So what’s with all the taxidermied old fuddy-duddies in Toni Harp’s fledgling mayoral administration? That is the question du jour in New Haven politics. To the extent that Toni Harp is resurrecting New Haven’s “old guard” Democrats from the grave by turning 165 Church Street into a geriatric ward for the likes of Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes (Board of Aldermen President 20 years ago) and Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson (Chamber of Commerce President 20 years ago), it is not because of nostalgia for a brilliant heyday that never was (goodness knows the pre-DeStefano early 1990s weren’t a golden age), or because she believes (per Reyes) that experience matters above all else. It is, as they say, less ‘man bites dog’ than all that. Politics is about relationships, whom you trust, who’s in your rolodex or Favorites list on your iPhone. Because Harp ‘graduated’ from city government in 1993 when she was elected to the state senate, her relationships at the state capital have become diverse and multi-generational, but her point of reference for New Haven politics has been frozen in time, grounded in an era before the existence of social media, even before the existence of e-mail.
A few thoughts about the special election to replace Toni Harp in the state senate, which is likely to NOT be the last special election in New Haven in 2014:
Like all long-serving politicians, ten-term New Haven Mayor John DeStefano was defined not so much by a particular set of values or policies as by his evolution, his pivots, his accommodations to the political zeitgeist. From Winston Churchill to Strom Thurmond to Jerry Brown, the most tenacious of long-serving career politicians are by definition chameleons whose stock-in-trade is adaptation to the demands of the era, even if it means swapping one ideology, or political party, for another. But DeStefano really seemed to raise political survival to the level of an art form, as he outlived scandal after scandal, a bitter primary against a popular rival, a doomed run for governor, stinging defeat at the United States Supreme Court in a discrimination case that cost the city $5 million, and the coming and going of at least two different political machines. Along the way he evolved from an Ed Koch / Dan Rostenkowski Democrat to a thoroughly contemporary exponent of urban neoliberalism in the vein of Booker and Bloomberg, mirroring the tectonic drift of the national Democratic party. Perhaps it wasn’t so much an ideological leap as the cultivation of a deeper-pocketed set of friends, and a new set of enemies armed with a sense of betrayal.
But DeStefano didn’t just surf the zeitgeist. Sometimes his pivots were genuine acts of learning from mistakes. In that sense DeStefano’s leadership is actually a good argument against term limits: not because he was an ‘indispensable man’ who resurrected New Haven from its Detroit-like early-1990s depths with the far-sightedness of his vision and the force of his will, but because like all great political survivors he was a master of course-correction. DeStefano wasn’t quite a great mayor, but he will be remembered well fifty years from now, because he was that rare species of politician capable of failing upward.
And you don’t need to read this opposition research memo prepared for the 2006 Jodi Rell campaign to know that there were a lot of mistakes and failures to learn from: the 1990s corruption scandals that seemed to miraculously circle around the mayor but never touched him; the collapse of community policing; the Ricci case; the disastrous Long Wharf Mall proposal, that even DeStefano himself later admitted was a boneheaded idea doomed to implosion from the start.
But after the federal subpoenas started flowing, he replaced the rotten apples in his administration with competent technocrats. His 1989 loss to Daniels and close-call against Looney in 2001 hobbled his confidence enough that he could never quite ditch the likes of Boise Kimber and other ‘machine’ parasites who provided succor to his campaigns, but as mayors in Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury were being perp-walked out of city hall in handcuffs, New Haven looked squeaky clean by comparison. After realizing that huge tax subsidies were financially unsustainable and promoted bad development, he changed the way development deals in New Haven were structured. After years of defending an indefensible status quo in New Haven’s public schools, he initiated a nationally recognized school reform effort with — no mean feat — genuine buy-in from teachers and community groups. After years of being criticized for his top-down management style, he learned to listen more to the neighborhoods. His brush with humiliating defeat in 2011 — almost losing to political newcomer Jeffrey Kerekes, and losing control of the Board of Aldermen to a union-backed faction — forced him to heed calls from the neighborhoods to bring back community policing. By the end he even seemed to warm to the idea that meaningful public participation in big city planning projects was a good thing, to the point of holding a public design charrette on overhauling the downtown street grid.
