By 5 p.m., the back room at The Russian Lady had swelled well beyond capacity. Most people, dressed in suits, had come straight from work. The mood was celebratory, and as the crowd continued to grow, many edged their way forward to the podium, a glass of wine or a beer in hand, hoping for a better view. Finally, U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) took the stage. Standing against a giant blue backdrop emblazoned with the slogan “Improving New Haven, Again,” and flanked by bunches of red, white, and blue balloons, she introduced the mayor and spoke glowingly of his legacy: “It’s wide, it’s deep, it’s broad,” she said. “It’s an important legacy for the city.”
DeLauro cited the strides forward taken during Mayor DeStefano’s 10 terms, from improvements in education and housing to the revitalization of downtown. “It’s unimaginable that [New Haven] would be such a vibrant place but for the leadership of John DeStefano,” she said. Then she asked where the Yalies were. A hand near the front of the room shot up at the mention of the University. It belonged to Richard Levin, GRD ‘74. DeStefano, who stood a few paces to DeLauro’s right, bounded off the stage toward Yale’s outgoing president, wrapping his arms around him in a tremendous hug. Among the monumental changes that have occurred in the Elm City in the past two decades, few have been as significant as the rekindling of relations between the University and the city. DeLauro called it a “partnership.” A man in front of me whispered to a friend: “Can you imagine the president of Yale being at this event 20 years ago?”
DeStefano began his own speech by reciting the chorus from the song “Closing Time,” by Semisonic: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” He recalled his earliest days as mayor of New Haven in 1994, when a walk down Church Street to City Hall meant a view of shuttered businesses, foreclosed malls, and a bankrupt hotel. Revitalizing downtown became one of the administration’s immediate priorities. The manufacturing positions that had once anchored employment in the city had left en masse, and as joblessness remained persistently high, officials began to redirect efforts toward making New Haven more amenable to the modern worker.
The capstone came three years ago when the city’s Downtown Crossing proposal won a federal grant to convert the unfinished Route 34 highway into a stretch of urban boulevards. Begun several decades ago at the peak of New Haven’s urban renewal craze, Route 34, which was intended to provide enhanced access to downtown New Haven, ultimately had the opposite effect. It split the city along its waistline, separating the downtown from its medical district and Hill neighborhood. As preparations are being made to clear the highway for new development, DeStefano has worked to court biotech firms to the area to augment New Haven’s budding research and health science industries.
At the same time, DeStefano has thrown his support behind a “jobs pipeline” proposed by the Board of Aldermen at the start of the most recent term. The pipeline will comprise a set of coordinated programs that train and link job-seekers with employers. The project’s developers estimate that the pipeline will place 1,000 workers in the next four years—a figure that would put a significant dent in New Haven’s stubborn unemployment rate. Officials have worked especially closely with Yale—New Haven’s largest employer—to ensure that many of the participants are able to find work at the University after completing the programs that constitute the pipeline.
Twenty years ago, such a partnership between Yale and New Haven would have been difficult to conceive. From behind the lectern, DeStefano joked that in the same year he was first elected, Yale had just appointed a “new, promising, and then-young president.” DeStefano said that at the time, in 1993, Yale was not a place where anyone growing up in New Haven felt welcome. The 1991 murder of Christian Prince, PC ’93, had deepened the perception held by many Yalies that the city beyond the school’s walls was a dangerous, crime-riddled place, further damaging town-gown relations.
But both Levin and DeStefano quickly came to believe that stronger ties between Yale and New Haven would be mutually beneficial. One of the earliest collaborations in the Levin-DeStefano era was the Yale Homebuyer Program. Started in 1994, the program provides support to University employees to purchase homes in New Haven. DeStefano has also enabled the University to expand, which Levin told the Herald was a favorable move for both parties. “DeStefano understood that a larger and stronger Yale was good for New Haven,” he said, noting that Yale has added 4,000 jobs since the beginning of DeStefano’s tenure. Bruce Alexander, Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development, told the Herald that the once-fraught relationship between Yale and New Haven “has been institutionalized.”
Seven minutes into his speech at the Russian Lady, DeStefano started touching on why he had decided not to run for an 11th term. “A lot of it had to do with being, frankly, 57,” he said. “I want to do something else, and I want to do it vigorously, and for a period of time.” Just months earlier, however, fundraising records suggest he had been preparing for another year of campaigning. By the end of June, DeStefano had accumulated over $75,000 in contributions.
For many, then, DeStefano’s decision not to run again came as a surprise. Yet there were some who felt that the mayor had subtly telegraphed a desire to call it quits before his official announcement. Levin told the Herald that when he announced his own retirement in August, an “expression in [DeStefano’s] eyes” may have tipped his hand. “I had a little intuition,” he said.
