This summer, before she announced her candidacy for Ward 22 alderwoman, Jeanette Morrison went door to door in Dixwell, asking her neighbors what concerns they had about the community. “There’s no jobs,” they told her. But from the porches where she stood listening, she could see construction happening all over neighboring Ward 1 on Yale’s campus. How could the city grant those zoning rights, she wondered, without also requiring that some of the area’s unemployed residents be trained and allowed to work on these projects? Only 30 percent of the people employed in New Haven are actually from New Haven, which, she argues, is “just a terrible statistic.”
With unemployment rates, municipal layoffs, and violent crime all rising, frustrations like these are mounting across the city as the November 8 election approaches. “People just want to live decent lives,” Morrison said. “There’s something wrong.”
In the September 13 Democratic primary elections, New Haven residents announced that they want new representation. Aldermanic candidates backed by unions, such as Morrison, defeated establishment candidates, many of them incumbents who had served for as long as two decades, in fourteen out of fifteen hotly contested races—despite the fact that many City Hall officials took a vacation day for last-minute canvassing. It was the first time in Mayor John DeStefano, Jr.’s tenure that a significant number of aldermanic candidates he had endorsed were defeated. “The unions kicked ass tonight,” DeStefano said at his own primary victory party at BAR on Crown Street. The same evening, Morrison recalled, “I started crying, my mom started crying, my friends started crying. Like, oh my God!”
The unions had won an important victory over the Democratic Party establishment, creating a new, dynamic moment in New Haven politics. Since early summer, DeStefano and local unions were assembling rival slates of aldermanic candidates. The mayor may no longer be able to count on the support of the aldermanic council in January.
On November 8, students living in Ward 1 will vote for a peer to represent them on the Board of Aldermen. While the labor-establishment division will influence the day-to-day responsibilities of the new alderman, neither of the two candidates—Sarah Eidelson ’12 and Vinay Nayak ’14—is officially supported by unions or by City Hall, and neither is incumbent.
Though they’re aware of the signficance of the primary election, Eidelson and Nayak are wary of talking candidly about it. They are especially reluctant to discuss how tensions may affect the Ward 1 race. Certainly, neither wants to be categorized as belonging to either side.
“I think that pro-City Hall versus anti-City Hall politics is entirely unproductive because ultimately whoever the aldermen are are going to have to work with whoever the mayor is,” Nayak said. He said he would be an “independent-minded” alderman, putting him in the best position to be effective because “when you’re less concerned about the other political dynamics that are going on, like the longevity of staying on the board, then you’re in a better position to really advocate for what you believe in.”
Eidelson was equally diplomatic. “I think that the kind of active democracy and engagement happening around the city is exactly what we need to move forward in a positive direction,” she said, “and I think it’s great that people were able to elect a lot of new representatives who they thought would serve them better than their past ones have.” She added that the quarreling involved in intraparty politics is counterproductive.
This reasoning may be inspiring, but it is also tactful and predictable. Whoever is elected to represent Ward 1 will have to navigate these tensions once he or she is on the Board. In fact, despite their careful public distance from New Haven’s political dichotomy, Nayak and Eidelson have already inevitably encountered this aspect of the city’s politics on their paths to this campaign. For now, these histories are all constituents have to distinguish the two candidates.
As a freshman, Nayak worked as a policy assistant to the board’s Community Development Committee, where he learned about the economic plight of small business owners, nonprofits, and other community members. Eidelson worked with 3-year-olds at Creating Kids, a daycare on Wall Street, during her freshman year. She has spent the past two summers in New Haven. This year, Eidelson managed Sarah Saiano’s campaign for Ward 18 alderwoman. In 2010, she ran the Community Voter Project at the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, a nonprofit organization in the city that deals with issues of economic justice. She went door-to-door registering voters in Dwight, West River, Dixwell, and Newhallville. So, while Nayak has spent more time working with the city’s legislative and executive branches, Eidelson has spent more time in the city at large—talking to community members about their concerns and working on the campaigns that led up to last month’s elections.
The candidates’ divergent experiences have provided them with different skill sets and areas of expertise. Nayak worked on a committee headed by Marcus Paca, Ward 24’s establishment-backed alderman who was just unseated by a union candidate. Eidelson helped lead last spring’s “We Are One” rally at City Hall, which brought together unions and labor rights groups, and the campaign she managed this summer was for a union-backed candidate. (Saiano was the only such candidate to lose her race on September 13.) Eidelson has personal relationships with Frank Douglass, the union-backed candidate and Yale dining hall staff member who won in Ward 2, and Jeanette Morrison, whose campaign she worked on last month. Morrison said, “The most important thing in local politics are relationships and trust, and Sarah has a relationship not just with me but with different people around New Haven.”
Publicly, the candidates portray themselves as being very similar, sometimes frustratingly so. The three planks of Eidelson’s platform are to create a New Haven where “Government works for the people,” “No one lives in fear” and “All neighborhoods are vibrant and inclusive.” Nayak’s points are (with the order manipulated for comparison’s sake), to “Make government more transparent,” “Keep us safe,” and “Revitalize our economy.” They both want to improve infrastructure, make the city’s streets friendlier to bicyclists and pedestrians, and strengthen prisoner re-entry programs. Each promises to be an accessible presence on campus.
When pressed, the candidates have found a convenient, respectful way of distinguishing themselves. Eidelson, a senior, says she’s “the most in touch with Yale students because of how much experience I have working with them already to make the changes that they want to see.” Nayak, a sophomore, points out that while Eidelson will graduate soon, he will be a student for the next two years, making him “able to be accessible to and interact with kids in the Yale community to work together on the solutions.”
Their approaches to policy do vary, however. Nayak is extremely detailed and on point. When asked the same open-ended questions as Eidelson in an interview on policy matters, he spoke for more than three times as long. Hyperspecific, downloadable reports—ready to be submitted to the board if he’s elected—have been on his website for months. He punctuates conversation and op-eds with appeals to refer to his website. Eidelson is less talkative when it comes to policy and has only uploaded some comparatively concise policy points to her site this month.
The difference between the candidates is clear in their approaches to community policing. Both candidates think it’s important that the police department engage with residents, but they would execute this goal differently. Nayak says that his campaign is based on “realistic conversations [I’ve] had with people on the Board as well as people in City Hall, as far as what we could reasonably get done.” While he believes that the city should have more community-centered policing, he says it’s an internal matter for the police department to address. He would rather focus on “real solutions that the Board of Aldermen actually has jurisdiction over.”
Eidelson said that a return to community-centered policing was a priority. Faced with the question of jurisdiction over policing, she brought up charter reform, the review and revision of the city government’s constitution completed by the Board every five years. (Charter reform is a favorite subject of Eidelson’s; Nayak didn’t mention it in an interview.) Currently, Eidelson said, the police commission that oversees the police department is entirely appointed by the mayor. This authority, she said, “could shift with charter reform, such that the people can have more direct power over the police force.”
Nayak wants to work within the system, and Eidelson wants to reform it entirely. He’s more pragmatic; she’s a bit more romantic. It is not difficult for anyone who has talked to the candidates to understand the differences between them. But these differences are certainly not advertised.
In city politics at large, candidates don’t understate their differences and affiliations—they champion them. Morrison, for example, was proud to have served on the executive board of her local union. “I like unions!” she said. “I work for the State of Connecticut, and I’m part of the union.” Morrison supports unions because of what they accomplish. “We all believe that the people should have a voice,” she said, “and that people should be given the same opportunities as everyone else.”
We can hope that a more diverse Board of Aldermen will help achieve these goals, whatever the outcome of the Ward 1 race.