What Makes A “Social Justice” Mayor?

Thomas MacMillan Photos 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.

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posted by: anonymous on May 8, 2013  8:43am

The pirates are awesome.

posted by: DownTownNewHaven on May 8, 2013  9:02am

Gary knocked this debate out of the park. He was a gracious host but it was clear last night that it was clear the other candidates were only guest in his house last night.

The pirates were awesome. Also interested to see Justin put so much skin into the democracy fund when he has is planing to run as an independent without the democracy fund in the General election if he doesn’t win the primary.

If your public strategy involves running as an independent, outside of the fund, it seems blatantly hypocritical to make the fund the hallmark of your primary campaign.

posted by: kenneth_krayeske on May 8, 2013  9:50am

Thank you to all the candidates who participated in the debate, and thank you to everyone who attended. We counted about 250 people crammed into the cafeteria!

The Democracy Fund looks forward to the next debate in July it will sponsor with its media partners the Independent and La Voz and Inner City News.  That debate will focus on safe streets and livable neighborhoods. The time and location will be announced soon.

Administrator, New Haven Democracy Fund

posted by: TheMadcap on May 8, 2013  9:53am

Calling us poors the ‘opportunity’ sections of town I find pretty darn disturbing, especially when other points of Nemerson’s platform are lower taxes and laxer zoning laws. Great, more of us can be bulldozed out of our homes for Yale and its affiliates.

posted by: Curious on May 8, 2013  10:17am

Was there any exit polling to score the candidates on the way out?

posted by: stick21 on May 8, 2013  10:59am

Good job Elicker, Winfield and Fernandez as I thought. Not a whole lot of substance was expected in the first debate. I have to admit after talking to friends of mine. Elicker did not disappoint. Seemed to be well prepared and professional. Winfield as well by the way….Admitting to being the rookie in the room, saying he has learned a lot tonight and reading from notes on a cell phone. “Come On Man”...Unprepared and unprofessional Carolina. Still like him over Keitazulu!

posted by: carryonkeepcalm on May 8, 2013  11:02am

I thought last night’s debate was very well attended. I especially liked the question by Mothers For Justice member about Affordable Housing in New Haven. It appears that have conducted their own research.  The comment by Carla Johnson indicated that 500 people took a housing survey and as a result 71% of the people were homeless at a point in their lives. 

Homeless meaning not just lived or living in a shelter but if they lived or living with family or friends at one point in their lives. 

The statement also included that the survey showed that 39% of the 500 people said that “most” or “all” of thier income goes towards their rent.  Although there are public housing units and section 8 voucher holders in the city, not everyone recierelieves assistance or lives in public housing.

Looking forward to the next debate.  Hopefully they’ll have a better sound system so that everyone can hear.

posted by: Curious on May 8, 2013  11:11am

Dear Ken,

Is the Democracy Fund going to run a debate that concerns itself, and clean government?


posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on May 8, 2013  11:12am

It is exciting for New Haven that there are so many candidates for mayor in this election year. We have the opportunity to set this city in a new direction with new leadership.
The downside to all of this is that all of the candidates are Democrats.
Unfortunately New Haven has been dominated by the Democratic party for nearly 60 years. Lack of political competition, lack of choice outside of the Democratic party, has hurt the city because it has made the Democrats too complacent. Competition helps produce excellence and eliminate mediocrity.
This year, as in the last six decades, the Democratic party primary, not the general election, will determine who the next mayor will be. No strong Republican challenger is seen on the political horizon. The Republican party is basically non-existent in New Haven.
This means then that registered Republicans and independents will have no voice in this election because they cannot participate in the Democratic primary. Because so many New Haven citizens are thereby disenfranchised, New Haven is not a “democratic” city at all, but an oligarchy, a government of a minority, not the maority.
Possibly one or more of these candidates or others will run as independent candidates to make New Haven a real democracy. This will give all voters in New Haven real choices in the general election.
It will also make this a much more exciting election year.

posted by: westville man on May 8, 2013  11:13am

@ DownTown NH   I am not an Elicker supporter but just by way of clarification:  If you lose the primary while partcipating in the democracy fund, you are prevented from doing so in the general, under its “sore loser’ clause.
So it’s not like Elicker has a choice if he loses the primary.  He can’t use the fund again.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on May 8, 2013  12:05pm

It’s apparent that these candidates were lacking substantive responses to the questions pertaining to the plight of the poor. 

Social Justice is plainly creating economic opportunities for those that are and have felt left out of the economic equation.

For example, look at all of the black and brown contractors in the city that pay for licenses and permits that can’t even find work in the city in which they live. 2. The higher the taxes the greater the poverty. 3. The first candidate that understands the importance of creating apprenticeship programs funneled and mandated into current and future city contracts will help him/her self well. 4. The reduction in crime (not in words, but ways) must be at the apex of all conversations as it relate to removing the city from the doldrums in which it’s currently in.  5. New Haven youth that graduate from college should obtain huge priority for city jobs. All neighborhood schools should remain open for after school programs. These are just a plethora of issues I believe if expounded upon can infiltrate some of the social problems facing the inner-city.

posted by: TheMadcap on May 8, 2013  12:17pm

You can participate in the primary all you want since the Democratic one is the only one happening. You’re free to change your party registration as often as you’d like, and people do it all the time to take part in primaries of the opposite party when their own doesn’t exist or looks set to be won by an early frontrunner.

