Help a hungry kid. Grow jobs. Speak to all constituents the same.
Those visions of “social justice” emerged Tuesday night as six candidates squared off in a mayoral debate.
The visions emerged at a “New Haven Mayoral Social Justice Debate” at Gateway Community College’s downtown campus. The New Haven Independent, La Voz Hispana, and the Inner-City News sponsored the debate in conjunction with the New Haven Democracy Fund.
The event brought issues confronting New Haven’s neediest to the forefront—and different visions of what it means to be a “social justice” mayor.
A standing-room only crowd packed Gateway’s north cafeteria to hear clients and staffers from four social justice agencies—New Haven Legal Assistance, Christian Community Action, Junta for Progressive Action, and Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS)—pose questions to six Democrats who are seeking the nomination to replace retiring two-decade incumbent Mayor John DeStefano. Staffers at the agencies preparing the questions came up with the grassroots approach to this debate. Their goal: To make sure that low-income and working-class New Haveners have their voices heard right from the start of an important citywide election campaign.
The six Democrats in the debate were Hillhouse Principal Kermit Carolina, East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker, former city economic development chief Henry Fernandez, state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, former Chamber of Commerce prez Matthew Nemerson, and Newhallville plumber Sundiata Keitazulu. State Sen. Toni Harp, who is also running, told the Independent she cannot attend the debate because of a critical Democratic caucus meeting scheduled at the same time in Hartford.
As though interviewing candidates applying for a job, IRIS Director Chris George asked each one to “describe a social justice accomplishment you are proud of.” A wide spread of answers highlighted the different approaches the candidates take to the mayor’s job.
Nemerson mentioned that back in 1993, as head of the Chamber of Commerce, he took part in a three-month experiment asking all sorts of New Haveners to describe their vision for the city. The result was a rich brainstorming session—“Vision for New Haven”—that brought together different communities, Nemerson said.
Keitazulu (pictured) said being part of the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights era was a peak experience in social justice.
Holder-Winfield emphasized more current examples of modern-day social justice, battles that he helped lead at the state Capitol. That includes passing a bill establishing equal rights for transgender people and leading the fight to abolish the death penalty (an accomplishment that earned him applause from Tuesday’s crowd).
Fernandez (pictured) touted his experience co-founding and leading the youth agency LEAP; advocating for Connecticut’s Dream Act, which granted undocumented immigrant children access to in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities; fighting to abolish the death penalty in Maryland, and working with the NAACP to register new African-American voters.
Elicker framed social justice not as a matter of passing legislation, but of “loving others as you love your self.” As an alderman, he said, “I’ve treated everyone the same no matter who they are”—whether they live on ritzy St. Ronan Street or in Cedar Hill, a neglected, blue-collar corner of East Rock.
Carolina (pictured) also framed social justice as a type of constituent service. In this case, his constituents are the many kids he has coached and supervised at Hillhouse High. He said social justice isn’t about “charity,” which would be to give a hungry kid a meal. It’s about getting to the bottom of why that kid is hungry, and stepping in to “change a life.”
The candidates returned to the social justice theme during their closing remarks.
Carolina stressed his background as a homegrown New Havener who grew up in the Elm Haven projects: “I know the challenges the citizens of New Haven face.” Modern-day social justice, he said, will take the form of immigration reform and a strong focus on education.
Elicker (pictured), emerging from behind the table, gave an economic argument. “When taxes are high, people suffer,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon our government to help the least among us.” He said social justice requires “compassion” and listening to people.
“My entire professional life has been a fight for social justice,” said Fernandez, carrying on the theme of the night. Repeating his campaign slogan, “One City,” he vowed to fight for better jobs, education, and immigrant rights. He appealed to the audience to come together: “You, all of you, are what makes us one city.”
Like Carolina, Holder-Winfield (pictured) said his social justice mission is founded in his roots growing up in poverty. Even living in a housing project in the Bronx, he said, he was active in trying to help others. As a successful adult, he said, he followed his mother’s advice: “You always have to go back to help.” Going back to help others in need, he said, “is who I am.”
Keitazulu, who took on the voice of the common man during the hour-long debate, stood up and clutched two microphones with ferocity during his closing remarks. From his vantage point in Newhallville, he said, he sees too much disparity in the city. “What I see every day is not social justice.” Instead of focusing on downtown, he said, the next mayor needs to ask, “what’s going on in Newhallville? What’s going on on Congress Ave.?”
Nemerson (pictured) approached the social justice question from a pragmatic point of view: People need jobs. He offered what he called “a simple proposition,” to “create the biggest buddy system in the world.” The buddy system would link the “Yale” part of town (privilege) with the “opportunity” part of town (poverty).
“Everybody from Yale who has a good job needs to partner up with someone in the opportunity part of New Haven,” Nemerson offered. The goal is to create a big “network,” so that “that Yalie can give ideas to someone on the other side of town.” (Nemerson didn’t mention what Yalies have to learn from Newhallvillers.)
The debate ended abruptly with the click of a stopwatch.
The well-mannered crowd began to break out into conversation.
“Huge crowd tonight, excited to see what the future debates have in store,” wrote Ariela Martin, a Coop High student and Independent contributing reporter, on the Independent’s live blog.
“This room is buzzing!” wrote Babz Rawls-Ivy of Inner-City News.
“You have to be here to enjoy all the excitement. lots and lots of people. Some of us political junkies, others new in the world of politics,” wrote Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, publisher of La Voz Hispana. “This is a great time in New Haven.”
If you missed the debate, you can watch it on CTV, Channel 96. The debate will be broadcast 13 times:
Tuesdays at 6 p.m. (May 14, 21, 28)
Thursdays at 4 p.m. (May 9, 16, 23, 30)
Saturdays at 3 p.m. (May 11, 18, 25)
Sundays at 7 p.m. (May 12, 19, 26).
You can also click below to follow a blow-by-blow discussion on a live blog with reporters from the Independent, Inner-City News, La Voz Hispana and WNPR. Scroll further down for more photos from the debate.
The cafeteria at Gateway Community College was filled to capacity.
Two “Pay-To-Play Pirates” greeted people at the door. They offered to sell the key to the city for $1,000 (or 1,000 doubloons). They also urged debate-goers not to talk to people from an organization called New Haven First, advocating for mayoral candidates who are participating in the Democracy Fund, the city’s public campaign financing program. “They’re a bunch of landlubbers.”
Carla Johnson of Mothers for Justice/ Christian Community Action posed a question about affordable housing.
Legal aid’s James Bhandary-Alexander took his turn at the mic.