Fernandez Inherits The Building Trades

Paul Bass PhotoThe first union leaders have spoken in this year’s mayoral race—and thrown their institutional weight behind Henry Fernandez, a former top aide to a man they supported for decades.

Leaders of three local unions—representing carpenters, laborers and engineers—backed Fernandez at a press conference Thursday outside the East Rock Global Magnet School.

Fernandez is one of seven Democrats running in a Sept. 10 party primary for the nomination to succeed retiring 20-year incumbent Mayor John DeStefano.

The union leaders returned to a spot—East Rock School, currently in the finishing phases of a rebuilding project—to which they journeyed in 2011 to endorse DeStefano’s reelection campaign. The building trades unions, whose members have rebuilt 35 New Haven public schools, consistently supported DeStefano’s campaigns throughout his career.

Thursday’s press conference was Fernandez’s second in two days. Since Gary Holder-Winfield’s March 28 “clean elections” event outside City Hall No other candidates in the race has yet held any press conferences—known as “earned media” in the campaign trade, designed to bring public attention to a candidate and his or her issues and support. Thursday’s event gave Fernandez an opportunity to advance a jobs platform as well as demonstrate that he begins the race with organized support.

This week’s press events also highlighted a fine line Fernandez will straddle in the campaign. Fernandez worked with the DeStefano administration as economic development chief and as head of the Livable City Initiative (LCI) neighborhood anti-blight agency before leaving City Hall in 2004. His work at City Hall has translated to backing from groups long supportive of John DeStefano. But he also risks losing votes from New Haveners who have expressed a desire for change after two decades of DeStefano’s rule. So Fernandez can be expected to stress his record in government while also finding ways to demonstrate an independent identity. On Wednesday he held a press conference critical of a decision by the DeStefano administration, to hire a new schools superintendent by Sept. 1. On Thursday he picked up important support from longtime DeStefano allies based on his record in City Hall.

The event wasn’t a formal endorsement by any unions. Rather, leaders of three of the buildings and construction trades unions gathered members to accompany Fernandez as he expressed his support for continuing and expanding on his previous city government role in promoting union work for local people.

Chris Cozzi, who’s 37, was one of the leaders present. He has followed his father and grandfather in the position of business manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 478, which he said has 3,000 members in Connecticut, including “several hundred” living in the city of New Haven. The significance of union backing lies not so much in those several hundred votes, but in thousands of combined potential votes from all 18 affiliated trade unions, which have some 4,800 city-based members tend to endorse candidates as a block; and in the political field work the organizations do.

When Cozzi’s father Ben had the position, he worked directly with Fernandez—then the DeStefano administration’s economic development chief—on “project labor agreements” (PLAs) on school construction projects. The PLAs guarantee that 25 percent of the jobs go to New Haveners and 25 percent to people of color.

He and other union leaders referred to Fernandez’s role in helping craft PLAs as a main reason for their support for Fernandez’s mayoral candidacy. They also cited his role in helping launch a pre-apprenticeship “workforce construction initiative” that trains New Haveners for city-backed construction work. (Read about that here.)

“Henry was integral” to developing those two programs, Cozzi said. “We’ll get our members out to vote and make sure our members get their friends and neighbors out to vote.”

Carpenters union organizer Tim Sullivan (pictured with Fernandez) said DeStefano “had a great record with us.” He said he sees Fernandez as someone who will continue those policies but also will be “a different kind of guy. What we see with Henry is the opportunity to generate union jobs in the private sector,” as well.

Fernandez talked about that in remarks to the two dozen or so sign-bearing union supporters gathered on Nash Street outside the school. He said he would work as mayor to convince private developers to follow the city’s lead in hiring union labor along with benchmarks for local and minority hiring. He also emphasized training programs.

“Let’s be honest,” Fernandez said. “It’s not enough that New Haven residents get to work on one construction job. This is not about a job. It’s about a career. It’s about the ability to get good-paying jobs” with health and retirement benefits. “We only see that in construction when it’s union jobs.”

He spoke of a time when he served in City Hall and “we made a decision to shut down” work on school projects in which subcontractors “thought it was OK to sneak in workers from out of state who didn’t look like us.”

He praised the construction unions for consistently exceeding the minimum 25 percent local and minority and female hiring thresholds under the subsequent PLAs.

