Elephants in the Room
While national lawmakers lock horns over healthcare and debt, candidates for the New Haven Board of Alders are struggling to distinguish their policy positions. According to local voters, the candidates —avowed liberals and self-identified conservatives alike — sound almost identical. Though an unprecedented four non-Democrats have stepped up to run in the traditionally Democratic Wards 1, 6, 8, and 10, it seems that nobody is interested in being an ideologue. In fact, the distinction between Democrat and Republican in local New Haven politics may be, at most, a rhetorical façade.
The Board of Alders is faced with questions of immediate and tangible importance: crime, poverty, youth and senior services — all within the immediate confines of a relatively small city. In theory at least, taking a stand on these issues does not require the partisan grandstanding that usually comes with the label of Democrat and Republican.
“You can’t really take these hardline press stances that you might if you were dealing with issues on a federal level because they’re so much more complex,” Paul Chandler, the Republican alder candidate in Ward 1, explained. “It’s a lot more of a role in the community.”
Nevertheless, New Haven is a decidedly one-party town. Aside from the uncontested position of Republican registrar of voters, every one of the city’s elected officials — including all thirty current alders — is a Democrat. Registered New Haven Democrats, indeed, outnumber Republicans by a margin of about 18 to 1.
Chandler ’14, is the first Republican to run in Ward 1 in 26 years. The Democratic Party’s decades-long grip on Ward 1 is not surprising; the population of Ward 1 consists primarily of students from Yale, a fairly liberal university located within an overwhelmingly liberal city. The Yale College Republicans (YCR) decided to field Chandler in a moment of political pragmatism, believing that his moderate positions would jive well with Yale’s liberal streak.
“We considered an ideological campaign, just to make a statement,” said Austin Schaefer ’15, chairman of the YCR. “[However,] that’s not what we’re doing. We’re actually trying to run somebody we think can win.”
According to Richter Elser, New Haven’s GOP town chairman, local Republicans all across the Northeast are more moderate than their counterparts in other part of the country. “Traditionally, New England Republicans tend to be much more fiscally-oriented than socially-oriented,” he said. “So for New England states in general — I can’t think of an example when they have supported a Tea Party-esque Republican.”
Given the national party’s recent strides away from this moderate regional mindset, Chandler has emphasized that he is not a “capital R” Republican. “I think even on those little issues, conservatives, liberals, Democrats, Republicans, whatever you may define yourself as, agree most of the time.”
This trend within the New Haven GOP is certainly not confined to Ward 1. Frank Lobo, the Republican challenger in Ward 6, explained that he is “very eager to point out that Republican and Democratic issues on the national level have nothing to do with local politics. None of us that are running for the board of alderman is going to distract at all from the good governance of New Haven.”
Andy Ross, the Republican candidate for Ward 8, in an interview with the The Politic claimed, “Given the way that the [national] Republican Party has been going for the past four years or more, I haven’t identified myself with them for a long time.” Though he labels himself a fiscal conservative, he said that his views are not so rigid as to impact worthy social programs in New Haven. “Locally, I’m a strict moderate, I’m a centrist, I’m down the middle. I’m a very socially compassionate person,” he affirmed.
“Everything comes down to living within our means,” Lobo said, trying to explain the partisan difference in the city. “Republicans of course want city services, but it has to be done with a budget that is within the means available, not taxing people to fulfill a wish-list.”
Ward 1 Alder Sarah Eidelson ’12, however, maintained that Democrats have the edge when it comes to issues of fiscal responsibility. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an alder who doesn’t think fiscal responsibility is extremely important.”
Yet for other topics such as public safety and education, there appears to be even less disagreement. Upon reading each campaign’s literature on these issues, one could reasonably conclude that the Republican and Democratic candidates all recruited the same person to write their copy. For example, Ward 8’s Andy Ross and Democratic candidate Aaron Greenberg both support expanding community policing, reforming public schools, spreading development out to other areas of New Haven, and improving New Haven’s physical image through efforts to clean up litter and repair sidewalks. In fact, when asked what distinguishes his policy views from those of his opponent, Ross told The Politic, “I don’t know really. I don’t know where [Greenberg] is on a lot of matters.”
Remarkably, during a two-hour debate between the Ward 8 candidates, there were only two significant policy disagreements between Greenberg and Ross: Ross’s recommendation for a mandatory curfew for juveniles, which Greenberg attacked as being draconian, and Greenberg’s support for revising the city charter to have two elected members on the school board, which Ross saw as conducive to corruption.
These, of course, are hardly the partisan disputes that we have come to expect between a Republican and a Democrat. But given the city’s strong Democratic bent, it remains to be seen whether even relatively moderate Republicans will be able to break through. After all, there has to be a reason for New Haven voters to support the GOP on November 5, and an “R” next to a name will most likely not cut it.
Perhaps realizing the striking similarities between the two Ward 1 candidates, the Chandler campaign has looked to take a clear stance on pre-existing squabbles amongst liberal New Havenites. Occasional divisions within the New Haven Democratic Party that have less to do with issues of concrete politics than with problems of influence and money. But the Chandler campaign has attempted to bring this debate to the fore with the question of union involvement in Ward 1 politics.
Over the past several years, Mayor John DeStefano’s fiscal policies, including layoffs of city workers and calls for concessions in terms of benefits and pensions, have sparked obvious discontent amongst labor organizations. As a result, unions representing Yale employees have worked to recruit candidates and funnel money into aldermanic campaigns, with the goal of strengthening the board’s resistance to DeStefano. Their efforts have paid off: in the 2011 election, fourteen of the fifteen union-backed candidates won their alder races. Their influence, however, has left some candidates across the city dissatisfied. Doug Hausladen ’04, Ward 7 alder and the founder of Take Back New Haven, is one noteworthy example.