It is easy to dismiss some of DeStefano’s evolutions as acts of political expediency. His belated embrace of “education reform” after 15 years in office was clearly informed by federal government funding priorities, in precisely the same way his signature $1.5 billion school construction program would never have gotten off the ground if the state weren’t footing 80% of the bill; and his commitment to “new urbanist” ideas like highway removal extended only as far as the nearest TIGER grant. Of course, sometimes the free money proved not to be free. And many people felt that the tail wagging the dog — DeStefano coming around to doing the right thing only when the financial and political incentives were right — was probably not the best way to run a city.
On the other hand it would be foolish to suggest that going on national television, as DeStefano did in 2011, to argue for undocumented immigrants having the right to vote in local elections was about fishing for grant dollars or electoral advantage. His strong support for immigrant rights may have helped replace some of his support in the black community, which had been eroding for years, with Latino support, but the net political impact was clearly harmful when he ran for governor and neutral at best in New Haven. He certainly didn’t need to subject himself to the torrent of abuse and hate mail he received in response to the resident ID card program and the voting proposal unless he really believed in the larger cause as bedrock of his mayoral legacy. When DeStefano really cared about an issue, as he did with immigrant rights, he looked like a great mayor; and left many exasperated progressives wishing he pursued more issues with that kind of sustained creativity and zeal.
DeStefano’s long tenure is sometimes used as an argument for term limits. But if he had been kicked out of office ten years ago because of an arbitrary cap on a mayor’s ability to serve consecutive terms, he would have been denied the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, and the city would be worse off because of it.
A few observations about yesterday’s historic election in New Haven:
One of Toni Harp’s keys to success on Tuesday was a very strong base in New Haven’s African-American community, especially among African-American women, for whom Harp’s candidacy resonated on a deeply personal level. But equally important was the consistency of her appeal across New Haven’s 30 wards. That’s not to say she didn’t lose some wards by considerable margins — for example, Morris Cove’s Ward 18, where Elicker trounced her by more than 600 votes (the highest discrepancy between the two candidates in any ward). Yet while Elicker received fewer than 100 votes in seven different wards, Harp’s lowest total in any ward was 188. Without exit polling we can only speculate about the racial breakdown of Tuesday’s vote, but the ward-level results indicate that while Elicker clearly won the white vote, Harp did not elicit the kind of ‘white backlash’ that often dooms minority candidates. As with Obama in 2008, that speaks both to her personal qualities — Harp may be polarizing in some respects, but she is not racially polarizing — and to the campaign that she ran, which mirrored Obama’s with her exceptional knack for maintaining a strong bond with her African-American base without compromising her ability to attract support from the political and economic establishment, including a lot of rich white people. Comparing Harp to John Daniels across a generation gives a whiff of the meaning of “Post-Obama Era.” Both Harp and Daniels became mayor of New Haven after serving as state senator from the tenth district. Following the Tom Bradley model, Daniels’s historic campaign in 1989 to become the city’s first black mayor successfully attracted white liberals into a winning multi-racial coalition, but Harp went beyond that, as Obama did, in securing support not only from across the entire Democratic Party establishment, including the local party machine (which virulently opposed Daniels), but also from wealthy white donors representing business and real estate interests. She proved to be a prodigious fundraiser, collecting checks from an impressive variety of political action committees, and her cautious campaign, in which she hewed to the center and surrounded herself with people intended to reassure the business community and bond markets, was (like Obama’s in 2008 and even more so in 2012) very much an establishment affair. When Daniels was elected, he said “The Daniels administration will belong to the people of New Haven, not the so-called bosses… or the big campaign contributors.” He might have been referring to some of the people at Harp’s victory party at Kelly’s 24 years later.
Because the second charter revision question New Haven voters will face on Tuesday is an omnibus package containing many separate elements, voters have to weigh the parts they like against the parts they don’t like. The most straightforward way to think about this is if you like more parts than you dislike, you should vote yes. If you dislike more than you like, vote no. Of course you have to factor in how much you like the parts you like versus how much you dislike the parts you dislike; you might vote yes because you really like one provision and hate all the rest, or vice versa. But either way it’s a 50-50 scale.