Labor unions traditionally play a major role in turning out votes in local elections. Mayor DeStefano enjoyed near-unanimous support from local unions over his career. The one exception came two years ago, when Yale’s locals—the largest and most politically influential in town—broke with him. They didn’t back his opponents. But they worked hard to help defeat City Hall-backed aldermanic candidates and elect a new supermajority to the Board of Aldermen.

Those locals are now joining other New Haven unions in interviewing all the Democratic candidates. Another candidate, state Sen. Toni Harp, is considered the favorite to win at least the coveted Yale unions’ support, but that decision has not been made; candidate Kermit Carolina, the principal of Hillhouse High School, also enjoys support among the union rank and file.

“Every union will probably make an individual decision. I don’t think it will be a unilateral decision,” predicted Democratic Town Chairwoman Jackie James. “Everyone will make their own decision based on what they feel their relationship is with the candidate.”

Ernest Pagan of the Local 24 of the Carpenters Union, pictured holding aloft a Fernandez campaign sign at the event, said he hasn’t made his own decision yet. Pagan, who’s 33, grew up in the Rockview projects; he did framing and sheetrocking work on the new East Rock Global building.

“I’ve got to listen to all the candidates,” Pagan said. “I’m here doing my research.”

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posted by: Curious on May 9, 2013  1:46pm

Okay, NOW you can call him DeStefano 2.0.

Did these union heads even meet with the other candidates? 

Or do they already either know which side their bread is buttered on?

One City, for sale to the highest bidder.

posted by: FrontStreet on May 9, 2013  2:08pm

It’s just puzzling to me how a man who went from Yale Law straight to an executive position in the mayor’s office, who has never been elected to any office in New Haven, who has no real constituency in the city, and who hasn’t done any work for the city in several years, suddenly gets the support of key unions in the city. 

Puzzling but not surprising.  With Yale, the Mayor’s office and the unions in your back pocket, how could you lose?  Let’s hope the people of New Haven are able to see through the smoke and elect someone who will work for them, not the powers that be.

And yes, the democracy fund makes all the difference in the world.

posted by: robn on May 9, 2013  2:09pm

“we made a decision to shut down” work on school projects in which subcontractors “thought it was OK to sneak in workers from out of state who didn’t look like us.”

What do “WE” look like?

First racist gaff of the campaign?
Anyone? Anyone?

posted by: mstratton on May 9, 2013  2:48pm

These are the same pay to play pirates who dominated public policy during the Destefano years and they are back with fernandez. 35 schools built, 800 million in city debt, no wonder Chris Cozzi and the operating engineers from Fairfield County and the shoreline love us so. Look: Fernandez here is surrounded by people who don’t even live in New Haven, and yet give generously to campaigns and extract huge political favors. This is why the democracy fund is the single most important issue in this election. it makes gifts like this disallowed. The good guys are Elicker, Holder Winfield and the democracy fund candidates. They represent a once in a generation opportunity to make New Haven and New Haveners first. Fernandez should be ashamed of himself for trying to sell out New Haven.

posted by: mstratton on May 9, 2013  3:01pm

Interestingly the only man of color identified as supporting Fernandez is Ernest Pagan. Mr. Pagan is currently suing the city of New Haven for tens of millions—claiming false prosecution. The mayor would make decisions about settlement, so I guess Mr. Pagan thinks Fernandez might reciprocate his support by settling for big bucks. Is this the only New Haven resident in this union??? Probably not, but darn close.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on May 9, 2013  3:04pm

Labor Union???? Really??? Hmmmmmm

posted by: Curious on May 9, 2013  3:20pm

Robn, I thought that too, but held my tongue.  When you accuse someone in the minority of racism, you usually just get yelled at for being racist yourself. 

I believe there is a special form of hypocrisy in which some minority members who find themselves in power then wish to simultaneously eliminate racism TOWARDS their own group, but want to take a turn wielding their newfound power to shut out other people “who don’t look like them”.

posted by: Curious on May 9, 2013  3:22pm

Everything else aside, talking about people “who didn’t look like us” is not a very “One City” sort of thing.  That is divisive language, quite the opposite of what Henry is paying to have advertised all over New Haven.

Is this One City or My City?

posted by: anonymous on May 9, 2013  5:41pm

How many hundreds of millions of dollars in new school construction projects did the “Big Money” candidate have to promise to these suburban contractors in order to get their endorsement?