Insofar as Local 34 and 35 — Yale’s pink- and blue-collar labor unions — are a focal point for some kind of discontent, relatively few voters seem to express much dissatisfaction with their policy proposals. New Haven Republicans, however, are determined to make their influence and involvement a larger issue during the campaign cycle.
“I just think you have to be careful when anybody is on both sides of the table in bargaining, or when any kind of supermajority is in power because, it’s not a genuine representative situation,” said Chandler.
In fact, this seems to be one of the main rhetorical fault lines cultivated in the Ward 1 election. Chandler campaign posters, which are nearly ubiquitous on campus billboards, read, “Alderwoman Eidelson has voted consistently with the Local 34 union block that employs her.” Ben Mallett ’16, Chandler’s campaign manager, further asserted that Eidelson’s campaign “is being financed by and is very much beholden to the unions in New Haven.”
The distinction in municipal politics, he emphasized, “isn’t between Republicans and Democrats. It’s between big special interests, unions, and independent-minded politicians.”
Eidelson, on the other hand, responded unequivocally to the Chandler campaign’s allegations. “My campaign hasn’t received any funding from political action committees or special interests,” she told The Politic. “It’s been entirely individuals.” She also emphasized that her job for Local 34 as a graphic designer was strictly “separate from [her] leadership on the board,” a fact backed up by her campaign finance statements.
Yet even the issue of union involvement does not seem to be a universal aspect of Republican rhetoric. When asked, Lobo commented briefly about the possible “harm” of such a powerful interest group on the Board, but went on to detail his support for strong unions. Andy Ross, the Ward 8 Republican candidate running against the union-backed Aaron Greenberg, holds a similarly tepid position. While he expressed concern that their numbers and money might exert an undue influence, he ultimately highlighted his respect for their involvement in local politics.
Ross and Lobo, it seems, are instead hoping that rifts within the Democratic Party will carry them over the finish line on Election Day. Indeed, up until this election cycle, political discontent was mostly confined to the Democratic Party, leaving many New Haven voters dissatisfied and looking for a real source of external antagonism.
In the 2011 Ward 1 race, for instance, the Yale College Democrats refused to endorse either Vinay Nayak or Sarah Eidelson. Several sources that chose to speak off the record expressed a desire for a clear opposition so that Democrats wouldn’t “eat their own,” and the entrance of several officially designated Republicans into races across the city opens the possibility of a shift in the dynamics of political debate on several spectrums.
“I’ve had a lot of fellow citizens of Ward 6 say that they are looking for open dialogue in City Hall,” said Lobo. On the other side of the aisle, Nicole Hobbs, President of the Yale Dems, explained that, “the fact that there is a Democrat versus a Republican changes our involvement.” Hobbes went on to say that, “having a Democrat running against a Republican has allowed the progressive community to coalesce around Sarah as a candidate.”
Certainly, an enthused progressive base underscores the difficulties that any Republican candidate will face when it comes to winning an election in New Haven. It also speaks to the YCR’s choice of Chandler as their candidate in Ward 1. According to Schaefer, the YCR chairman, the organization more or less didn’t exist two years ago. “We played partisan pong with the Democrats,” he said, pointing to the extent of the group’s presence. But over the past year or so, the YCR has galvanized around the prospect of playing a larger role in city politics. Paul Chandler’s campaign seems to represent the apex of their current efforts.
Yet, due to the often-insipid results of this sort of pragmatism, the relative success or failure of Republican candidates across the city seems mostly predicated upon voters’ visceral reactions to the word “Republican” in a ballot booth.
“I think it’s the registration difference,” Lobo said when asked about challenges he faces. “To be honest, I think the actions on the national level of the Republican Party have not helped local Republicans. The brand is suffering.”
It is important to consider, of course, to what extent the local brand of Republicanism bears any resemblance to its national counterpart — or whether the concept of “party politics,” is in any way a useful category in the local sphere. “What drives someone’s ability to win a local race is how well you connect with your neighbors and the other residents in that ward. It really has nothing to do with party politics,” Elser, the New Haven GOP chairman, observed.
Indeed, members of the Board of Alders are, first and foremost, integral members of their community, responsible for a small enough constituency that they are able to address pressing local issues with little focus on that which is outside.
“I’ve lived in Ward 6 for 23 years, I’m a known person, and I’m really running as a neighbor who has the interests of our neighborhood at heart, not as an ideologue,” Lobo stressed.
In many ways, it is refreshing to see this kind of intense focus on local issues — politicians truly responsible to a constituency, rather than to a vague conception of party politics. The alder candidates, the Yale Dems, and the YCR all seem genuinely dedicated to crafting a better city for students and residents.
Yet, the presence of Republicans on the political scene may signal a crossroads in local politics. On one hand, the entrance of more GOP candidates could ossify political debate, as useless political divides are drawn up. However, it could also herald a revival of a two-party system that will improve public debate and broaden the discursive horizon of city politics, strengthening coalitions and opinions across the political spectrum.
In the meantime, most New Haven politicos believe the Republicans will end this electoral cycle empty-handed, finishing little more than a footnote in the history of the 2013 elections. There are few clear differences between the GOP candidates and their Democratic opponents. And even if there were, most of the city’s left-leaning voters would likely side with the Democrats.
Nevertheless, this is the first election in recent memory in which the Republicans have even fielded a credible slate of candidates. As legendary U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.”
New Haven Republicans, at least, certainly hope so.