Someone is also free to run on as a Republican if you want. No one is disenfranchised because the city overwhelmingly disagrees with a party platform so much that members of said party don’t even bother to waste their time and resources to run since they know they’re going to lose. If Republicans want to stand a chance of winning in New Haven maybe they should change their party platform, because they’re not doing well on the local level, the state level, or the presidential level where the city routinely votes near 70% Democrat.

posted by: kenneth_krayeske on May 8, 2013  12:29pm

Curious -

I will inquire about a debate regarding campaign financing in general. The next Democracy Fund board meeting is May 16, and I will talk to the Board. I will ask other co-sponsors and New Haven Votes, too, about the possibilities. I will report back in some form or fashion.


posted by: Curious on May 8, 2013  1:10pm

Thanks Ken. 

I would hope the scope would include not just campaign finance but also city government transparency as well.  New Haven has a history of shady dealings, and it would be a great forum for candidates to state on the record how they will operate to maximize transparency and actively work to prevent corruption.

posted by: Babz Rawls Ivy on May 8, 2013  2:17pm

I long for REAL debate where candidates could actually express themselves beyond sound bites.  I think they all answered to the best of their ability given the 30 second time frame per answer.  I think we have to say to the organizers, lets frame these public debates differently.

If we deem these campaigns as highly important then we have to create a format that allows for real discussion.  I want to hear these candidates in greater detail.  We have moved too much toward social media quick feed/buzz that doesn’t allow for discernment, deliberation or contemplation.

30 second responses are for game shows… not for mayoral debates.  If we want better we have to ask, seek, and create better.

posted by: westville man on May 8, 2013  2:20pm

I see that Stick21 continues the pattern of slamming Carolina, while claiming he actually “likes” Carolina.  “Unprepared and unprofessional”?  Don’t know which debate he was talking about… but the agenda is clear.

posted by: HhE on May 8, 2013  2:27pm

Amen, Curious.  What “social justice” are we really going to get in the face of crcronyismcorruption, and waste?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 8, 2013  2:30pm

posted by: DownTownNewHaven on May 8, 2013 9:02am

Gary knocked this debate out of the park. He was a gracious host but it was clear last night that it was clear the other candidates were only guest in his house last night.

I do not know how.All I heard was softball Question.

posted by: westville man on May 8, 2013  2:35pm

Well said, Babz- I agree 100% on that.

posted by: Curious on May 8, 2013  3:05pm

Go Babz.  100% agree.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on May 8, 2013  7:22pm

I was at the debate and I TOTALLY agree with Babz Rawls Ivy.

I left before the “sound bites”, uh, I mean, the debate ended and attended the public input discussion on the Charter Revision, which I might add was much more substantive and informative.

By the way, when did the NH INDEPENDENT become a subsidiary of the NH Register? The Independent’s “story” on the Charter Revision discussion from last night was nothing more than a link to the Register’s story.

posted by: HhE on May 8, 2013  7:55pm

Well said Babz Rawls Ivy.  Real debate, real discussions, and real reflection is what is needed.  Sound bites are what we get.  Welcome to armageddon—not as a catalytic end, but as more of the same.

posted by: AMDC on May 9, 2013  5:43am

Just like the issue of term limits for mayor and alders will not be discussed,  real issues for the citizens of NH will not be discussed in public.  Social Justice is not the first question I would ask.  I want to know how someone is going to get us out of the mess we are in.  Working within the Dem Party will not work because the Dems have helped get us in the mess we are in,  along with everyone else who is part of the machine in NH. Where is Mr. Kerekes??  We need an outsider who is not already compromised by the powers that be.
This is a joke election.  They are fighting for the scraps of what is left of NH

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on May 9, 2013  4:55pm

Personally, I think those pirates have a much more profound understanding of New Haven politics than do any of these candidates.

posted by: activefight on May 11, 2013  10:28pm

To AMDC; Social Justice is a question that should be asked first, second, third and last. The Social Justice for all of the people of New Haven has been lost to someone that has been in office way too long and, never took the time to come out and fellowship with its citizens. In order for our city to survive and to grow, we have to come together as one and realize that, we can’t afford to put another individual in office that “will not take the time to take into account what is good for all and, not put a price tag on everything and sell its residents to the highest bidder”. Money is not the only thing that will get our city going again, we need to have TRUST in those that we put into office. That means DEMS and REPUBS alike!!

posted by: AMDC on May 12, 2013  6:23am

To ACTIVEFIGHT—thanks for your response!  I think social justice has connotations nowadays of being solely for the poor, minority, illegal populations. They get all the help and attention as the rich get richer and the working classes sink to join the lower economic classes. I don’t think the working classes are included in the mayoral debate equation.  And notice I say working class; not middle class.  Many of us have been led to believe we are middle class because we have been given just enough money/credit cards/loans/mortgages to be able to go out to eat and shop in big stores.  I agree with many of your sentiments but do not believe that most people think in those terms when they think “social justice”.
We can no longer put our trust in any party or candidate because they have shown themselves unworthy of our trust. Having said that,  I can offer no better solution. So let’s clarify our terms so we can at least start by understanding who we are and what we want. Maybe we need some new terms and resurrection of old terms like “working class”?