John DeStefano leaves City Hall for good Tuesday behind the wheel of a newly purchased 2013 Prius, an updated model that burns fuel more wisely than the vehicle he originally drove into City Hall 20 years ago. As went the car, so went the mayor.
DeStefano took office as New Haven’s mayor on Jan. 1, 1994. He drove a Lincoln Town Car to work. He loved it.
DeStefano leaves office Tuesday after a wild 20-year ride in New Haven’s driver’s seat, a record for a New Haven mayor. He will pull out of his City Hall parking space in a new 2013 Prius V hybrid. He just bought it. He loves it.
The evolution of DeStefano’s taste in wheels mirrors an evolution in the way he governed New Haven for two decades. He has ended up driving hybrid models when it comes to seeking to build housing, reform schools, manage the bureaucracy.
That evolution grew out of countless daily real-world confrontations with the daunting and often surprising realities of trying to govern an American city in the 21st century. DeStefano will now bring those insights to Yale and Southern Connecticut State University classrooms, where he will teach courses on “New Haven and the American City.” He will bring those insights as well to his new day job, as vice-president of START Bank, a community development bank he helped found.
In a relaxed mood as his term neared its end, DeStefano, the son of a New Haven cop, reflected on those insights during an expansive breakfast conversation at Claire’s Corner Copia. He has basked in a steady stream of plaudits this final month for his accomplishments in office. In this interview, he also reviewed the setbacks that made him stronger and wiser.
“I think a lot less [now] about measuring wealth in terms of money,” he said, “and more in terms of measuring relationships and lives touched.”
DeStefano’s biggest takeaway about how to succeed in local government while really trying: Be flexible. Try out new ideas, adapt to new thinking, rely on different operating systems for different challenges—all the while keeping focused on the destination you hope to reach.
Sort of like driving a car that sometimes burns gas, sometimes runs on electricity.
Lesson: Let’s Not Get Small
New Haven’s mayor used to cruise the city in a government-owned Town Car. By the time DeStefano first took office as mayor (by the time his predecessor John Daniels was elected, actually), the car had seen better days. Duct tape was helping keep it together. But it still made an impression.
And DeStefano was eager to hop behind the wheel.
His public works chief, Vanessa Burns, called him right before the 1994 inauguration. “‘I got the Lincoln detailed and cleaned up for you,’” he remembered her saying. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I was mayor, and I was driving a Town Car!”
As mayor-elect, DeStefano pushed ahead the reopening of the renovated former Henry Austin City Hall in time for his swearing in. His predecessors had been stuck in outposts for years, unable to push the project to completion.
DeStefano’s previous decade as a staffer in city government had prepared him for the driver’s seat. After earning a political science degree and a public administration and management master’s at UConn, DeStefano returned to his hometown to work for city government. He rose fast through the ranks in the 1980s, the “favored son” first of late Controller Kennedy Mitchell and then Mayor Biagio “Ben” DiLieto. DiLieto trusted DeStefano to straighten financial messes like the clumsy city-aided revival of the Shubert Theater. Working under DiLieto “gave me a really strong sense of activist government,” DeStefano recalled. He saw how in New Haven, DiLieto—and in DeStefano’s 1950s and 1960s childhood, urban-renewal Mayor Dick Lee—used the mayor’s office to drive policy. He saw how mayors can “propose, push—and go to election. Either you get validated or not. The two-year cycle keeps you honest on that.”
So besides driving a Lincoln to work, DeStefano got behind the wheel of a bulldozer in July of 1996 to inaugurate his new vision of where to take New Haven. High above a crowd of neighbors and officials at 43 Arch St. in the Hill, he took the initial whack at the first of 200 hovels he charged LCI with demolishing, selectively, in coming years.
Studying New Haven’s past, DeStefano concluded that New Haven erred in demolishing so many full blocks in the mid-20th century to clear the way for massive urban renewal. (Former Mayor Dick Lee’s bulldozers razed the DeStefano family homestead, among many others.) DeStefano also saw how the city lost 25 percent of its population by the time he took office in 1994. The 120,000 New Haveners who remained, he concluded, had chosen to stay. So he inaugurated a “let’s get small” approach—plan for a more “livable” city for people who want to be here rather than try to convince people to return from the suburbs.
