“If You Work Hard You Can Succeed in America”

by Melissa Bailey | June 29, 2009 3:57 PM | | Comments (23)

torrecelebration.pngThe New Haven 20 returned to the steps where they launched a landmark Supreme Court case — to proclaim victory and “vindication” in a ruling that promises to change the course of civil rights law in the country.

Frank Ricci (at right in photo), who’s now in line for a lieutenant’s promotion that has eluded him for five years, heralded the decision as “tremendous.”

Ricci was the first named plaintiff in Ricci v. DeStefano, the case in which a 5-4 Supreme Court majority ruled Monday that New Haven can’t ignore the results of a fire department promotional exam just because no African-Americans scored high enough. (Read about that here.)

“This ruling is proof positive that we should view people as individuals, and not statistics,” said Ricci, standing before a throng of national media outside the U.S. District courthouse on Church Street where he and his colleagues filed the case five years ago. (Click on the play arrow below to watch remarks from the press event).

“If you work hard, you can succeed in America,” said Ricci. He testified in court that he suffers from dyslexia and studied eight to 13 hours per day for the exam. The officer, who has 12 years on the city force, now expects to be promoted to lieutenant.

“All 20 of these guys worked hard to study, to apply themselves at work, to read trade magazines, to take classes on their own time,” Ricci said.

“They’re all heroes,” he said. All 20 took a stand against the tests not knowing whether they would be promoted or not, he noted.

Asked what he wants the city to do next, Ricci replied, “the right thing — make promotions!”

Another plaintiff at the press conference, Matt Marcarelli, put it this way: “We took a lot of kicks in the stomach over this case. And we finally got our vindication.”

Pay Day

His attorney, Karen Torre (pictured at the top of the story receiving a fire hat), said the group will seek “the full package of rights and remedies that these men are entitled to.” She declined to offer specifics.

“That will come at a later time,” she said.

Torre heralded the decision as a hard-fought victory for the New Haven 20.

“The justice they sought was delayed, but they’re finally going to get it,” said Torre. She said it’s clear that the Supreme Court justices decreed that U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton should not have issued summary judgment on behalf of the city, but instead on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Torre elicited a chuckle from the packed audience by pulling out an Obama reference.

The New Haven 20 had the “audacity of hope,” she said, that some court, somewhere, would “accord to firefighters the recognition and respect that they deserve and reject attempts to lower the professional standards of competence for the sake of identity politics.”

“Today, the Supreme Court did all of this and we could not be more relieved or more delighted.”

She said the ruling has made the 20 men national symbols.

“In 2006, we were handed a ruling right here in this courthouse that we believed was not only wrong on the law, but improperly put political considerations ahead of public safety and the safety of firefighters,” said Torre. “Convinced that this ruling would endanger the lives and safety of firefighters everywhere, the New Haven 20 resolved to do everything possible to try to get that ruling overturned.”

“In this very long, arduous process, these men became a symbol for millions of Americans who have grown tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity,” said Torre.

IMG_3800.jpgThe lone Hispanic member of the New Haven 20, Ben Vargas (pictured), spoke for the first time about the racial dynamics he and fellow Latino firefighters found themselves in.

New Haven’s Hispanic firefighters did not take a position on Ricci; their international organization did, on the side of the city.

The leader of the international group, Ronald Morales (read about him here), said that blacks and Hispanics must band together to break up a white-dominated fire department workforce.

Vargas said Morales was “dead wrong” about that.

“The testing process is what we need to make correct,” Vargas said.

Following A New Law

After the New Haven 20 press conference, the media throng gravitated a few doors down to City Hall, where Mayor John DeStefano offered his take on the decision at a press conference of his own.

DSCN3788.JPGDeStefano (pictured) took pains to credit the good intentions on all sides. He spoke of the city officials who were following what until Monday was an interpretation of civil rights law followed by eight out of eight federal court rulings and presidents of both parties. He mentioned the New Haven 20 plaintiffs who “felt they had played by the rules” and deserved promotions. And he cited “another set of firefighters” — black firefighters — who “feel the rules are constantly stacked against them.”

Asked what happens next, DeStefano said he expects the case to land back in Judge Arterton’s court within three months. “I take it we will end up in some fashion certifying the list” of top scorers in the 2004 promotional exams.

DeStefano noted that the city in this case was following an interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that has been enshrined in actions by eight federal judges, and Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and George Bush I.

It’s a new day now after Monday’s 5-4 ruling, he acknowledged. While he disagrees with the court’s decision, he said, “We have an obligation to follow it. We will.”