What was Fernandez’s role in the destruction of a massive swath of the Hill neighborhood, over objections from residents, in order to build a new school there in 2002?

posted by: New Haven Taxpayer on May 9, 2013  8:32pm

OK Now I know who NOT to vote for.
Suburban union employees trying to make sure the New Haven gravy boat keeps them with money in their pockets.
I hope New Haven residents can read the writing on the wall, Fernandez will sell us out.
Has this guy ever run a business? If so, please go back to work and hire all the suburban union employees you want. New Haven can’t afford them running our city and taking our tax dollars out of town.

posted by: HhE on May 9, 2013  8:33pm

I’m not surprised, not one bit.  His “For Sale” sign was much better looking than that other guy’s. 

(I do not know how much backing he is getting/going to get from Yale Corporation or Locals 34 and 35.  I would be surprised if someone could get support from both.  Those two entities get along like India and Pakistan—only worse.)

posted by: Noteworthy on May 9, 2013  9:04pm

I can see a television and print campaign built around this press conference. It would start with the blatant racism quote: “what we look like.” Then go to the suburban unions that are breaking this city with debt and needless construction projects; and finish with Mr. Pagan who wants taxpayers to pony up millions for his lawsuit and he’s counting on Henry to force the deal. The video would include pigs at the trough.

posted by: Xavier on May 9, 2013  9:07pm

One City Henry - he has the union behind him - that is more people on the ground for canvasing.

Geeze, I wish Harp starts something soon. It would be great to Harp and Fernandez in a debate. I believe that One City Henry has the backing and quick wit to reduce any opponent to tears.

Remember nice guys who want to wish for clean uncorrupted elections, finish last. Nice guys always do.

posted by: VinnyOx on May 10, 2013  1:02am

Oh my… i’ve never seen so many commenters who wanted to seem like they were for the people but were against unions… Isn’t that what the unions ARE? the people?

How strange, it also looks like no one is actually reading Mr. Bass’ words! It’s says that he was an integral part in putting these PLA’s in place that hire NEW HAVEN RESIDENTS and shuts down badly behaving contractors! The commenters above seem to be getting union leaders and contractors mixed up, when we unionize big jobs like our schools we get New Haven residents working. The leaders might get a penny for every hour they work (that’s how unions are run) but most of the money goes to us, New Havenites.

posted by: SherryCherry on May 10, 2013  1:05am

Go ahead Henry! represent people who “look like us”

I am gonna call out all of ya’ll talmabout he’s racist because he’s trying to make sure a black man gets a dollar - you are racist people. It’s about time someone cared about a brother getting a career in this city.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on May 10, 2013  6:26am

Remember nice guys who want to wish for clean uncorrupted elections, finish last.

Wow Xavier! At least you are admitting that your man Henry is corrupt. I for one will keep wanting an uncorrupted candidate. Why I am sick of a dictatorship it is not normal we just got use to it. HOW IS THAT CHANGE?

And his comment??? WTF! 

Truth always show its ugly head…this is the proof, Henry is corrupt, is bought and paid for, and is Destefano 2.0. We have had 20 year year of this why the hell would anyone want 2 more?

posted by: Curious on May 10, 2013  7:03am

Xavier, “nice” and “honest” aren’t the same thing.

posted by: robn on May 10, 2013  8:31am


What do “WE” look like?

posted by: Xavier on May 10, 2013  8:46am


Please don’t go after One City Henry - he is not corrupt. One City Henry knows what it takes to win an election in New Haven, and it is not abstract idealism. It is a cool calculated strategy to WIN. And winners, whether actual or perceived, attract followers. Look at Charlie Sheen, “winner”.

One City Henry knows the theme for the union and African American community has been jobs for a very very longtime. Who can blame him or the unions for their matrimony?

Again, it is about winning an election (really a primary in New Haven) and One City Henry knows how to. Why do you think the machine turned out big time for One City Henry’s announcement? Money and people behind you is what it takes to win- not nice nice never land election environment that just does not exist.

Elicker, who I think you like, is a nice guy, but is not getting the message out there. Big deal about the democracy fund and pay to play pirates.  Look, One City Henry and his campaign manager are getting the press on real issues (superintendent search, jobs, etc), the endorsements, and the money. That is a winner strategy.

posted by: HhE on May 10, 2013  8:54am

Well, robn, Curious, and Noteworthy, sure enough, SherryCherry is calling you out.  I put it to you, SherryCherry, there is a profound moral difference between “We are committed to creating opportunities for disenfranchised minorities through set asides in city funded projects.” and “They don’t look like us.” 