It is no secret that Senator Toni Harp has received endorsements and campaign contributions from an almost bewildering variety of organized interests: real estate developers, landlords, Chamber of Commerce-types (e.g. her former rival Matt Nemerson), law firms (e.g. Robinson & Cole), doctors’ groups (e.g. CT Association of Optometrists), state lobbyists, construction unions, the two powerful Yale unions, public employee unions, clergy groups, and various other constituencies. Some of these are traditional sources of support for Democratic candidates (labor, trial lawyers), while others are not. One measure of this kind of institutional support is PAC donations, which have made up about 20% of Harp’s fundraising. Meanwhile Justin Elicker has received few endorsements from organized interest groups and has not taken PAC money. Harp has defended the PAC money flooding into her campaign coffers by saying that you cannot pigeonhole her support as being just from business or labor or any other single group, and that her appeal to a diversity of special interests is a sign of virtue, not corruption. To Elicker supporters and some good-government purists that might sound like silly self-justification, but there is actually a good deal of political science research suggesting it is perfectly reasonable. You could easily paraphrase Harp’s argument in classic pluralist terms that would make Robert Dahl smile: if you have enough special interests from enough different parts of the political spectrum looking to reap returns on their political ‘investments,’ these narrow interests balance each other out and the outcome is successful representative government. It might sound paradoxical, but according to this theory of governance, the more special interests supporting a particular politician, the better able he or she is to carry out the people’s will.
James Madison would probably have disagreed: in Federalist Number 10 Madison used the derogatory term “faction” to describe interest groups, and most Americans have traditionally agreed with Madison’s unfavorable view of interest groups as nefarious actors operating in a financially self-interested fashion that is bad for the body politic as a whole. In more recent times, many political scientists (particularly Robert Dahl and his followers) have produced research that suggests otherwise. Dahl’s ”pluralist theory” argues that interest group activity brings representation to all by fostering healthy competition in the political marketplace. The pluralist group theory of politics argues: 1) Groups provide a key linkage between people and government, 2) Groups compete in an open marketplace of ideas and philosophies, 3) No one group is likely to become too dominant, 4) groups usually play by the “rules of the game,” and 5) Advocacy (a.k.a. lobbying) is simply about access to information and is available to everyone in society, and is therefore a good thing, not a bad thing.
One of the few specific proposals Toni Harp has offered in her campaign is a seven-part plan to overhaul New Haven’s outdated ethics laws, many of which have not been updated in 50 years. Unfortunately the release of her plan was overshadowed by revelations about her late husband’s tax-delinquent business, which emerged at the same time in July. Indeed, if enacted Harp’s plan will certainly be put to good use on the various city contractors and lobbyists who have contributed to her campaign.
Nonetheless Harp should be commended for her interest in ethics reform — the kind of “process issue” that typically yields little political reward. But there are at least four areas where Harp’s plan needs improvement:
1) The main feature of the plan is requiring people who seek (or advocate on behalf of those seeking) city contracts or city business valued at over $50,000 to pay a fee and register as lobbyists. But the state and federal government already have such a requirement and it doesn’t work. There are thousands of unregistered lobbyists in Washington DC, many of whom disguise their activities by working for law firms. In the 2012 Republican primary Newt Gingrich became the subject of scandal and derision for referring to his multimillion-dollar lobbying deals as giving “strategic advice.” Tony Podesta, a top Democratic lobbyist, recently told NPR: ”It’s largely a matter of choice that each of us makes, as to whether we comply with the law or not. I could become an unregistered lobbyist with the flick of a pen.” There are even fewer resources for enforcing lobbyist registration requirements in New Haven than at the federal level.
2) Much of the plan simply restates current ethics law and responsibilities of the Board of Ethics as if new solutions were being proposed and new areas of conflict-of-interest were being addressed. For example, the plan calls for ethics trainings, but ethics trainings already exist in New Haven for all board and commission members. The problem with these trainings is that attendance is not compulsory — and many if not most board and commission members simply do not bother to attend. Similarly, many board and commission members neglect by accident or design to fill out their annual conflict-of-interest disclosure form. That includes not just appointed members, but also elected officials: in 2012 eight aldermen neglected to submit disclosure forms until they were exposed by the New Haven Independent. The Board of Ethics cannot even achieve this minimal level of compliance because it has no resources, no subpoena power, and no staff support. Harp’s plan calls for providing the Board of Ethics with the necessary resources, but offers no specific blueprint or strategy for doing so.
