In the wake of Mayor DeStefano’s bombshell decision not to seek reelection, at least two prominent new candidates emerged to succeed him—before lunchtime.
Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina—who has publicly sparred with the mayor over the past year—released a statement to the New Haven Independent stating that he is seriously considering seeking the mayor’s office. He issued the statement Tuesday morning, scant hours after the news broke Monday night that DeStefano will not run this year to seek an 11th two-year term. The full text of Carolina’s statement appears below in this article.
Probate Court Judge Jack Keyes is seriously considering making a run, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Keyes is expected to make a decision within a week. Keyes also seriously considered a run when the mayor’s office was open in 1989. A law partner of state Sen. Martin Looney, Keyes has decades worth of ties in New Haven’s political community. He served as city clerk before becoming a judge 27 years ago.
Two other potential top contenders and the longtime favorites of New Haven’s politically active unions—Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez and state Sen. Martin Looney—are considering running. Perez said he plans to decide within the week. (Click here to read about that.)
Another potential new candidate, state Sen. Toni Harp, told the Independent she will not run for mayor.
The longtime New Haven state senator has always been considered the strongest potential challenger to entrenched New Haven Mayor John DeStefano (including by DeStefano’s camp). For years her supporters have urged her to take DeStefano on.
Now DeStefano’s stepping down—and Harp said she doesn’t plan to step in. She said she’s happy in the state Senate, where she co-chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee.
“I don’t think I’m going to be running, to be honest with you, unless I’m struck by lightning,” she said.
DeStefano’s announcement is expected to release decades of pent-up political ambitions in New Haven and spark many potential candidacies for mayor. He joins a stream of white male powerbrokers relinquishing posts after decades in office: Yale President Rick Levin, whose 20-year tenure roughly coincided with DeStefano’s, U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd ... Heck, even New Haven Register Editorial Page Editor Charles Kochakian retired last Friday after more than 26 years directing the monopoly print daily’s editorial voice.
Now New Haveners—some of whom have never lived under a different mayor—will contemplate a New Haven without John DeStefano running the show and setting the city’s agenda.
More Candidates Expected
DeStefano’s decision instantly changed the dynamic of the 2013 mayoral race—from challengers striving to make the case for unseating an incumbent, to an open field of candidates seeking to make the case that they’re the most qualified for the job.
So far two elected officials have started running for mayor: East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker and state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield. Despite his incumbency, DeStefano was expected to face a tough fight for the Democratic Town Committee endorsement; a slate backed by Yale’s unions took control of the party last year.
“I’m sure other people will come out” to seek the mayoralty now that DeStefano is stepping aside, Democratic Town Chairwoman Jackie James said Monday night.
James (who is not running for mayor) said she’s not backing any candidate at this point. In New Haven, winning the Democratic primary is generally tantamount to winning a general election. No Republican has won a mayor’s race since 1951. No Republicans have even bothering running for alderman or mayor or state legislator the past two years.
“In light of the news, we need to take time and respect John’s decision. He’s been here 20 years,” James said. “Despite our differences, I think he’s done great things. I think we as a city need to take time to vet the proper person.”
Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez, who also has often been mentioned as a potential DeStefano opponent, said he had no comment when asked about his plans in the post-DeStefano era. His phone will be ringing non-stop for days.
Another top local Democrat whose name gets thrown into the mix, state Rep. Toni Walker, said she is definitely not going to run for mayor.
“I am not interested. I like what I do. I like working with kids. And I like doing policy. I have the best job,” said Walker, who co-chairs Appropriations with Toni Harp at the Capitol and works as an assistant principal at New Haven’s adult education center.
Other names that have been floating in the completely unconfirmed gossip mill include state Sen. Martin Looney and state Rep. Pat Dillon. Looney could not be reached for comment Monday night. Dillon deferred comment. “My immediate concern is protecting New Haven in a difficult budget year,” Dillon said.
One key question is whom the Yale union-backed majority on the Board of Aldermen and the Democratic Town Committee—the most organized vote-pulling operation in town, if not the state—will get behind. The organization was primed to back a challenger to DeStefano. But at this point it remains an open question whom it will support.
Since the mid-20th century, entrenched mayors who left lasting imprints on the city have tended to be followed by transitional figures after they leave office.
Richard C. Lee served from 1954 through 1970. The first New Haven mayor to centralize government power and create a powerful executive branch, Lee oversaw the nation’s most intensive urban renewal experiment. When much of the city turned against that experiment, from both the right and left, he stepped down. His successor, Bart Guida, served six quiet years before another man, Frank Logue, unseated him. And Logue served only four years in office.
The next strong mayor was Biagio DiLieto, who served a full decade, from Jan. 1 1980, through Dec. 31, 1989. He oversaw a new era of downtown and harbor development. When many in the city started questioning whether he had paid enough attention to neighborhood development and to social problems like AIDS and homelessness, and as a strong challenger emerged, DiLieto stepped down rather than run for reelection. That challenger, John Daniels, became mayor and served just four years (during which time he brought community policing to New Haven).
DeStefano (who lost to Daniels in 1989) began his first term on Jan. 1, 1994. The legacy he leaves behind includes a $1.5 billion citywide school rebuilding effort and a nationally recognized policy of welcoming immigrants to New Haven. Outside of a temporary scare following a 1998 corruption scandal involving his neighborhoods anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative, DeStefano has largely run for reelection without serious opposition for most of his term. Then two years ago he had to fight hard to retain his seat against a first-time candidate with no significant financial or organizational backing. And a labor-backed slate of candidates independent of the mayor’s organization took control of both the Board of Aldermen and the Democratic Party. Even though DeStefano moved quickly after that election to address the top complaint in that campaign—the decline of community policing—he still faced a potentially bruising campaign season again this year, from more seasoned opponents and without the backing of the party organization he used to control. He started running hard for reelection—then chose to leave on his own terms and go out on top.
The full text of Principal Carolina’s statement follows:
“Mayor DeStefano’s decision not to run is both surprising and exciting because of the possibilities that emerge for new energy, leadership and a new vision in our city.
My faith requires me to forgive Mayor DeStefano, and I have already done so. I wish the very best for his family and for him in any and all of his future endeavors.
Although news of his decision began to spread only yesterday, I have received a number of phone calls and text messages from community leaders, activists and residents—particularly my neighbors in the Westville neighborhood—encouraging me to run for Mayor.
As can be expected, before making a decision of this magnitude, I would need to discuss it with my wife and two sons. I would also need to consider the impact that my candidacy would have on all members of James Hillhouse’s school community.
As principal of Hillhouse High School, my primary responsibility is to my students who are working hard each and every day so that they are prepared to graduate on time in order to take advantage of the opportunities they will get to be successful in the workforce, college or in the military.
Over the next few weeks, I will continue to listen to more people throughout the city and continue to seek sound advice. After talking with my family and getting more feedback from people, I will make a decision about a run for Mayor of the City of New Haven.”