With the help of a whip-smart idealistic young Yalie named Stefan Pryor (a future state education commissioner, pictured earlier this month during a return visit to City Hall), DeStefano created a neighborhoods agency called the Livable City Initiative (LCI). Modeled in part on the community policing plan he inherited from Mayor John Daniels, LCI would base a worker in each neighborhood to get to know neighbors and address small problems before they got big. Meanwhile, LCI would target individual problem properties like long-abandoned houses and selectively demolish them, rather than demolish whole blocks. Then LCI would work with neighbors to start, say, community gardens in those spaces. Or divide the lots so adjoining neighbors could have bigger yards or extra parking.
“To me it was a stabilization effort,” he recalled.
The concept led to a flourishing of pocket parks and bountiful gardens all over town, especially in Newhallville. They continue to this day. Meanwhile, the city dramatically reduced its stock of abandoned, decrepit houses, though enough remain to drag down stretches of some neighborhoods.
Eventually, after the turn of the century, New Haven would become a lure for empty nesters and young single educated people, mirroring a national shift. Suddenly, DeStefano concluded, “density” made sense again. A city should grow, he concluded. It should keep building up a tax base. The DeStefano leaving office in 2013 has become a believer in building up cities with busy blocks of renters, homeowners, small businesses, offices, public gathering places, cultural venues. (See: new urbanism.) Especially downtown, which has seen a renaissance that’s the envy of the state. But also in neighborhoods at downtown’s periphery, like Dwight. DeStefano leaves office having overseen the construction of the state’s largest (and greenest) residential tower along with $1.6 billion or so of expansive new school buildings. Alexion Pharmaceuticals is moving into an under-construction 13-story biomedical tower. DeStefano hands his successor detailed plans for a densified “Hill-to-Downtown” district from the train station to Yale’s medical area, for a new-urbanist mecca on the old Coliseum site, for hundreds of new apartments and storefronts at the old Star Supply factory up on State Street in Goatville. Among other examples.
“In retrospect,” the city should have held onto more of those blighted neighborhood properties in the mid-‘90s, banking them for an upturn in the cycle, DeStefano said.
“We just didn’t see it in ‘94 and ‘95. I didn’t imagine the housing demand for rental was going to be soaring in the city.”
He acknowledged the positive “unintended consequences” of the original LCI vision such as the flowering of neighborhood greenspaces. And he acknowledged the need for somewhat of a hybrid approach to density: In the case of public housing, he said, it did make sense to demolish projects like the old Elm Haven, Brookside, and Quinnipiac Terrace and rebuild them smaller, with more of an income mix. “We just built bad public housing” in the mid-20th century, DeStefano said. The city plans to continue rebuilding less crowded, more mixed replacements, including at Farnam Courts.
Overall, though, he concluded, cities should grow. And grow. Grow the grand list. Bring more life and activity to shared spaces. And think of new uses for old infrastructure.
“You have to have growth,” he argued. “Growth shouldn’t just be seen as supersizing the french fries. Growth can be reinventing uses in a sustainable direction. Growth can be [reimagining] old buildings” like on the upper stories of lower Chapel Street. “Growth is a taking a highway and redesigning it,” like the old Route 34 Connector mini-highway-to-nowhere that his administration began dismantling. Grand list growth can come not just through new buildings, he noted, but through finding new sources of revenue like “taxing intellectual property” or convincing the state to fund fully the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program.
Lesson: Competence & “Transparency” Produce Better Results Than Patronage
As DeStefano tore through his first six terms the 1990s, he graduated to the Lincoln Navigator SUV. Navigators were hot at the time, as power symbols, as reflections of a culture that celebrated size. He was the biggest thing on the road.
“I liked having a big engine,” he recalled. “It was high up off the ground.”
