committee members will be crucial to getting out the vote for the federal elections in November — to ensure a strong showing in New Haven that boosts President Joe Biden’s popular vote tally, even if Connecticut’s Electoral College votes are all but certain to go blue.

The three new co-chair challengers who spoke with the News are animated by a variety of issues, ranging from education to housing to neighborhood cleanliness, and they will not sign on to a common platform, Bartlett said. But they share at least one stance: dissatisfaction with the city’s current Democratic leadership. For Fekieta, the ultimate objective is no less than to “unseat the mayor.”

The New Haven Agenda candidates also differ vastly in their levels of political experience. Bartlett has a long history in New Haven politics, including time as a state representative, work for former Mayor Toni Harp and a controversial stint as youth services director that ended with his firing by Elicker in 2020. In the fall, Bartlett was a paid advisor for Goldenberg’s mayoral campaign.

But the vast majority of the candidates are political outsiders. Joe Fekieta said he had not heard about the position of ward co-chair before Goldenberg suggested he run for it. Martha Dilone, a self-employed bookkeeper and Ward 3 co-chair candidate, said she was waiting for future meetings to learn more about the role.

One of the co-chair contenders listed in the New Haven Agenda press release, Solomon Maye in Ward 19, said in an Instagram message that he withdrew because he was too busy working with boxers at his gym, Get’em Boy Boxing.

Two other candidates have signed on since the press release came out, bringing the total number of candidates to 16, Bartlett said Wednesday. New Haven Agenda has not found candidates to run for co-chair roles in Wards 1 or 22, where most Yale students live.

As of Wednesday, no candidates other than incumbent co-chairs or their chosen replacements have yet been certified for the ballot, Democratic Registrar Shannel Evans told the News.

Co-chair hopefuls have until Wednesday, Jan. 31, to collect the signatures of at least five percent of the active registered Democrats in their wards — ones who have not skipped several elections or left official mail unanswered.

Ethan Wolin covers City Hall and local politics. He is a first year in Silliman College from Washington, D.C.