DSCN3819.JPGFire Chief Michael Grant and Assistant Chief Ron Dumas (right to left in photo) said after the press conference that Monday’s ruling will enable the department to “move on.”

Paul Bass contributed to this story.

Past stories on fire department promotions and the Ricci case:

Was He The Culprit?
Supreme Court Overturns City On Ricci
On Page 25, A Hint
Minority Firefighters Vow Post-Ricci Unity
Ricci Ruling Won’t End Quest
Ricci, Sotomayor Brand DeStefano
Firefighter Case Reveals Surprise Obama Stand
Justices Zero In On Race-Based Distinctions
Rights Groups Back Black Firefighters
The Supreme Stakes: Title VII’s Future
Dobbs v. Bolden
Latino Group Backs White Firefighters
Black Firefighters: Ricci Case Poses Grave Threat
NAACP Backs City In Firefighter Case
Paging Justice Kennedy
Fire Inspectors Promoted
Fire Inspector List Approved
U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Firefighters’ Case
Fire Promotions Examined in Supreme Court

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Posted by: kris | June 29, 2009 4:26 PM


Posted by: cba | June 29, 2009 4:56 PM

Mr Destefano has now learned that the rule of law supersedes political cronyism

Posted by: lance | June 29, 2009 5:13 PM

if you think the oppression of white people is over, you're sadly mistaken.

Posted by: LevelHeadedAndObjective [TypeKey Profile Page] | June 29, 2009 5:42 PM

Diversity always will have a place in New Haven. It was a split decision. The case could have gone either way. But New Haven is a great place to live and a great community to be part of. The Mayor deserves the applause too!

Posted by: Edison | June 29, 2009 5:42 PM

Congratulation to the New Haven 20.
To those that lost the case: next time, rather than whining about not getting the promotion because you failed the test, take your crying towel time and use it to STUDY.
Think about this: if you had not wasted the Courts' time and taxpayer money on this and rather took the time to prepare for the exam you just might have earned the promotion you think you deserve.

Posted by: James | June 29, 2009 8:00 PM


Of course diversity has a place in New Haven and the rest of our country. This case wasn't about diversity. It was about promoting the appearance of diversity at the determent of basic fairness. It was about purchasing the specter of diversity at the cost of the career and aspirations of hard working men.

Can you please tell me what is so great about New Haven? The crime? Decay? Filth? Abject waste of taxpayer money? Horrible schools? Lackluster city services? Cronyism? What? What is it that you are defending and applauding JD for?

Posted by: tracy jones | June 29, 2009 9:24 PM

Thankfully the make up of the highest court in the landis about to change to a level headed even handed justice dispensing body.

Posted by: FACT CHECK | June 29, 2009 9:53 PM


New Haven is a hoot, let's all chill this summer on the beach.

We get National News for all the wrong reasons.

1) City promoted ID cards to illegal aliens
2) Citizens armed patrol roaming the streets while the Police Department is getting a shakedown by the FBI.
3) City cronies strong arm the Mayor to invalidate a firefighters test and put City residents at risk.

New Haven is a hoot, let's all chill this summer on the beach.

What's nest for National TV? C'mon New Haven you have it in you!

Posted by: blue dog dem | June 29, 2009 10:17 PM

Tracy Jones:

The Court isn't about to change. Sotomayor is replacing Souter. They are both on the left.

Posted by: City Hall Watch | June 29, 2009 10:21 PM

The city was always wrong in its logic and its actions. I believe that down deep, even as DeStefano defended blatant descrimination, he knew it was ill-advised as did Kimber. But, knowing its wrong and doing it anyway, putting taxpayers at great risk at the same time makes it even worse. Karen Torre sums it up best - she will be making her request for the full range of remedies under the law - legal fees, lost wages etc. Taxpayers will have to pony up for this too. While I also celebrate this decision because descrimination against any group or person in order to provide a benefit to another is just wrong, what makes it even more painful is writing a check for the political games of Kimber/DeStefano.

Posted by: morris cover [TypeKey Profile Page] | June 29, 2009 10:33 PM

congrats to the 20! They earned and deserved it and I for one feel better knowing that the truly qualified are protecting public safety.

Kimber and Johnny should resign in shame. Politricks never wins, only the taxpayers lose.

Not this time. Way to go New Haven 20!

Posted by: Maria Garriga | June 29, 2009 10:38 PM

I have a modest proposal. Let's limit all future jobs in the firefighting, police and education departments of New Haven to city residents. The workers would then truly reflect the city they serve. Furthermore, the money paid by taxpayers to these workers will come back to the city through taxes paid by the workers on their homes. The requirement would also increase the value of homes in the city.
Right now -- hiring from the suburbs causes the departments to reflect the ethnic make up of the suburbs and drains precious capital out of the city.