He was dominating local politics as well, with no serious challenges at the polls. He had a mammoth new taxpayer-subsidized shopping mall planned for Long Wharf. He and his inner circle started plotting the next turn on the highway north, to the governor’s mansion.
Then it all came to a screeching halt in June of 1998. Beginning with LCI.
A New Haven Advocate report about a no-interest, forgivable LCI neighborhood-improvement loan to DeStefano’s chief of staff went viral and brought the FBI to City Hall.
It was an unannounced visit. Agents left with reams of computer files.
Some LCI staffers were out of town at an “All-American City” awards ceremony at the time. An eerie silence descended on City Hall. Contractors couldn’t be paid. The FBI wasn’t looking just at that one improper loan. A flood of easy-to-ignore revelations from previous years began to add up, and fill the airwaves and newspapers. Charts went up on the walls of the U.S. Attorney’s Office linking the patronage network of people benefiting from DeStefano’s LCI and economic development deals.
There was the Democratic state chairman who as a private attorney was cleaning up on questionable closing fees—and running up bills that old ladies could never pay back when they called to find out why his law firm was kicking them out of their homes. (Answer: DeStefano gave the firm the contract to collect on tax liens, with no charge to work with people rather than sink them further into debt.) There was the vote-pulling preacher who got a $30,000 “consulting” contract for an LCI housing deal with no requirement to file paperwork on actually performing tasks. Veteran vote-pullers in other neighborhoods had received other now-controversial contracts. LCI’s director wrote a letter to himself—as recipient and sender—announcing that he had given himself an LCI loan. City Hall’s lawyer called these and other suspect deals legit. (The federal government would subsequently disagree.)
Meanwhile, City Hall’s budget director was writing letters, on City Hall stationery, informing city contractors the precise amount of dollars they were to send to DeStefano reelection campaigns; he inserted a helpful return envelope. DeStefano’s school board appointees handed no-bid, inflated legal contracts to a man who happened to double as the mayor’s reelection chairman. DeStefano’s chief development deal-maker was handing out suspicious $250,000 loans to people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay them back, or submitted bizarre financial statements, or would never open for business. He was investing privately in city deals he’d help negotiate; he was collecting “finder fees” at an insurance agency from a developer to whom he was steering city property and tax relief. He was handing out secret six-figure loans through a quasi-public fund he controlled, and refusing to make the details public; in one case he actually paid a company to leave New Haven. In negotiating the deal to build a new Long Wharf mall, he and the mayor insisted that any developer hire the construction firm of one of DeStefano’s biggest fundraisers as an equity partner. He lined up another developer to renovate a downtown office building into an apartment building; the builder had all the asbestos dumped in the West River.
That was all for starters.
For now, at least, the SUV bound for Hartford was stuck in park in the City Hall garage. And even that spot suddenly seemed precarious, as a challenger with no money or vote-pullers, James Newton, grabbed 38 percent of the vote in a 1999 primary. The word “corrupt” hung on the DeStefano administration like a necklace. A more serious challenger would certainly take on the mayor in 2001.
DeStefano had always had a “good John/bad John” image in his early years in office: The talented, forward-looking policy wonk who surprised no one by becoming president of the National League of Cities; and the heir to a patronage-laden political machine. His mentor, former Mayor DiLieto, once famously proclaimed that he would always value “loyalty” over “competence.”
When he first ran (unsuccessfully) for public office in 1989, DeStefano recalled, “I had no political relationships to speak of. I didn’t necessarily know which was the right way to do this. It was an era when many elites came out of patronage.”
He didn’t realize it at the time, he said. But that era had begun “dying, dying, dying.”
The 1998 scandal was of those “scary” moments in life, he recalled. His “searing” moment in office.
“The constant media banging on it. The sense of having lost control of a situation. ... I remember thinking: ‘How did this happen? What is this?’
“You’re on a roller coaster, and you’re not driving the roller coaster. I had lost control of the government and my administration.
“I came out wiser. Life teaches all the time.”
