Sundiata Keitazulu took the city bus Sunday to a mayoral candidates’ debate—and discovered many of his opponents had not done so in years, in part, they said, because of a “broken” transit system.
The candidates revealed their bus-going histories, and posed solutions to improving the bus system, at an economic-development-themed debate Sunday afternoon at the Davis Street School in Westville. The event was sponsored by the Ward 25, 26, and 27 Democratic Party committees.
With the debut debate performance of state Sen. Toni Harp, Sunday marked the first time all seven Democratic mayoral candidates have participated in a debate together. Harp joined six men: 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 Keitazulu, a Newhallville plumber. They are all seeking the party’s nomination in a Sept. 10 primary to succeed retiring 20-year incumbent Mayor John DeStefano.
Keitazulu, who couches himself as the common man’s candidate, and Holder-Winfield were the only two candidates who said they use the CT Transit city bus on a regular basis. Holder-Winfield said when the state legislature’s not in session, he hops on the B bus daily to get to his job as a union staffer at Southern Connecticut State University. At the other extreme, Harp said she had not ridden a city bus in 20 years. The rest of the candidates said they rarely if ever ride the bus, given inconvenient schedules and routes. They agreed that as mayor they would push the state and the Yale shuttle system to go more places more often in New Haven, so more New Haveners can travel by bus to their jobs.
Fernandez declared the bus system broken. It’s backwards, he said, that businesses see bus stops as a threat to businesses, instead of a benefit.
In a rare moment of unity, all seven candidates declared that—unlike the Board of Aldermen—they would have voted in favor of accepting a $800,000 federal grant to study the feasibility of bringing a trolley system downtown. Those voting no at the time argued it wasn’t worth a required $200,000 city contribution to get the federal grant, especially when the proposed trolley system was limited to downtown and would duplicate routes already served by Yale’s shuttle system. Proponents said the trolley system would bring much-needed mass transit, and that the routes could be redesigned to avoid duplication.
The sharpest exchange Sunday took place when candidates got to ask each other a question. Elicker asked Fernandez why he hasn’t seen him around town at “hundreds of meetings” across the city in recent years. Elicker, a New Canaan native who came to New Haven six years ago to attend Yale graduate school, opened himself up for easy attack.
“I’ve been here 23 years, not six,” Fernandez snapped back. He listed a range of New Haven activities over the years—from co-founding the LEAP youth program to overseeing neighborhood development and economic development at City Hall—and then said in more recent years he has worked on national progressive causes like immigration reform and African-American voter registration.
In her debut performance, Harp appeared most passionate in her closing remarks, when she called on the city to invest in adult education and stop letting high school dropouts slip through the cracks.
“We can’t give up on our kids when they are 16, 17,” she said. “We’ve got to stop our high schools from throwing our children out and not educating them.”
In other debate highlights, Carolina came forward in favor of using eminent domain to seize Church Street South, the rundown housing project across from the train station. He said the private landlord, Northland Investment Corporation of Boston, has failed to maintain the property. He said he would find affordable housing elsewhere for the project’s current tenants, then have an upgraded development built on the property that would better connect the train station to downtown.
The event kicked off at 4 p.m.
A live blog follows:
4 p.m. The candidates are here on stage. (Many rushed over from the Freddie Fixer parade.) We’re beginning soon.
4:07 Bass explains the process: First, candidates are going to ask questions submitted by folks from Wards 25, 26 and 27. Second, candidates will get to ask each other questions.
First question: You’re the mayor. A new developer asks: How do we do business in New Haven?
Carolina: You can’t do business here unless you’re willing to hire New Haven residents.
Elicker: They don’t have to contribute to my campaign to get business with the city. Need to change the zoning code to give developers more predictability.
Harp, who has been tied up in Hartford while the six men gathered for previous debates, is making her debut debate performance here. She calls for making developers sign project labor agreements. She opposes giving out tax credits to lure developers to the city.
Elicker later rebuts Harp: We can’t require project labor agreements as a matter of course, for example as a prerequisite to getting zoning approval—it’s illegal to do so.
4:18 Tweed-New Haven Airport: Keep it or sell it?
Elicker: Tweed has an incredible benefit to our city, however, need to have a timeline to “wean it off” public assistance.
Harp: The state has been subsidizing Tweed. Need to keep it—and support it more, so more people will use it.
(The room is filling up now in the Davis’s nice new auditorium.)
Holder-Winfield: We need to find a way to help Tweed start paying for itself.
Keitazulu: If Tweed doesn’t start paying for itself, let it go.
Nemerson: “Tweed is one of the most important assets that we have.” Need a commitment from the governor to support Tweed more. Tweed should be serving not just Philadelphia, but places like Florida, too. “This is a mandatory thing to do.”
Carolina: Keep Tweed.
