“I don’t think we’re completely or partially defunct,” said Nancy Ahern, former Westville alderman and current treasurer of the New Haven Republican Town Committee. “Our importance has been diminishing over the years but there will always be room for that minority voice.”
The story of the party’s decline can be attributed to several factors, the most important of which is probably demographics: New Haven has a significant working class population, much of which is organized into unions. “There is very clearly a [Republican] rhetoric—it’s like the nineteenth century all over again,” Ben Crosby, PC ’14, one of the Democratic Party Co-Chairs for Ward 1 said. “Cities are cesspools of crime and corruption and lazy poor people waiting for handouts. The Republican message is not going to appeal.”
Richter Elser, BR ’81, chairman of the Republican Town Committee, contended that the New Haven Republican agenda garners additional support from outside the party itself. “If you look at the numbers of votes Republican candidates get in the city” he notes, “either the party has a 200 percent turnout, or there are a lot of Democrats who are inclined to support us.” He suspects that the extra votes come from registered Democrats voting Republican in the general elections.
There are also the unaffiliated voters, which is the fastest growing bloc at both the city and statewide levels. Elser argued that, with the emergence of the unaffiliated voter as a real political force, the influence of parties themselves may start to diminish, for Democrats as well as Republicans. “The real issue is the nature of political parties,” said Elser. “They’re losing their relevance because people have so much access to so much information on the local level.”
On the other hand, political parties and their activities often have contributed to a sense of community, whether through activists canvassing neighborhoods or aldermen issuing newsletters to their constituents. Arlen e DePino, who served as New Haven’s last Republican Alderman from 2000 to 2010, representing Morris Cove, emphasized in an interview that constituent service and outreach was the essential part of her tenure on the Board. Crosby also emphasized the importance of community outreach: “The new folks running the city Democratic Party have worked very hard to be more visible and reach out and be active,” he said.
Of course, it is impossible to consider political party affiliation without regard to national politics. Many Elm City Republicans, including Ahern, point out distinctions between their local goals and their party’s larger-scale stereotypes. “To a liberal New England-style Republican—what I consider myself to be—the image of Republicans nationwide can be a handicap,” she said. Ahern stresses the irrelevance of the national party’s hot-button issues within the New Haven community, arguing that they have very little to do with local politics, budgets, education and safety. “The message we need to carry to voters in New Haven and Connecticut is that they have to see that the politics are local. We’re not running for president—the image of the Republican Party nationwide is irrelevant! It’s what we believe as individuals.” In fact, local Republicans have traditionally been moderate on social issues.
Recently, the Party’s relevance in the city has dwindled. In the 1970s and early ’80s, there were normally six or eight Republicans on the Board of Aldermen. By the ’90s, “we had as many as five and [as few as] two,” Ahern said. By September 2011, when incumbent DePino withdrew from the aldermanic race, New Haven Republicans were left without a single candidate for office in the entire city. “I was in long enough,” DePino reminisced at the Town Committee meeting. “10 years is long enough.”
But a few staunch defenders of the Grand Old Party remain. Elser believes that the party may yet have viable candidates in the future: “I’m an optimist,” Elser said. “That’s why I’m a Republican.” The locally-focused Town Committee continues to meet once a month and has representation from eight of the city’s wards. Additionally, when the state Party needs support, the Town Committee does fundraising “so that if—I should say when—we get to the point where we can identify a viable local candidate, we have the credibility to ask the state Party to support the candidate.”
Despite this outreach work, the Party’s struggles are undeniable. “Clearly whatever we’re doing isn’t necessarily working because we’re not getting people to register as Republicans,” Elser said. Given that the New Haven Republicans’ local goals depend on budget details, the committee is not yet able to clearly outline its specific goals for the next election cycle. But Elser has an idea:“[It will] revolve around the city’s budget issues. The issue New Haven has to come to grips with is that it doesn’t live within its means. Unless you have a solution for that, everything else is really just taking up time at City Hall.”
Currently, a significant portion of the city’s budget comes from state funding—New Haven receives the most money of all the municipalities in Connecticut. Accordingly, as the state makes budget cuts, New Haven will see less money. For Elser, private development that expands the property tax base will be key. “The more you start to concentrate [private investment] in the central business district, the more that will push out into the neighborhoods, beginning to give the city the resources to stabilize the budget situation.”
The Town Committee’s website also lists public safety and education as two areas that could benefit from a fresh perspective. Ahern identified quality public education,based within the neighborhoods, as a goal for New Haven. She also hopes, citing an experience she had as a substitute teacher, to increase awareness of local politics among Elm City residents. “I would ask the high schoolers if they knew what an alderman was—they did not have any idea,” Ahren said. “They were totally disconnected from the people with the most immediate impact on their lives.”
These objectives, of course, remain purely theoretical until the Party can elect another Republican to office. Often, the time commitment that comes with serving in office as a minority member can deter potential candidates from running. While involvement in local politics is time-consuming generally, as a minority party member (whether Republican or Independent), one representative is expected to attend at all meetings and committees.
Alex Crutchfield, BR ’15, political director for the Yale College Republicans, said that the group has talked about putting a candidate forward to “make a statement” and “create some momentum” for talking points that are not traditionally part of the Ward 1 campaigns, such as how New Haven deals with the working class, contracts, and business licenses. Aware of the marginal chance of victory and of the large time commitment running entails, the group chose not to put a candidate forward. “We have a lot of people involved in something from the football team to fraternities to other political organizations and it would require someone to give up their life,” Crutchfield said.
Ultimately, the College Republicans have not engaged in local politics on any level. Crutchfield sees reasons for this. “Geographically, we’re not in an advantageous area. Ours is a really pragmatic rationale.” Richter, in contrast, believes that the College Republicans could have an influence, and cites Republican political groups at Southern Connecticut State and Quinnipiac universities, who “contribute time and enthusiasm.”
Most people might think that Crutchfield is correct—why waste time on a party with such minimal influence? Yet, for New Haven Republicans, the principle of expression of minority views validates the effort required. “Without at least two parties,” Ahern said, “democracy becomes demagoguery.” City Republicans still hope to provide crucial minority representation in a one-party government sometime in the future. Ahern said that for a candidate willing to work hard, “there is always an opportunity.” She and Elser both spoke to the importance of listening, communicating with constituents, and providing a voice of opposition.
More than that, though, Elser takes issue with critics who don’t make an effort to attend public hearings or otherwise participate in government. “Government only works when people participate,” he said. “We get the government we elect and participate in.” When asked about the best part about being a Republican on the Board of Aldermen, DePino emphasized ideological diversity: “It’s always good to bring another perspective to the table,” he said. “The current Board has 30 seats and 30 Democrats. That’s a ripe atmosphere for corruption. And I would say that if it were 30 Republicans, too.”