The day after a snow storm blanketed Westville in white stuff, two “yetis” were out with shovels—and looking to bring more community action to an often overlooked elected office.
The two “yetis”—neighbors helping other neighbors dig out—were Amy Marx and Sharon Jones (pictured), who together comprise a slate of candidates for the two co-chair positions on Upper Westville’s Ward 26 Democratic committee.
The two women and their families, along with Ward 26 Alder Darryl Brackeen, teamed up to shovel out a disabled elderly couple on Benton Street Wednesday morning. It was the start of a campaign not only for co-chair seats but to have the ward committee get more involved in community service, the pair said.
Ward 26’s race is one of several co-chair contests this year. At least a couple of these are shaping up as challenges to a group of labor-affiliated co-chairs who won out two years ago in contested races citywide. Those co-chair races are themselves part of another trend: Dissenters offering an alternative to the majority that two years ago took control of both the local Democratic Party and the Board of Alders, who are backed by Yale’s Locals 34 and 35 unions.
The filing deadline for candidates looking to run is Wednesday. So far, Wards 2, 26, 28, and 30 have contested races.
The Democratic Town Committee comprises all the ward co-chairs, making them cogs in the machinery of New Haven’s only real political party. They are responsible for appointing each ward’s Democratic committee and endorsing Democratic nominees in alder and mayoral races.
Co-chairs should do more than just endorse candidates, Marx and Jones argued Wednesday as they helped clear fluffy white snow off a Benton Street driveway. Ward Democratic committees could be organizations for community service and neighborhood improvement, the two women said.
Ward 28 Alder Claudette Robinson-Thorpe in Beaver Hills said she’s also looking to have a more “active” committee, one that’s more involved in the community. Robinson-Thorpe called her candidacy a continuation of her work on the “People’s Caucus,” a group of alders who present themselves as an alternative to the board’s majority team—of which Robinson-Thorpe was an original recruit.
In Dwight’s Ward 2, campaign consultant Christine Bartlett-Josie said she’s running because New Haven needs “more than one set of ideas.” She said the city has become too “tribalistic” since Yale’s UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35 became a major political force.
Marx said she’s excited to be teamed up with a running mate “from the other side of the ward.”
Marx, a legal aid attorney, lives on Knollwood Drive with her husband and three kids. Jones, a 59-year-old social worker, lives on Benton Street, on the other side of Fountain Street.
Sharon is currently a co-chair in Ward 27. But thanks to last year’s ward redistricting, she now lives in Ward 26.
“I’ve known them both for years,” said Brackeen (at right in photo). He said Marx and Jones are both more than qualified to be co-chairs. “They could easily be alderpersons themselves.”
The Marx/Jones slate brings together two women who last year worked on opposite sides of the mayor’s race. Marx was an big supporter of Justin Elicker’s failed mayoral bid, while Jones backed Toni Harp, the current mayor.
“We’re both working for the community,” said Jones.
Both candidates said they are neither for nor against the recent union involvement in New Haven politics.
“I’m a neutral person,” Jones said.
“For the moment, my priority is to focus on our ward,” said Marx. She said she is “delighted to be working across the divide from the mayoral election.”
Rainey, the incumbent co-chair, said he’s not connected to the Yale unions: “Right now, I’m just being myself. I’m not affiliated with any of them.”
Rainey, a 47-year-old phone technician, said he’s running because “I thought I was doing a good job, and just beginning. I want to continue to maintain the lifestyle that people here are used to.”
Alder Robinson-Thorpe (at left in photo) said her co-chair candidacy is like her participation in the People’s Caucus, part of an effort to create an “alternative” to the majority on the board and the Democratic Town Committee.
“This is democracy at its best,” she said.
Robinson-Thorpe is running with Clython Thompson to unseat incumbent Ward 28 co-chairs Jess Corbett and Donald Walker. Corbett, who’s been co-chair for two terms, said he’s proud of the efforts that he’s been a part of to register voters and to turn them out for elections.
