“I love you!’
“I love you, man!”
“Now put that on your wrist, man. Represent!”
That post-hug conversation took place on Dixwell Avenue the other day.
The hug took place between Democratic mayoral candidate and B-Gill, an old friend who’d been riding by on a motorcycle. The friend stopped, excited to see Carolina. They embraced. Carolina pulled out his stock of campaign wristbands listing his website and the date of the Sept. 10 Democratic mayoral primary. They talked about B-Gill’s life course: How B-Gill “came up with Kerm,” slightly younger, watching him play and coach sports. How B-Gill “made a mistake” early on. How he spent 19 years in jail. How he got out and went straight, found a good job, kept it, landed in a stable relationship with a woman.
“You’re telling a story people need to hear,” Carolina told B-Gill. “Brothers need a second chance to do the right thing.”
That was no random hug. That was no random message, either.
Walk with Carolina along Dixwell Avenue, the area where he grew up, and you get the impression he knows a solid 150 percent of the people living there. People stop him every few steps. He lights up; they light up. They know him from growing up. Or from athletics. Or from his current job as principal of Hillhouse High School. Each, it seems, has a story. Some, like B-Gill, got in trouble. Some are starting to get in trouble, and in some cases finding help or advice from Carolina. Many are below the radar of mainstream New Haven—and of mainstream political calculations.
They represent the force that will make or break 45-year-old Carolina’s outsider quest to succeed retiring 20-term incumbent Mayor John DeStefano. The campaign is counting on hundreds of young people, many of them black or brown, many from the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, to flood the streets in coming weeks pumping Carolina’s candidacy. It is counting on thousands of them registering to vote, then getting to the polls on Sept. 10 with the campaign’s help. It is counting on inspiring them with Carolina’s chief campaign message: That New Haven has to focus its foremost attention on helping marginalized young people get the help they need and older people get a second chance at jobs and a stable life, in order keep everyone safer.
His campaign is not the first to seek to create an army of supporters from among the disenfranchised as a core strategy. It’s not easy. John Daniels’ mayoral campaign did it in 1989. Organizers associated with Yale’s unions and their community allies upped the voting rolls in lower-income neighborhoods in the 2010, 2011, and 2012 election cycles.
Carolina faces potentially well-financed opponents with other advantages to bring to the campaign: One, Toni Harp, a 20-year state senator, has the endorsements of practically the entire Democratic establishment and the highest popularity ratings of any politician in town. Another, Henry Fernandez, is a former city development chief with extensive downtown and national connections. A third, Justin Elicker, has a base among East Rock professionals. (Plumber Sundiata Keitazulu is running, too.)
So, while he’s aiming for lots of different kinds of voters, Carolina can’t win without B-Gill and the other brothers and sisters on the block whom he encountered on his day campaigning in Dixwell—“those who are disenfranchised and forgotten about,” in Carolina’s words. They may represent the hardest voters to reach and pull to the polls. They also, he said, represent the reason he’s reaching for the keys to City Hall.
A “Pathway To Prosperity”
Carolina made his commitment to the brothers and sisters on the block—and his criticisms of his chief perceived rival for their support, Toni Harp—front and center of a pitch that started his campaigning in Dixwell this past Sunday.
He made the pitch at the weekly worship service at New Trinity Temple Church of God In Christ on Dixwell Avenue. Accompanying him to hand out flyers was Colonia Thigpen. A 22-year-old Virginia Union University political science major who grew up on New Haven’s Day Street, Thigpen met Carolina when she was 8 years old. He was her basketball coach in the East Rock Hot Shot summer program.
Attendance was light. A deacon explained that attendance drops this time of year. Also, two ministers associated with Trinity Temple recently formed breakaway congregations in Waterbury and Hartford.
Carolina entered the church to the rousing vocals of the church’s female gospel trio—then had to wait to speak when one of the singers collapsed to the floor. Congregants (pictured) rushed to fan her while the organist ramped up the volume and a minister called for prayer. Firefighters arrived; they brought the woman outside. She revived.
And Carolina took to the pulpit.
He spoke about Martin Luther King and the War on Poverty. He spoke about growing up poor himself in Dixwell. He spoke about attending Wilbur Cross High School and Southern Connecticut State University, about taking the helm of Hillhouse and now seeking the mayoralty of the city.
“I’ve lived here my entire life. My entire life,” Carolina said. “Some of you watched me grow up here. I grew up two blocks from here—two blocks from here in the Ashmun Street projects! … I went to school with many of you in this room.” He proceeded to call out parishioners by name.
“I remember what it was like having to knock on my next door neighbor’s house to borrow two pieces of bread to make a sandwich,” he said, “… finding drug needles in the playground.”
Then Carolina pivoted to his platform. “I’m going to do everything in my power to create a pathway towards prosperity for all people regardless of what their background is,” he said. “God never meant for some to live in wealth or for some to live in abject poverty.”
He talked about children growing up with just one parent in the house—the way he grew up.
“Let’s be real,” he said. “Our single parents do an amazing job. My mother was a single parent. She did an amazing job. I thank God for her every day. She should not have had to go through that by herself … How do we get the second parent back in the house?”
Before closing, Carolina turned his attention to State Sen. Harp: “While we’ve been going through what we’ve been going through the past 20 years ... you’ve seen me in the trenches fighting … My question is: Where’s she been? Where was she when we needed somebody to fight against the previous administration?”
Then he referred to her late husband’s house in Bethany, which has remained vacant. When Carolina asked her at a recent debate if she has been living there rather than in New Haven, Harp said no; the family occasionally has parties there, she said. “I don’t have a party house. How many of you have a party house?” he asked the parishioners at Trinity Temple. “It doesn’t sound like that person has an understanding of what we’re going through in this community.” He also touched on a $1.1 million state tax-and-interest debt incurred by her late husband’s real estate company.