4:20 Q: Should the city put dollars on the table in order to lure developers to come to New Haven; or to stay here, in the case of the 9th Square?
Fernandez: We need great schools and public infrastructure that supports developers. If we don’t have those things, “we’ll always have to pay off developers to come here.”
Harp recently came out expressing doubts about a proposed 9th Square bailout, where the city and state struck a deal with a developer, apparently without expecting that developer to pay the money back. Harp says we cannot afford to use tax abatements unless we can be sure there will be payback, and quickly.
Nemerson says we do have to issue incentives. “The first thing is to compete” against other cities, and to win. “We have to have a level playing field” to lure developers here.
Carolina said one of the city’s priorities is to create affordable housing here. Yes, he would put city dollars on the table to that end.
Elicker frowns on incentives in general. Potential residents don’t get tax abatements to come here, he argues; the city should keep taxes down in order to make it a more attractive place to live. That means not giving money away to developers.
4:33 Should the city bail out the 9th Square?
Harp stops short of saying no, but she’s skeptical. “We’ve got to take a long look at this developer.” This project should have worked. Why didn’t it? How much money has been taken out of the project and gone into the developer’s hands?
Nemerson takes a different angle: The point of investing money in that project was to encourage other development around the area. Why didn’t that work?
Elicker: It’s premature to take a stance.
4:39 Q: Is eminent domain for economic development OK?
Harp: I wouldn’t do it unless I thought there was a greater benefit to the city.
Holder-Winfield: With eminent domain, you’re not just taking people’s property; you’re taking their whole life. Eminent domain is something I would hope that I would never have to do.
Keitazulu: Yes. If it would create jobs and help the economy, you have to do it.
Nemerson: Yes. “Eminent domain is an important tool that we must use.” “There will be times when we have to take property.” But we have made mistakes in the past—in developing Long Wharf, and parts of downtown.
Carolina is losing his voice “from yelling at the Freddie Fixer parade.” He comes out in favor of using eminent domain to take over the Church Street South housing complex across from Union Station. The landlord has failed to take care of the property, he said. He calls for a new development there, and a creating new road through the complex that would connect Union Station with downtown.
Elicker: Wouldn’t take eminent domain off the table. “Cities in governments are not the best predictors of what the market will allow.” This is a classic example of making decisions without public input, a problem the city has had in the past, he argues. Elicker gets the first applause of the day by criticizing the city for past decisions that did not involve public input.
Fernandez said he has used eminent domain to some success: For example, the port area. And River Street, to get rid of junkyards to make way for businesses. (He gets some applause, too, from people wearing Henry for Mayor shirts.)
4:46 What can we do to fill vacant buildings in neighborhoods like Westville and Newhallville?
Nemerson—we need branding and “themes” on neighborhoods, in the way that Wooster Square is Little Italy. Need to create “ethnic themes” to attract folks from the suburbs. With the branding we have with downtown and Yale, use Connecticut Magazine and other magazines to attract more visitors downtown.
Carolina brings up Double G’s on Dixwell Avenue, a “life-enhancing business.” We need more places like (Westville coffehouse) Deja Brew in other neighborhoods. He calls for tax breaks for small businesses (those with 10 employees or fewer).
Elicker: Economic development focuses on downtown. “We can’t neglect our neighborhoods.” You need a better gathering place for events such as the holiday tree lighting. The state screwed up the widening of Whalley Avenue. You deserve better. (He gets applause for this.)
Fernandez: Slow down traffic so that people patronize local businesses. He also calls for cutting crime so people “feel safer shopping” in all neighborhoods.
Harp: “Westville has done it right. The Westville Village Renaissance Alliance has done well to recruit business owners to its main street.” The city needs to support businesses more… Other main streets need the kind of support that businesses in Westville get. ... She announces money on the state bond agenda to create a “new, better Whalley Avenue.”
4:54 Next question: Many people would like to commute to work by bus, but can’t. How would you convince the Yale shuttle and CT Transit to run buses more often and later at night?
Keitazulu, who has couched himself as the common man’s candidate, declares: “I took the bus today, Paul.” He took it to get to this debate. He cites more personal experience: His daughter got stuck at the Milford mall because buses weren’t running that late at night. He calls for better night service.
Nemerson: The last time he took a bus was a year and a half ago, because his daughter had his car. The question is, how do you convince Yale to open its shuttle to all New Haveners not just those in the ivy tower?
Carolina: “It’s been a long time” since he’s taken the bus. But “I have walked and jogged in a lot of places in the city.” He said in places like West Rock, low-income people are stranded by poor bus service.
Elicker: “I haven’t taken the bus in a long time and that’s a problem.” He said one problem is a disjointed transit system; the Yale and CT Transit bus systems are not coordinated.
Fernandez: “It has been years” since he took the bus because the transit system doesn’t function well, he said. In New Haven, he said, developers complain when they have a bus stop in front of their building. That’s backwards, he said: Bus stops are seen here as a threat to economic development, instead of an engine for economic development.