Scrambling, DeStefano obtained the immediate “resignation” of top appointees implicated in the LCI scandal, people with whom he’d had close personal and political relationships. He continued cleaning house over the next two years. He brought in smart young people from outside the older New Haven neighborhood political orbit, like Julio Gonzalez, a recent Yale grad who had authored a package of anti-City Hall anti-corruption proposals called “Promise to New Haven”; like future Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts. At the suggestion of State Rep. Bill Dyson, DeStefano tapped a young youth agency head and Yale Law grad named Henry Fernandez to rescue LCI. Fernandez developed a new staff of talented young outsiders. He went to war with absentee landlords as well as with neighborhood politicos—longtime DeStefano allies—whose agencies couldn’t prove they spent public money wisely.
That earned DeStefano lifelong enemies. It also saved his career. It positioned him for a comeback based on ideas from people who came to city politics from outside the old Melebus Club, the bunker-like subterranean Water Street mirrored ballroom where the Democratic machine conducted business.
“I had a different focus after LCI—a feeling that this insular nature of relationships, this model, wasn’t working,” DeStefano recalled. Gonzalez convinced DeStefano to utter “transparency” as a mantra, to embrace a public-financing proposal being introduced at the Board of Aldermen.
Connecticut’s other mayors helped: They were so corrupt—dealing openly with the mafia, pocketing bribes, having sex with crack-addicted prostitutes’ preteen daughters right in City Hall—that the FBI found itself overwhelmed. Neither federal nor state law enforcement had evidence that DeStefano personally pocketed money, that he was using the office to build up personal wealth rather than just his personal power; no one since has provided any evidence of personal crimes or money-taking either. It turned out that staying personally honest—even if choosing to ignore blatant ethical line-crossing by others—paid off: The feds were too preoccupied with blatantly corrupt mayors (and then a governor) elsewhere to waste time on an unprosecutable mayor or lower-level New Haven shenanigans.
By the time a popular good-government state senator, Martin Looney, ran against DeStefano for mayor in 2001 on an anti-corruption platform, DeStefano had steered his old-model clunkers into his opponent’s camp. Looney campaigned on bringing a baseball stadium downtown, on neighborhood schools. DeStefano ran on new urbanism and on magnet “schools of choice.” Long Wharf Mall? What Long Wharf Mall? DeStefano was now championing smaller-scale, urban-style business downtown.
With a straight face, incumbent DeStefano ran as the candidate of “change.” He attracted idealistic young liberals to the cause, the beginning of a network that would drive future policy innovations. In coming years out-of-town builders as well found it easier to do business with the city. DeStefano learned that he could survive in office even if patronage didn’t dictate who got accepted to the fire academy. He saw that new people, new ideas were coming to cities with not necessarily less self-interested agendas, but with different expectations and different ways of doing business.
DeStefano won reelection in 2001 by a convincing margin. He wouldn’t face another serious election opponent for another decade.
Well, at least not a mayoral election opponent.
Lesson: Read Before You Fight
By the time DeStefano ran for governor in 2006, and won the Democratic nomination, the Navigator was history.
Chief of Staff Gonzalez was the one to break the news to DeStefano: The Navigator had to go. The ascendant new voting bloc in town, in Connecticut, favored environmentally friendly vehicles. Like those new hybrids.
“You’re setting a bad example,” Gonzalez (pictured) told him.
DeStefano grumbled. But his aide succeeded in making him “feel guilty.” He agreed to trade in the Navigator to squeeze into a city-owned 2004 Prius. He learned to enjoy it—to monitor the improved gas mileage, for instance.
His young staffers also had him ensconced behind a raft of environmental and good-government initiatives, supported now by progressive constituencies statewide. They drew up a city ordinance to let owners of hybrid cars park for free (during allotted posted times), for instance. They had also burnished the reputation of John DeStefano 2.0 as New Haven’s street-fighting progressive mayor: He practically sounded like Ralph Nader railing against the corporate greed of banker directors (pillars of the corporate community) who decided to take mutual New Haven Savings public. He joined union marchers who attacked Yale-New Haven Hospital execs trying to build a new cancer hospital amid a fight over a labor organizing drive.