“The way you pay your taxes, you should expect everyone to pay taxes,” Carolina declared. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Think about who we’re trying to elect.”
Asked later about Carolina’s pulpit remarks, Harp responded: “Look. My husband owned that house. We never lived there. I don’t own the property. I didn’t before. I don’t know. I think he’s grasping at straws. I filed taxes separately from the day I was married to my husband. I was never involved in his business.” Harp then alluded to a recent grade-tampering controversy at Carolina’s high school, and the fact that Carolina’s wife had a central-office personnel position with the Board of Ed at the time: “He needs to take a look at himself; I’m going to leave it at that. He had personnel matters he was faced with. Given his issues, and that relationship, he would recognize husbands and wives, when they do different jobs, are separate. ... We should really run on issues. I know they’re going to attack me. They perceive I’m the frontrunner. I’ll stand tall and take it. We’ll have to see whether or not people fall for it.”
To which Carolina subsequently responded: “First and foremost, my wife knows what’s going on in the lives of everyone in our household. If our children, or I, were involved in something she didn’t agree with, her character and integrity would not allow her to turn a blind eye. She would challenge us instantly and demand that we do the right thing. She would also refuse to partake in any of the benefits associated with it.”
The Next Voter
Back outside Trinity Temple Sunday after his pulpit remarks, Carolina immediately ran into familiar faces like Linda Mayes.
“What’s up woman?” he asked.
“What’s up with you?”
A campaign was up. Mayes agreed to attend a volunteer meeting this week at Carolina’s new Dixwell Plaza headquarters; she jotted the time in an appointment book.
En route to the Plaza, Carolina elaborated on how his own story dovetails with his platform. This January he had dinner with his birth father—the first time they’d seen each other since Carolina was 3 years old.
“He was in Vietnam. He came back dealing with post-traumatic stress,” Carolina said. “My god requires that I forgive. I don’t have to forget. I have to forgive. I see firsthand what the youth in this city deal with. It’s almost impossible for one parent to go to work everyday and manage the lives of the children.”
Then he bumped into a 14-year-old boy riding bikes with three friends on the sidewalk in front of the shuttered Dixwell Community “Q” House. The kids perked up at seeing Mr. Carolina.
The boy’s mother, who was raising him alone, abandoned him recently, Carolina said after the boys rode off; she has a drug problem. The boy is crashing on his aunt’s couch. The aunt isn’t equipped to raise him. Carolina’s been trying to help him. He’s been giving him a few dollars to do some campaign work. He made an appointment with Youth@Work to see about lining the boy up with a summer job.
The boy has also started hanging out with the Slut Wave gang, Carolina said.
“That kid could become the next shooter,” he observed. “He’s not getting three meals a day or getting nurtured and loved.
“There’s a story behind all of these kids. That young man—if we don’t do something—could become the next shooter.
“These are the types of people who need help the most. If we’re serious about cleaning up the climate of the city, it starts with rolling up our sleeves and getting to the root causes that put people in these situations.”
A mayor, Carolina continued, “has to have the heart for people who are struggling every day to survive. That’s what I bring to the campaign.” He said a mayor can give more than “lip service” to reentry programs for people coming out of jail, can make them a priority. As mayor, he said, he’d also actively help people get pardons and “second chances” so they can find jobs more easily—and, in the case of fathers, more easily share in the responsibility of raising children. He’d make hiring New Haven people more of a priority in government jobs. He’d push for expansion of work and life-skills- training programs like Emerge, which is funded in part by United Way, whose board he sits on. (Read about Emerge here.)
Before he gets the chance to do any of that, Carolina has a lot of wristbands and flyers to hand out.
“Let me make it official,” he said as he handed material to Vern Butler (pictured), who was walking his chihuahua Snoopy in the Plaza. “Represent!”
“I won’t let you down,” Butler promised.
“I’ve got to make sure you represent!” Carolina told Jamal Lockman (pictured) as he handed him one of the bands across the street.
“Hey Ann!” Carolina called to one woman driving by on Dixwell.
“I’m going get Katrell to work on your campaign!” she assured him.
Zenobia Miller greeted Carolina on Ashmun Street from behind the wheel of a Nissan. She’s registered and ready to vote, she said.
Carolina handed a flyer to her passenger, 23-year-old Norman Boone. Boone said he’s not registered. He and Carolina agreed to remedy that.
It turns out Boone fits one of the profiles of the people Carolina promises to help integrate into society as mayor. Boone has struggled over the years; he recently got in serious legal trouble. He has also tried at times to go straight, with some success before returning to life on the streets.
Will Boone show up on the voting rolls, and then at the polls? Can Kermit Carolina in the process convert his personal charisma and a lifetime of relationships into an operation that can upend the current calculus of the mayor’s race?
After his rounds on Dixwell, the candidate headed to Lincoln Bassett Park. So did members of his campaign. A crowd had gathered there for a cook-out, music, and basketball tournament. One of the games featured a reunion team Carolina had coached in 2006 and 2007 in a neighborhood rec league. The team won the championship both years.
The team won again Sunday night. And, Carolina reported, his team left with some 100 new voter registrations.
Previous “On The Campaign Trail With The Candidates” coverage:
• Keitazulu Blazes His Own Campaign Trail
• Harp Probes The Newhallville Conundrum
• Elicker Dives Into Dixwell
• Holder-Winfield Walks Miles In His Wing-Tips
• Nemerson: Read His Lips
• Fernandez: Legislators (Read: Harp) Didn’t Deliver