Posted by: JackNH | June 30, 2009 4:14 AM

I don't care if my firefighters are all white, all black, or all Hispanic-- CAN'T THEY JUST BE THE BEST?

Posted by: Ordinary Citizen | June 30, 2009 7:57 AM


I hope this ruling is used to challenge the waste of City taxpayer monies called the "Commission on Equal Opportunity".

It would seem that in light of this ruling the City mandate that in order to get a Municipal Bid awarded to a company they are REQUIRED to have a certain percentage of workers who are minorities, women and from New Haven on that job.

That is discrimination as well... It isn't the most qualified contractor who gets the bid, it's the one with most compliant workforce.

Someone should start to challenge the City on this front as well. ...

Posted by: kamb | June 30, 2009 8:09 AM




Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | June 30, 2009 8:10 AM

I agree with Maria. That is the most logical and most beneficial for all solution! It would help represent the people of the city not to mention it would be totally beneficial to the community's that they live in! If I remember correctly it use to be that way pre john. I do relize that New Haven resident get a few extra points on the entry exams but that in itself is not enough. Set aside a certain amount of the position for residents only. But if that was to happen you would also have to have a rule on how long they need to live here to be able to be given those postions. Reasoning for that is alot of the firefighters and police that do not live in the city right now are people who were born and raised here and moved out after they got the jobs.

Posted by: robn | June 30, 2009 8:30 AM



Posted by: Mongo | June 30, 2009 9:08 AM

DeStefano and his cronies are an embarrasment to all honest, hard-working people in the city.

The mayor does nothing more than pander to the vast majority of voters.

Posted by: nfjanette [TypeKey Profile Page] | June 30, 2009 12:41 PM

I agree with Maria. That is the most logical and most beneficial for all solution!
As long as we're willing to deliberately cut ourselves off from some of the best candidates, sure it is. It's not clear to me I want anyone involved in public safety to have gotten their job by means other than being the best qualified.

How about this for an idea instead: address the true root causes for the problem - that our city residents need help improving their learning methods so that they will score better on tests and be setup to progress up the promotion line by legitimately being the best. Of course, we'll have to have the courage to take a hard look at the realities of the current failures before we can craft solutions. It remains to be seen if the various players are willing to have the courage; judging from the Firebirds article posted today on NHI, some groups are not willing to face up to uncomfortable truths and instead are playing tired, old racial politics.

Posted by: justagirl | June 30, 2009 2:49 PM

Although I agree that civil servents should live in the town that pays them...In Connecticut it is illegal to require firefighters, police officers, teachers, and other collective bargaining employees to live in town as a condition of employment (CGS ยงยง 7-460b and 10-155f).

Posted by: k | June 30, 2009 7:50 PM

How about we require everyone to work in the same town as they live! Guess we will move YNHH to the burbs so we can have qualified Drs. take care of us..Do any of you want a Dr. or nurse to take care of you based on race instead of knowledge??Hi nice to meet you my name is Dr. Smith and I scored low on the medical boards but they had to hire me because of race not knowledge but don't worry I will take good care of you! Oh yea,thats comforting.

Posted by: kamb | July 1, 2009 7:14 AM

What an interesting concept. Study hard and get promoted. It took all of this to realize this?

Congrats NH 20!

Posted by: FIX THE SCHOOLS | July 2, 2009 7:11 PM

Yes, study hard and get promoted. No excuses. Give the job to the highest and best qualified applicant. Anything less results in W's best quote ever "...the soft bigotry of low expectations"


Before we hold adults accountable for their skills, WE MUST ensure that we equip all kids with the academic skills with which they need to rely on in order to compete in their adult life.

Today's version of affirmative action should start and end in K-12. We all are aware that the value of education has been largely snuffed out in urban America. And for everybody's sake, we need to reignite it with rocket fuel from:

- putting a high quality, rock-star, driven teacher in every city classroom;

- Insist on extended school days and summer school to make-up for the lack of support at home.

- Urban districts need high energy, focused, no-excuses school administration which urgently channels all their efforts at doing the best by kids, not the adults.

Why do this? Because the statistics show us that low-income minority children can succeed at the highest levels of education when they receive more in-school support and academic interventions than they typically get today.

Folks, most Americans don't want to give any job to a less qualified applicant. It goes against the grain of our belief system. BUT, we also know that everyone desreves to be at the same starting line when the gun goes off. College is the starting line in our contemporary society.

Who could possibly not be in favor of this kind of affirmative action?

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