Who You Calling A Lame Duck?

Thomas MacMillan PhotoNews flash: John DeStefano is not retiring as New Haven’s mayor to “spend more time” with his family. He’s stepping down to take on a new professional challenge—and because the time is right for the city.

DeStefano delivered that message during an interview in his office Tuesday afternoon. He delivered it again two hours later during a formal announcement at the Russian Lady bar on Temple Street that he will not seek reelection this year.

He said he plans to keep focusing on school reform and community policing, among other challenges, through the end of his current term.

“This isn’t good-bye,” DeStefano declared. “I’m not going anywhere yet.”

He made a point of not mimicking the scripted line most politicians resort to when leaving office or dropping out of a campaign—that they want more time with their family.

“I [have always] spent time with my family,” he said, with his wife, with his two sons as they grew up, with his sisters and their families at summer vacations on Cape Cod. He has always put a priority on that. He will continue to.

At 57, he still wants to work. And he feels he has the “vigor” and good health to launch a meaningful new career, he said.

He didn’t specify what his next job will be. But in the interview he sounded like he has a clear idea what it is. “I have some thoughts about what I will do. That’s a story for another day,” he said. “My goal is to stay in New Haven.”

“I never felt defeated in this job—never,” a relaxed DeStefano said in between bites of a late-lunch salad.

“The time was right” to retire and embark on another career after 30 years in city government, DeStefano said. He has served as mayor for 20 years, longer than anyone else in history.

Two years ago, DeStefano said, he didn’t want to leave the job while violence was back on the rise, a school reform drive was just getting underway, and a potentially grueling property revaluation and budget process loomed. Now community policing has taken root again. The city weathered revaluation without the deep divisions and protests of decades past, he noted. School reform has posted some gains.

He spoke most passionately Tuesday about that reform drive.

He called school reform the most “extraordinary” as well as the most “fragile” part of his legacy. The city has made significant progress in two years in working out new rules with teachers, lifting students’ academic achievement, upping graduation rates and college acceptances, he said. That can keep happening, but only “if we keep our eyes on the ball” every day. He failed to do that with community policing over the years, so the city lost its focus until Chief Dean Esserman came to town and revived the program over the past year, he said. The same can happen with school reform, he warned. He urged voters this year to demand that the next mayor show the same commitment to “school change” and reject efforts to start electing school board members as part of charter reform.

Proudest Moments

Paul Bass PhotoThe Nov. 9, 2010, launching of New Haven Promise—the Yale and Community Foundation-supported program to help public school kids get into college, pay for it, and succeed there—was one of his two proudest moments in office, DeStefano said. (Click on the play arrow to watch him discuss those moments, as well as his low moments.)

His other proudest moment: In 2007, when his administration launched an immigrant-friendly resident ID card to help people, including undocumented families, become more a part of New Haven.

He remembered sitting “in this room looking out this window. City Hall was not open yet. I was here at 6 a.m. And the line at City Hall from the front door was down to Elm Street and down Elm Street to Orange Street. They were New Haven residents coming in to sign up for an Elm City resident card. It was inspiring. It was people, hardworking people saying they were part of this community.”

His biggest regret? Not convincing Connecticut—as a mayor, as a gubernatorial candidate, as a member of task forces—to embrace property tax reform.

Click here to watch DeStefano reflect on another moment in office he’ll never forget: When a drug dealer shot into an Orchard Street apartment and killed a baby named Danielle Monique Taft. DeStefano had been in office a little more than a month at that time.

Looking ahead, DeStefano said he plans to serve out the remainder of his term, which ends on Dec. 31. Click on the play arrow to watch him discuss his intention not to govern like a lame duck.

“A Different Place”

In his address at the Russian Lady, DeStefano described New Haven’s landscape when he took office in 1994: The crumbling abandoned Malley’s building next to just-closed Macy’s next to the bankrupt Park Plaza Hotel next to the soon-to-close Chapel Square Mall. Two blocs away SNET was about to abandon its 300 George St. headquarters. Elsewhere in town the Q Terrace and Elm haven projects were dangerous, decrepit homes.