VinnyOx, I believe the issue many of have here isopine Mayor Destefano used contractors and unionized trades as a base.  In exchange for their support, overly large projects were pursued that the city could ill afford. 

I opine that a debate between Mr. Fernandez and Ms. Harp would sound like an auction, with some entitlement code words tossed in.

posted by: HhE on May 10, 2013  9:15am

Xavier, your line of reasoning rather reminds me of another campaign that saw winning at all costs as more important that getting it right.  At least two people in the McCain Presidential campaign are now expressing great regret for helping to bring in Sarah Palin.  She is the expression of choosing a VP based upon advancing the campaign over having someone who could be a credible President.

posted by: OneCityManyDreams on May 10, 2013  2:17pm

Again, the guy is a leader. He knows how to work from the bottom up and make New Haven a better place to live and work. Hire local, work local, and let the community grow in jobs, education and tax base.  I feel very confident this guy can do it. I am 100% behind him now. New Haven needs a leader like this.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on May 10, 2013  2:49pm

Xsvior I totally want to meet you because at the least you seem to be an honest post and not one of those fluff one liner people that repeats the same stuff and I respect you for that. Your candidate on the other hand I do not respect. And it is really a sad thing that corruption is expected a a means to an end? This is not ok. it is a sad thing. You need to remember that when a candidate excepts money from big money entity’s they owe them (not you, not me, not the people that live in this city) but those entities. And the crumbs that are thrown at us…(the little people that live here) are just that crumbs. We have had the same games played on us for 20 years…I for one am tired of crumbs, I want a candidate that is not playing the same old political games, using the same corp. money. I have to support a candidate that will be good for communitys like Cedar Hill, Fair Haven and Newhallville as well as the other parts of the city. That for me is Elicker. But I like Kerm and Gary to. All three our the Peoples Candidates!!

posted by: Curious on May 10, 2013  4:18pm

“OneCityManyDreams” says, “I am 100% behind him now” about Henry “One City” Fernandez.

Really?  Like you were on the fence before?

Democracy Fund or Bust!  No more buying elections and selling out New Haven.

posted by: ElmJackCity on May 10, 2013  6:23pm

My vote is between Holder-Winfield and Justin Elicker. Hernandez has no platform for change. The corruption will continue under his watch along with the bankruptcy of New Haven. It’s a shame the Unions don’t have the fiber that they used to in order to make a sound endorsement for who would best represent their members.

posted by: Xavier on May 11, 2013  12:20am

Thanks for your sentiments about me- but ouch about One City Henry.

For 20 years, the people of New Haven have elected JD. No serious challengers, because…they liked JD.

Crumbs are not so bad if all you had before was nothing.

JD school building program and education reform will be his legacy for sure, but the many many people who have moved from nothing to middle class will be the collective that will launch One City Henry to the second floor office of city-hall.

Why? Because these folks don’t forget their movement from nothing to middle class was due to the money earned as a construction worker on a school, the many NHPS teachers and administrators that have come out of the African American community, and the many African Americans who scored fire department jobs under the JD regime.

(Boise Kimber and JD was a political partnership that got votes and jobs.) Should be interesting into what camp Kimber will land. 

Purity and politics are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However purity tends to be ideological while politics is practical. You have to deal with reality, in all of its impurity.

Machiavelli understood this, JD too, and One City Henry is poised, perhaps I would dare say anointed, to succeed JD, because One City Henry wants to win.

posted by: FrontStreet on May 11, 2013  1:18pm

“Money and people behind you is what it takes to win- not nice nice never land election environment that just does not exist.”

Your admiration of, and yearning for, mid 20th century, Tamanny Hall, machivelian, father-figure style mayors is quaint but increasingly obsolete.

Since the early 90s, reporters like Paul Bass have been bringing a keen eye to the machinations of New Haven politics, forcing the insider games of the like of Sal Brancati into the public eye.  And so New Haven politics has, ever so slowly, evolved, with more power sharing and transparency.

Elicker and Holder-Winfield have been part of the movement to bring new and alternative voices to the table in New Haven,  deriving their power from the ability to craft public policy with direct and even real time input of their constituencies.  This is the politics of the future (and, really, of the present in many many places beyond New Haven). 

Fernandez power base comes from the vested interests he has courted so well since graduation from Yale Law.  He has no real popular constituency, to my knowledge (in fact he’s not much like by locals he dealt with while on the job during his relatively short tenure in the mayor’s office).