3) For Harp to enact her plan, she would almost certainly need to convene a new charter revision commission, which seems unlikely considering that New Haven has just gone through charter revision and is not scheduled to do so again until 2023. According to the current charter, the Board of Ethics has only three members, which is untenable for a volunteer board with the kind of considerable responsibilities that Harp wants to endow it with. A three-member board often has difficulty achieving quorum and cannot easily form subcommittees to carry out specialized tasks. The state-level ethics advisory board has nine members, a more typical size. Another problem with Harp’s plan is that she calls for the Board of Ethics to have its own budget and be “independent” of the mayor’s office, but it is hard to see how that can be achieved without changing the procedure (enshrined in the charter) by which the board is constituted, which is mayoral appointment. It would make more sense for the Board to have an appointment procedure similar to the Civilian Review Board — with neighborhood organizations or community management teams nominating members. Another option, used in some jurisdictions, is asking a local Bar Association chapter to nominate ethics board members. Harp had ample opportunity, but failed to propose these structural changes at any of the charter revision public hearings earlier this year.
4) There are three mutually reinforcing elements of a good-government agenda: ethics reform, campaign finance reform, and redistricting reform. It is a three-legged stool that is only as strong as its weakest link. Ethics reform functions best in tandem with campaign finance reform and redistricting reform. So it is troubling that Harp has raised the possibility of defunding or eliminating the New Haven Democracy Fund, the city’s program for public financing of mayoral elections. That would be a step in the wrong direction and would completely undermine anything she might accomplish in the area of ethics.
If Harp achieves an almost-certain victory next Tuesday, her first action as mayor should be to ask the Board of Alders to convene a charter revision commission to expand the Board of Ethics and rewrite the charter’s Code of Ethics to prevent the kind of ethical mess exposed by Andy Rizzo’s revolving-door lobbying earlier this year. She should ask the Board of Alders to write the strongest ethics ordinances in the country. And she should come out and clearly state that she will not eliminate the New Haven Democracy Fund, but will work with the Board of Alders and good-government groups like Common Cause and League of Women Voters to improve and strengthen it.
On paper Henry Fernandez was the perfect candidate: an African-American with a Hispanic surname who could also appeal to white progressives. He had a compelling personal story of escaping childhood poverty to attain two Ivy League degrees; impeccable progressive credentials reinforced by endorsements from the likes of Danny Glover and Van Jones; a formidable fundraising apparatus bolstered by his Ivy League connections and tacit endorsement from Mayor John DeStefano; experience in city government, having run two different city departments; a politically active wife who could help bring along her own loyal constituency. If you read articles like this flattering Kevin Rennie column or this glowing Chris Keating profile in the Hartford Courant leading up to the primary, you probably would have thought Harp and Fernandez were running neck and neck. Given Fernandez’s impressive resume and strong debating skills, who can blame the clueless Hartford pundits for thinking Fernandez was a real contender?
Is ___ the next Detroit? For obvious reasons (mainly schadenfreude and political opportunism), this has become a popular meme not only for political pundits but also for mayoral candidates in New Haven (and elsewhere) looking to capitalize on Detroit’s misfortune.
Justin Elicker says “New Haven is Detroit ten years ago,” but in any case it should be pretty obvious that at least for the moment New Haven is not Detroit. On the one hand the two cities both suffer from huge unfunded pension and health care liabilities; they have both relied too heavily on borrowing, one-time asset sales, and shell-game gimmicks to balance their books; and both have tax bases that cannot meet the need for city services without substantial state aid. But Detroit differs from New Haven in at least one key aspect of credit-worthiness: for New Haven to become Detroit, its tax collection rate would have to plummet from 95% to below 60%. More than anything else, it has been the increasing inability to collect taxes (at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost revenue) that has undermined the full faith and credit of once-mighty Detroit. The sovereign debt crisis in Greece, where $15 billion are lost every year in tax evasion, has a similar origin. If all the taxes in Greece were actually collected, instead of siphoned off into bribes and offshore bank accounts, its structural deficits would almost completely disappear. Similarly, if Detroit raised its tax collection rate to that of New Haven, it would still have financial problems, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the devastating insolvency that has made it the butt of jokes and the cruel sophistry of right-wing pundits.