Campaign finance disclosure statements show that DeStefano’s re-election committee received no contributions from October through December, and that his campaign actually lost money during that time period; DeStefano had $72,288.88 in his coffers at the close of the reporting period ending on Oct. 28, 2012, but only $68,638.88 by year’s end. Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker, FES ’10 SOM ’10, who publicly spoke of the possibility of running for mayor against DeStefano as early as November before formally announcing his candidacy on Thurs., Jan. 24, suggested that the sudden decrease in fundraising conducted by the mayor may have signaled an intention not to run. “I don’t know if he asked for money [between October and December], but he wasn’t actively fundraising,” he said.
DeStefano has not revealed whether there was a single event that caused him to change his mind, but the previous election seemed to demonstrate that his traditionally sturdy perch atop city politics was loosening. Even as DeStefano was widely credited for playing a significant role in the city’s rebound after the financial crisis, his margin of victory in the 2011 election—55 to 45 percent—was the narrowest of his career, despite his outspending his opponent 20 to one. In that same election, 15 union-supported candidates faced off against City Hall-backed office seekers in aldermanic contests, and all but one of the union-supported candidates won.
Given New Haven unions’ impressive showing last election cycle, many believe that were a union-backed candidate to enter the race, he or she would be an immediate contender. The New Haven Independent reported that Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez and State Senator Martin Looney—two favorites of the unions—are considering running. While many other potential candidates were present for DeStefano’s announcement, only two people besides Elicker have officially declared their campaigns: State Representative Gary Holder Winfield, who represents Hamden and New Haven, and Sundiata Keitazulu, a New Haven plumber.
About halfway through his address, Mayor DeStefano decided to take off his glasses for good. His speech, though, didn’t become noticeably less polished—he had a seasoned politician’s command of what he was saying. “Two years ago, with the violence in the city where it was, school reform just getting off the ground, [stepping down] didn’t make sense to me,” he said. “Now I feel better about both.” There is a general agreement that as New Haven’s workforce grows, violence will decrease in turn. “New Haven residents know that if there were more jobs for residents, then we would see much less crime and violence,” Ward 1 Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson, JE ’12, told the Herald in a Sept. 21, 2012 article.
But school reform has always been a longer process. Levin said that as DeStefano departs, the reform movement is still taking root in full. He labeled it a “10-year investment.” Elicker, who in the past couple of days has been publicly advocating a change in the appointment structure of the school board, said that the reform effort still has a ways to go before it is complete. “The mayor’s made some progress, but I think there’s a lot more we can be doing in that area,” he said, adding that while some graduation rates have improved, many positive indicators of successful schools are still not being met.
DeStefano himself admitted that “public schools and public safety” would be the top priorities of his successor, before reminding the audience that he still has a year as mayor of the Elm City. With the primary election not until September, and the general election not until November, DeStefano declared that he is “not going anywhere yet.” One of his most prominent efforts to date in improving school reform came through partnering with Yale in 2010 to create the so-called “New Haven Promise,” a Yale-funded scholarship that covers full in-state tuition costs at public colleges for students who graduate from New Haven public schools. It is the type of town-gown collaboration that was unthinkable before the Levin-DeStefano era, but is regarded as indispensible now.
Even with arguably the two most influential men in the City of New Haven retiring from their posts in the same year, few think that the partnership will miss a beat during the transition period. Levin said that Peter Salovey, GRD ’86, Yale’s president-elect, is just as devoted to the cause. And Alexander, who through his work redeveloping commercial properties adjacent to the Yale campus has often been at the crux of town-gown negotiations, insisted that the impending turnovers at Yale and City Hall would have little impact on the University’s current relationship with the city. “This is not a relationship that depends on any one or two people,” he said.
As the field of candidates vying to replace DeStefano began to emerge, no one on Tuesday seemed to want to announce a frontrunner or their favorite. DeStefano resisted naming any names himself; instead, he gave a list of attributes he thinks his successor should possess. “Hire a mayor who’s going to make decisions, stand for something, be willing to be held accountable, and get something done for our people,” he said, emphasizing the last phrase. It seemed to be as much a suggestion for the type of mayor voters should elect as it was a series of qualities by which DeStefano himself wishes to be remembered. But few would fault DeStefano for this final indulgence in his last celebration at the Russian Lady—it was his night, as it’s been his town for the past 20 years. Moments later, DeStefano ended his speech to applause. Turning to his right, he kissed his wife, hugged his two sons, and stepped offstage.