“It was a different place,” he said.

Today Gateway Community College inhabits the old Macy’s and Malley’s blocks; the Park Plaza has become the Omni, Chapel Square the 900 Chapel apartments and offices, 300 George a thriving tech and biomedical center next to its soon-to open 100 College St. sibling. A rejuvenated housing authority has rebuilt Q Terrace and Elm haven (now Monterey Place) into attractive mixed-income neighborhoods. State Street has a train station. Long Wharf has IKEA. Science Park has lots of tenants, including a headquarters for the growing HigherOne financial services company.

And New Haveners feel welcome at Yale.

“We have changed the face of our city,” DeStefano proclaimed.


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posted by: robn on January 29, 2013  8:19pm

Ummmm…regarding this quote from the mayor…

“The city weathered revaluation without the deep divisions and protests of decades past”

It just seems like there wasn’t a prblem because just a handful of neighborhoods had to swallow the majority of the reval costs…of course thats unlike the last time, when everyone got a freeze.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 29, 2013  10:32pm

To the people who came here.Beware you many get a note that says you were there!!!!

posted by: Atwater on January 30, 2013  9:20am

No one should be allowed to hold office for 20 years. DeStefano’s legacy is more the product of hype than of real progress. Sure, there have been improvements,, for certain segments of the population. But, I would credit Yale for those improvements more than the Mayor and/or the city government. Poverty, crime, high taxes, expensive and ineffective schools and a culture of dependency, that’s the legacy of John DeStefano.

posted by: FrontStreet on January 30, 2013  9:21am

Paul Bass in the running for DeStafano’s official biographer.  No mention of rampant pay to play politics or the Sal Branconte years.  A little disspassionate assessment of Destefano’s tenure would not have been inappropriate.

posted by: William Kurtz on January 30, 2013  10:42am

“Paul Bass in the running for DeStafano’s official biographer.”

Yeah, it must be getting crowded there in the tank with John DeStefano and all of his recent challengers and potential successors.

posted by: streever on January 30, 2013  11:36am

I appreciate the many years of work that DeStefano has done.

It was a job—and a well-paid one at that—but it was hard work, and he does deserve respect and appreciation for his efforts.

I do not doubt that he is a well-intentioned man. I do not doubt that often thought he was doing the right thing.

I do believe that he used his position inappropriately at times—either in the well-documented shake-downs of private contractors that Bass has referred to many times, or in the way he could bully his own team members into being loyal to a fault.

Yes, that is often how politics is done, and I don’t pretend that most politicians don’t also work that way. It is still disappointing and not in the best interests of the electorate.

The fear that DeStefano instilled in people who should have just primaried him a decade ago stays with us and influences us even now that he has changed his mind on running again.

Some people will see this as the victory of Unite and CCNE, but this is a short-sighted and ungrateful position.

If anyone convinced DeStefano to step down, it was Kerekes. Jeffrey Kerekes ran an honest, feet-on-the-ground campaign against DeStefano, at a time when too many were afraid to question or challenge him. He openly engaged with voters—what we saw was what we would get. He didn’t hold back room meetings. Despite having little name recognition in most of this city, he gave DeStefano a fight.

The writing was on the wall after Kerekes. What changed for DeStefano? Initially I thought he was that arrogant that he didn’t realize what the election results meant for 2013, but now I think he also saw this outcome. He could not have continued as Mayor if he stated that he received a terrible mandate.

I always thought the Mayor would name a successor when he stepped down (finally)—I still think that, but I don’t think he will name that person “ex cathedra” (from the chair), but, through a much more subtle process.

The next few months will be interesting for New Haven. A Mayor who ran a few too many times is stepping down, and the Johnny-Come-Latelies are already lining up.

Will the voters be swayed by rhetoric and vote politics as usual, or will they make a new decision for a new direction? I hope they are brave.

posted by: Brutus2011 on January 31, 2013  7:12pm

I just listened to the Paul Bass interview on NPR re: DeStefano’s legacy. Thanks to Mr. Bass for his insight and comments and to NPR for its public service.

