A New Haven local who grew up serving Yale students pizza at his father’s restaurant served up a new order there Wednesday night — for his college classmates to elect him as their representative on the Board of Alders.
On Wednesday night, at his dad’s shop Pizza at the Brick Oven at the corner of Elm and Howe streets, Hacibey Catalbasoglu (or “Haci” as his friends know him), announced his intention to run for alder representing Ward 1, which consists mostly of Yalies.
In an election that is often about what it means to be an Ivy League student temporarily residing in New Haven, Catalbasoglu is positioning himself as a candidate with a more permanent perspective: His Turkish immigrant family members will be affected by sanctuary city policies; his childhood buddies, by school quality; his dad’s business, by economic development. Catalbasoglu, a 19-year-old political science major, is campaigning as someone who personifies the town-gown relationship and intimately understands how it can be strengthened.
“You can’t stand for something unless you have a stake in it,” Catalbasoglu said. “These are my people. I’m not leaving when I graduate.”
Despite being a registered Democrat, Catalbasoglu said he plans to run as an independent in the general election instead of seeking his party’s nomination. Strategically, the decision allows him to skip the primaries straight into the general election. And Ward 1 has also been rich with unaffiliated voters in years past.
With November elections still more than six months away, it remains to be seen whom Catalbasoglu’s opponents will be. Incumbent Sarah Eidelson is staying mum about whether she’ll make a reelection bid, saying Wednesday she’s still weighing her options.
Catalbasoglu grew up behind the counter at Pizza at the Brick Oven, once even sleeping underneath its oven on a particularly late night. Its proprietor, his father Kadir Catalbasoglu, emigrated from Turkey in 1992. Following his brothers to New Haven, his dad worked as a dishwasher at Athenian Diner and a cook at Alpha Delta Pizza before opening his own restaurant.
Kadir Catalbasoglu told the Independent he always hoped his son would succeed — “I don’t want him to be pizza man also” — but he never dreamed Hacibey would one day run for public office. “I think he can do it,” his father added.
Growing up here, Catalbasoglu attended public schools in New Haven and West Haven: Wexler-Grant, Savin Rock Elementary and Carrigan Middle. (Catalbasoglu’s campaign literature omits his high school years at Putnam Science Academy, a private boarding school 89 miles away in the northeast corner of Connecticut.) With a stream of Yale students ordering up pies, Catalbasoglu set a goal of attending the premier university in his backyard.
At Yale, Catalbasoglu’s links across campus — from athletics to model United Nations, politics to charity — make him a popular figure. “Everybody knows Haci. I’m still trying to find that person who has a negative viewpoint on Haci,” said Jacob Malinowski, a freshman supporter.
By 8 p.m., the family-owned pizza parlor at 122 Howe was packed with supporters, many wearing white t-shirts with the slogan “I ♥︎ NH.” A big show of support Wednesday came from the heavyweight crew team, which Catalbasoglu walked onto this season. “Haci’s the best kid I’ve ever met,” said Robert Hurn, the team captain. (He turned to the athletes beside him to add, “Sorry, guys.”)
Befitting a district that largely consists of undergraduate dorms, the campaign kickoff felt like a noticeably student production. Technical glitches interrupted a video screening, the campaign chair asked supporters to Venmo their donations, and a young press secretary tried to shoo off reporters after five minutes with the candidate. A bouncy playlist of Marvin Gaye, Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus rocked from the loudspeakers, while students filled out voter registration forms and snapped pictures of pledge cards.
Across town, Eidelson presented survey results about residents’ top legislative priorities to her colleagues at City Hall before the beginning of a Board of Alders meeting. More than 5,000 respondents said the most pressing issues in Elm City are good-paying jobs, opportunities for youth and safer neighborhoods. “The results are very clear about the urgency of staying the course on driving those issues” the board has worked on, Eidelson told the Independent.
Policy issues aside, Eidelson faces a tactical question this election: How long can an incumbent last in the city’s most fluid district? After each four years in office, a Ward 1 alder must face reelection by an entirely new constituency, their initial supporters having graduated and moved on to other wards, if not cities.
The fresh crop of student voters at Catalbasoglu’s kick-off said they hadn’t yet met her. “I don’t want to badmouth her: I just don’t know anything about her,” said Hurn, the crew captain. “If you asked that question [of what’s Eidelson’s reputation] to most Yale students, they’d say, ‘Who’s Sarah?’” said Malinowski.
Asked whether she had concerns about representing a new crop of undergrads, Eidelson noted that she still lives in the heart of campus. Then she added, “The question is really about the work that you do. It takes more than just being physically present to actually engage with students and be available.”
During her tenure, Eidelson has championed more programming, services and physical spaces for the city’s children. Her advocacy led to spots for two student representatives on the Board of Education. And as “third officer”, she holds a position on the board’s leadership — a first for a Yale alder.
Eidelson first won the Ward 1 seat in 2011, as part of a labor-backed slate of candidates. (A Yale graduate, she handles communications and graphic design for UNITE HERE, the collection of Yale unions, as her day job.) By 2015, Eidelson barely eked out a victory over a Republican, prevailing by just 17 votes. If she chooses to defend her seat, she’ll be up for a fourth term.