By October of 2006, DeStefano realized he wasn’t going to defeat the popular Republican incumbent governor, Jodi Rell, in the general election. He didn’t go negative. He decided to keep focused on his message to the end: universal health care, property tax reform, smarter government. Relaxed, upbeat in the face of certain defeat, he seemed almost like a liberated man.
He recognized “there really wasn’t any doubt about how it would turn out,” he recalled. So he focused on “how to finish it in a way to keep faith” with his supporters and his values.
After the polls closed, he had to make a decision: Whether to plunge fully back into running New Haven, a job that had taken a back seat during the gubernatorial campaign. He decided to return and “hit the ground running” with a new batch of envelope-pushing initiatives. (Click on the play arrow to watch him speak at the time.)
DeStefano 3.0 was launched. With new fights against “the establishment.”
His signature first fight: To make New Haven a “welcoming city” for immigrants at a time when other communities (Danbury, for instance) was pushing them out. DeStefano hired immigrant-rights activist Kica Matos as a top aide. She devised two controversial initiatives: a new “Elm City Resident” ID card available to, among all other New Haveners, undocumented immigrants; a police directive forbidding cops from asking about a person’s immigration status unless it directly related to a suspected local crime.
The ID card in particular provoked a fight—with suburban immigrant-bashers who railed on radio and outside City Hall; and eventually with the federal government.
Within days of approval of the ID card in June 2007, federal immigration agents swept through Fair Haven one morning and crashed into immigrants’ apartments to round up 32 undocumented workers—and spread fear through the community. The raid was in clear retaliation against the card.
Matos and DeStefano held firm. They lambasted the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency as the true outlaws. “Back off,” DeStefano told the feds, publicly. “We won’t stand for the violation of constitutional rights and racial profiling in New Haven.”
The new immigration approach overall proved a hit with people in the new New Haven. Hundreds crowded City Hall at a rally to support it while a small band of suburban immigrant-bashers prowled outside. DeStefano came to work the first day of the card’s issuance to find hundreds of immigrants lined up outside City Hall, around the block, for a chance to become more fully part of New Haven. It was among the proudest professional moments of his life.
New Haven’s immigration policies became a fact of life. The Ecuadorian community in particular grew; a consulate located here. Fair Haven, the neighborhood with the largest Latin American immigrant population, continued a gradual revival spurred by newcomers determined to work hard. In December 2008, Governing magazine put DeStefano and his ID card on its cover, using New Haven as an example of how a city can grow stronger by welcoming immigrants.
DeStefano said this past week that he never regretted that fight. He never regretted the fight against the hospital, which cost him politically. He never regretted a subsequent 2009 fight against United Illumniating officials for their decision to move most offices out of New Haven to Orange. At one point he crashed a press conference to confront UI officials and chew them out. Click on the video to watch that moment; click here to read about it.
DeStefano did acknowledge a critical mistake in the UI fight: The move to Orange caught him by surprise. UI had mentioned the plans in passing in its rate request filings. DeStefano hadn’t read those filings.
“Everyone that comes after me [in City Hall] needs to hear it again: Rate filings are really freaking important! You need to pay attention to them and to the actions of big employers,” he declared.
Lesson: Delegate And Micro-Manage
That insistence raised a question: How much detail should a chief executive concern himself or herself with? How much should be delegated instead?
DeStefano had a reputation as a micro-manager. In his exit interview with the Independent, he embraced that reputation—but also argued that he pursued a hybrid model. Like the car he now drives, that model, when it worked best, enabled him to micro-manage departments in crisis but also to let talented aides experiment.
He wishes he had micro-managed the police department more over the years, he said. Then he might have avoided the rudderless years of transitions and shifting policies and retreat from community policing.
With Kica Matos’s work on immigration, by contrast, he encouraged her to run ahead full steam. He saw his role as being to ask questions and understand it at every step.
