With four mayoral candidates looking on, Clifton Graves presented an election-year choice to an African-American church crowd: Organize as one voice. Or prepare to be “pimped” again by City Hall.
Graves offered that advice toward the close of an hour-long panel discussion on “the current and future status of black power in New Haven.” Rev. Jerry Streets organized the event in a basement hall at Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ following Sunday worship services. The Register’s Shahid Abdul-Karim moderated the discussion. Some 50 people attended, including four announced and soon-to-announce Democratic mayoral candidates.
“We have become pimped and manipulated by folk downtown—in some cases folk that look like us,” Graves remarked at the end of the discussion. “We’ve got organizations. We’re just not organized.”
Graves (pictured at the top of the story), an attorney and civil-rights activist, was not a member of the three-person official panel. He stood to the side below a “Revive Us Again” sign, listening to the discussion before offering his views.
But he had perhaps the most experience in the room with the subject at hand. He has been an active participants in civil rights campaigns in New Haven since the 1980s. His mentor was the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church’s longtime pastor, the late Rev. Edwin “Doc” Edmonds, who negotiated on behalf of the black community with white powerbrokers for decades and helped grow the black middle-class through jobs in the city public schools. (Click here to read about Edmonds.) Graves was in the rooms—including at this church—for planning meetings leading to the successful mayoral candidacy of John Daniels, New Haven’s first and only African-American chief executive. He worked for Mayor Daniels and watched Daniels’ coalition collapse, leading Daniels to retire after just four years in office. Graves has since watched Daniels’ former opponent, John DeStefano, hold onto the mayor’s job for 20 years. (DeStefano is retiring at the end of this year.) Two years ago Graves ran unsuccessfully against DeStefano for mayor; Graves and another African-American candidate, Tony Dawson, almost evenly split the black vote in a four-way field.
This year could see as many as four viable African-American candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor, as well as two white candidates.
Since Rev. Edmonds’ day, black leaders have wrestled with the election-year question of when it makes more sense to unite behind a mayoral candidate of color versus when it makes more sense to bargain with a white candidate who can deliver more benefits to the African-American community. Part of the question for Edmonds was tactical: The prospects of a black candidate’s victory versus the prospects of coming out ahead in coalition with a white candidate bound to win anyway. Part of the question has always involved the issue that Graves defined Sunday as “pimping”: How to define the good of the community; whether benefits for some African-American job-seekers or developers or community groups translated into empowerment for the broader community.
At Sunday’s forum on black power, one of the official panelists, Dorothy Harper, a Democratic ward co-chairwoman in the Bella Vista senior complex, advised the African-American candidates to unite behind just one candidate this year so as to avoid splitting the vote.
Another panelist, Paul Nunez (the late Rev. Edmonds’ grandson-in-law), suggested that the black vote and black community opinion are “not monolithic.” That’s a healthy sign, he argued. “Folks have different points of view. We are a community that’s large enough that it might be difficult to speak with one voice, because of the progress we’ve made.”
When he added his remarks, Graves took a different view from both Nunez and Harper.
The important challenge for the black community is to unite its many organizations as one voice rather than wait for a political candidate to speak for the community, Graves argued. Unity trumps any one particular candidacy.
And while he acknowledged that not everyone can agree on every issue, Graves argued groups can find “common ground”—and need to—in order to exert influence on elections.
Graves spoke of how non-black politicos would “laugh” at the splintered black community when he ran for mayor in 2011. He said outsiders knew the black community had the numbers to help determine the outcome of a Democratic primary, but it lacked the unity. He recommended that a Black Community Council be formed today as an umbrella of African-American organizations. (Forty years ago such an organization existed in New Haven. It was called the Black Coalition. It negotiated with Yale on a community-benefits-style deal, for instance, and mobilized a communal response to the Mayday 1970 protests over a Black Panther murder trial. It also produced the city’s first African-American mayoral candidate with a real shot at winning, Henry “Hank” Parker.)
“Democracy is tough,” Graves said. Tough, but essential.
He recalled how different factions in the black community united with white progressives to elect John Daniels, a state senator, to the mayor’s office in 1989 against a party machine-backed white candidate with no electoral experience—John DeStefano.
Then he recalled how “infighting” and “selfishness” destroyed that coalition and allowed DeStefano to win the office in 1993—and stay in office for two decades. He said DeStefano was able to divide and conquer and “pimp” the black community.
Then Graves mentioned the four official and soon-to-be-official 2013 mayoral candidates in the room. He said the black community needs a single institutional voice “so a Gary Holder-Winfield (at right in photo), a Jack Keyes, a Sundiata Keitazulu, a Kermit Carolina has someone to” deal with.
“They can’t do it by themselves,” Graves said.