Corbett (at right in photo), who’s 37, works at Yale as a lab tech in the medical school and is part of Local 34. He said labels like “union-backed” or “labor affiliated” don’t fit him. “I work at Yale. I’m a union member. I’m proud of that.” He said he’s also just as proud of his work on the ward and town Democratic committees.
Bartlett-Josie, the candidate in Ward 2, said she filed to seek the office because “no one should be running unopposed anywhere.” Her challenge might mean the incumbents will “get off their asses and run,” she said.
Bartlett-Josie said she is neither a part of nor opposed to Locals 34 and 35’s political work. New Haven needs “more than one voting bloc” and more than “one set of ideas,” she argued.
“I just don’t think you need to have this one voice in the city,” she said. “We’ve become too tribalistic here.”
Bartlett-Josie (pictured) said Locals 34 and 35 have an “our way or the highway” attitude.
“There’s always going to be a machine. It’s just how it operates,” she said. “Sometimes its inclusive. And sometimes people feel they’re not part of it.”
The current perception in town is the the Local 34/35 machine is not inclusive, Bartlett Josie said.
“People need to not be afraid of different ideas,” she said.
At 11 a.m. Wednesday, Marx and Jones and their families rolled up and set about clearing off a wheelchair ramp at a house on Benton Street, along with the sidewalk, the path to the front door, and the driveway.
While the official role of co-chairs is to nominate and endorse candidates, the position “can be anything that the team wants it to be,” said Marx. She said that when Alder Brackeen asked her and Jones to run, they decided to do so on a “community development” platform.
“I’d like to continue to work on community building, to help develop our neighborhood into a community of connected people,” Marx said.
“We happen to be Democrats,” Jones said. “But first of all we’re neighbors.”
New Haven’s Democratic Party offers a network of connections that could be used as an “avenue for collaboration and community projects,” Marx said.
“I agree with that,” said Rainey. “That’s not a bad idea. You just have to get the good community members of board with you. People sometimes join the committee and don’t want to work.”
Alder Robinson Thorpe echoed the community idea later Wednesday. She said she’s running because people in Ward 28 asked her to. “We want to be more active and I think I can do that,” she said. Ward committees “should do more than just getting together and nominating somebody.” They should get involved in things like neighborhood cleanups, she said.
“I think that more community participation is always good,” said Corbett, Robinson-Thorpe’s opponent. That’s at the top of the agenda for anyone who is ward chair, he said, “and that’s our goal too.”
“This is going to become a regular family tradition,” Marx said, as her kids—out of school because of the snow—flung fluffy snow off a wheelchair ramp.
Marx said she was inspired to organize some shoveling after she received an invitation to join Snowcrew.org, an app that helps neighbors—dubbed “yetis”—to collaborate on shoveling out after snowstorms.
Marx found that the service, which is powered by New Haven’s SeeClickFix, isn’t ready to roll-out in New Haven. So Marx and Jones put together a little shovel-fest on their own, as a down-payment on future neighborhood shoveling efforts.
Jones happened to know a couple down the street who needed shoveling help. The husband uses a wheelchair. It was his ramp that Marx’s kids cleared.
“Thank you guys so much!” the owner of the house called out from her doorway.
“So this already sort of worked,” Marx said. Even without Snowcrew, Marx had posted a shoveling “ticket” on SeeClickFix. Pat Wallace, the city’s elderly services chief, had spotted the posting and called Marx.
Wallace said she has been trying to spread a program called “Snow Angels,” which helps connect elderly and disable neighbors with shovelers. It’s based on a program in Canada. Wallace said she posted some information on the city website but hasn’t been able to drum up a lot of interest.
“I’m very excited to hear that apparently SeeClickFix has a new idea of how to take all of that to a new level of organization,” Wallace said.
Wallace offered one note of caution: Any system should include some kind of oversight to protect the elderly from people who prey on their frailty.
Marx said she is a big fan of SeeClickFix and is excited to use it and Snowcrew to organize more shoveling in the future.
Warming up in Jones’ kitchen after shoveling and snow angels, Marx and Jones and the kids circled and put their hands in for a cheer: “Team Yeti!”