“I’m proud to known the difference of when to micromanage and when not to crush accountability and and initiative,” he said. “You step back, but not so you can’t put a hand on the shoulder and say, ‘Can you explain to me what you’re doing?’ You let somebody take you some place. Kica took me someplace. We were reaching out to immigrants when it was the right thing to do. If you are somebody like Josemaria Islas (pictured) and you’re powerless—because I’m in a public office, I’ve got currency. I’ve got the currency to stand up and fight back. What is it like to be some guy who doesn’t know the language, who goes to work every day, and is getting crushed by a bureaucracy who doesn’t care about him? If [the mayor] doesn’t stand up for him, who’s going to do it?”
Lesson: Evolve Or Die
On other issues, DeStefano discovered other hybrid models.
On education, for instance. He had neglected the issue for much of his tenure while he was rebuilding the physical plant. Then he fought charter school pioneers who were gaining national attention for high test scores at their schools. Now, as DeStefano 3.0, he stopped fighting charter school opponents and welcomed them into a school reform initiative. He concluded it made sense to take some of the movement’s good ideas—but not to privatize the schools. He convinced a national teachers union to help him make New Haven a national hybrid model for reform by striking a contract that allowed the city to close failing schools and more easily push out failing teachers, while giving the teachers union a guiding say in how reform unfolded. As with immigration, DeStefano now had a national platform. The former numbers guy derided as a “bureaucratic bean-counter” when he first ran for mayor now delivered thoughtful, big-picture addresses like this one about the future of cities and public education.
DeStefano embraced privatization of some government work—managing a golf course, cleaning some schools, managing tenants and maintenance at public housing—because private companies proved they’re better set up to do it, he argued. But he continued to believe that government should control the direction of subsidized housing, should own the projects, should own the parks, should run the schools, in the public interest. When it comes to energy, he concluded that Wallingford had a great idea to create its own power company—and now believes New Haven and other Connecticut communities should explore municipally-owned power plants. So on privatization, too, DeStefano ended up driving a hybrid.
New Haven kept changing, fast. DeStefano continued trying to adapt—in many cases (not all) seeking to embrace, for instance, the demands of cyclists and traffic-calmers and locavores for bike lanes and safer streets and more farmers markets. He still had causes to excite him to go to work each day—school reform, community policing. Suddenly some companies wanted to move into New Haven; they didn’t need to be coaxed. After early years of tensions, DeStefano had a constructive, warm working relationship with Yale.
By 2011, DeStefano could still win reelection in a city so different from the one he began working for in the early 1980s. But he won by far less of a margin that he should have, against Jeffrey Kerekes, a spirited first-time candidate with no money or political organization or significant name recognition. DeStefano had served longer than any mayor in New Haven history. (Click on the video to watch him discuss the highs and lows of his tenure, in a January 2013 interview; and reflect in October 2012 on breaking the record for longest-serving New Haven mayor.) He knew his welcome was finally wearing out. It was time to start a new chapter, outside government, as a banker and professor.
As he noted in this speech last month during one of his stream of valedictory award and tribute events, more than half of the people in New Haven today weren’t here when he first took office. New Haven has changed. So has its mayor.
“You get to a point and you realize it’s not about the buildings,” DeStefano reflected in the speech. “It’s about the people. It’s about the people inside the buildings.”
As he finished his term this past week, DeStefano turned in his city-owned Prius. It was time to buy a new car with his own money. He went to the lot at A-1 Toyota, near his home in Upper Westville, and picked out a black 2013 square-back Prius V.
He had learned to love the hybrid.
City law had helped him learn to love it.
“I get free parking!” he exclaimed.
His aides’ argument that law would convince more drivers to buy fuel-efficient cars turned out to be true—at least in their mayor’s case.
He also likes driving smarter. He doesn’t miss being the biggest thing on the road.
“What you have to be is smarter,” DeStefano reflected. “Symbols do change. Do not become a dinosaur.”
DeStefano’s successor, Toni Harp, said Monday she hasn’t yet given thought to what car she’ll drive when she takes office Wednesday. For now, she said, she’s getting around town in her Acura.
By the time his staff sent the city-owned 2004 Prius to the shop for an upgrade in time for the next administration’s arrival, it had 129,000 miles on it.