Mayor DeStefano wants someone to succeed him who, among other things, understands the city’s school reform efforts and policies. If I understand this right, the mayor is keen on the continuity of his school reform policies even though he will be out of office or officially not in charge.

Okay. Fair enough. I am willing to reluctantly stipulate that the mayor is a true believer.

But what if the mayor is wrong and the city’s school reform effort is going to prove as ineffectual as the first 18 years of his time in office?

Okay again. I can imagine rejoinders such as: “give it time,” or “don’t be so negative,” or “be a part of the solution and not part of the problem,” or “if you are so smart then how come policy makers don’t solicit your recommendations?” Again, fair enough. I am certainly not an education oracle.

But what I am is an experienced, educated, and intelligent member of the community who strongly holds the view that NHPS is on the wrong track and the longer DeStefano’s vision on school reform is allowed to continue the more harm to our children will occur and the longer it will be to derail the failure and get on track to a successful school district.

A successful school district is one where our kids are physically safe and are intellectually and socially stimulated and nurtured.

Mr. Bass stated that he thinks that our city’s school reform effort is the best in the country because of the lack of ideology or that NHPS is trying out many different models to see what works best or what combination works best—including charter schools.

On the surface this appears to be a logical strategy, but what it means that those who are touting this school reform effort really have no idea of what to do to get results without abandoning their prestige?

This is what I believe the mayor’s true legacy to be:

Power trumps all. Let them eat cake.

Personally, I can’t wait for a transparent and accountable mayor who de-politicizes our schools and reforms from the bottom-up and not the gestapo-style top-down management style.

posted by: Mister Jones on February 1, 2013  2:37pm

The city is in far better shape now then when DeStefano first took office. If you don’t agree, then you either weren’t here or have a short, selective memory. I’m not saying he should get all the credit for the improvement, but just as he shouldn’t get all the blame for bad stuff, he should get his due.

posted by: FromTheHill on February 1, 2013  3:54pm

I hope he gets a school named after him.

posted by: Brutus2011 on February 1, 2013  4:51pm

to “Mister Jones:”
Actually, your assertion is not outside the bounds of reason—I remember when downtown was to be avoided. Downtown is certainly different now.

My issue with the current administration has to do with my study of republican government and history.

Lets say the mayor is a good guy who sincerely does what he thinks is best for the rest of us. One could argue that that really is his job and why he was elected.

But that is not what elected representatives in government within our constitutional system are to do.

Elected representatives, whether local, state, or federal, are to adhere to the rule of law—and that means that the people are the ultimate sovereign and elected representatives, and their appointees, are to serve the people. This is structurally in place by the device of the separation of powers. Simply put, the elected are not to decides what is best for the rest of us, no matter the intention, but are to carry out the wishes of those who elected him or her.

This is where Mayor DeStefano strayed from the true American way of governance or at least from what the framers intended. Did you know that term limits were a default position during the early republic? For proof, examine George Washington. He could have, assuming better health, been President for as long as he wanted. However, he stepped down because the political leaders of that time knew that tyranny could rear its head if elected officials became leaders of the people instead of servants of the people. For further proof, read the letters of John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, et al.

The mayor knows, like any successful politician, that the first priority is to win the election otherwise everything is moot.

And herein, is the ultimate rationale for my position that the past 20 years are ultimately toxic to our city—the mayor became a leader of us instead of becoming a servant to us.

Those with a “winning is the only thing” mentality will snort with derision after reading the above. Obviously, when it comes to public service I disagree.

I leave you to your own conclusions.

posted by: Tom Burns on February 6, 2013  12:11am

Responding to From the Hill—he certainly will get a school named after him—20 years as mayor—that takes guts, ability, chutzpah and a belief in something outside of himself—he deserves a school, a street, a meadow, a….whatever——-thank you Mr. Mayor—I believe I know your heart—and your aim was true—even when we didn’t agree—you are a special individual and New Haven is better for having met you—-Tom Burns