Harp: It’s been 20 years since she took the bus. She said she has fought at the Capitol to keep fares down.
Holder-Winfield: About a month ago. When he’s not at the Capitol, he takes the bus every day to get to his job at Southern Connecticut State University. “I get on the bus so that I understand what that experience is.”
Fernandez: “The state has failed us. Our department of transportation cares about highways”—not buses in inner cities.
Elicker: Public transportation’s value is in economic development.
Nemerson: The best cities in America have good bus systems.
5:03 Bonus question: Aldermen voted not to accept a federal planning grant to study the feasibility of bringing in a trolley system downtown. Would you have voted yes or no?
Wow, we have agreement here—they all say they would have voted yes. (Elicker said he did, indeed, vote yes.)
5:04 Now candidates are asking each other questions.
Harp asks Carolina what he would do for older kids who fail in school to make sure they get career-ready.
Carolina: Kids need to learn soft skills, such as respect and punctuality.
Fernandez to Elicker: “Justin, can you give specific examples of the experiences you have had that you think you can apply to creating jobs in New Haven?”
Elicker: Disclaimer: A mayor does not create jobs; he creates situations where people can get jobs. But he said as alderman, he has worked with merchants such as Marie Gallo in Cedar Hill to organize and attack problem properties and clean up the neighborhood so that businesses can thrive and bring jobs.
5:08 Keitazulu to Nemerson: How would you address poverty in the city?
Nemerson: We need more manufacturing jobs. And more vocational technical opportunities so people can land those jobs.
Nemerson to Harp: We’ve seen very little development in New Haven, while metropolitan New York area has snagged much more. “Why have we seen such a dearth of major projects in the last 10 years?”
Harp: Developers would say the state of CT has not had a housing agenda. There are not resources available to support building housing. But the reality is, we haven’t had the way to assist developers in our state. Also: We need a way of clearing land and making housing available to make way for development because there isn’t enough undeveloped space.
Carolina to Holder-Winfield: Which agencies or programs would you cut in the city to save money in the city budget?
Holder-Winfield: Evaluate current programs and eliminate them if they don’t work. Case in point: We have programs that help people land jobs, but people don’t end up holding those jobs. If a program isn’t working, “we should shut it down.”
Elicker to Fernandez: I’ve been to hundreds of meetings, block watches, neighborhood meetings. Before you announced you were running for mayor, I didn’t see you at those meetings.
Fernandez: I’ve been here 23 years, not six. (Zing! Elicker, of Canaan, came here six years ago to attend Yale.) Fernandez admits he has been focused on other issues outside the city for the past 7 years, such as defeating the death penalty in Maryland and working with the NAACP to register African-Americans to vote. He returns the barb: “When you’ve lived here 23 years, let me know.”
Holder-Winfield: How would you improve education?
Keitazulu would require kids to learn Spanish and Chinese.
5:16 Closing statements.
Nemerson: My vision is New Haven must compete in the New York metro area. We have to change zoning to do that. And “move beyond the rhetoric of reform” to improve the schools more. He would reach out beyond the teachers union, beyond the school board to do that. Calls for “zero tolerance” on criminals to make the city safer. Ends with a pledge not to increase taxes.
Carolina: Make clear to developers: “New Haven is not for sale.” Stresses his participation in the Democracy Fund, the city’s clean elections program. Clean up crime. Include more residents in decision-making. And “eliminate wasteful spending in city government.”
Elicker: Developers want a predictable environment: Update zoning, use Democracy Fund to avoid contractor shakedowns. We also need to invest in neighborhoods (not just downtown). DeStefano invested in “the roots of the Elm tree,” aka downtown, but the city needs to invest in the branches—e.g. Whalley, State Street.
Fernandez: We need to stabilize and lower taxes. We need to grow the commercial tax base. But we really need to improve the schools. And cut crime. To make “big leaps forward,” we need to work together as “One City.”
Harp: We have focused too much of our development around Yale and downtown. We need to “integrate the community people” with developers planning new projects. Must expand the state-funded main street program, which supports Westville, into other neighborhoods. It’s good to focus on early education, but we need to look at adult education—schools are pushing our kids out into adult ed. “We can’t give up on our kids when they are 16, 17, out of school. ... We’ve got to stop our high schools from throwing our children out and not educating them.” (She’s forceful here. Applause.)
Holder-Winfield: Disagrees with Harp—at the Capitol, we haven’t focused enough on early education. Need to support more startup businesses. Neighborhoods like Newhallville need attention like Westville gets—not only do we not have traffic-calming; “we don’t even have speed bumps.”
Keitazulu: “Crime has destroyed our city.” Jobs are the pathway out.
5:28 p.m. That’s a wrap, folks!