This story originally appeared in Spanish in La Voz Hispana.
As a state House representative of five years for the cities of Hamden and New Haven, Gary Holder-Winfield is no stranger to Connecticut politics and the dynamics of the Elm City. While working as a state representative, he has championed many causes including the abolition of the death penalty, increasing parental involvement in the education reform movement, and is currently working on a bill to provide driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
His priorities as a mayoral candidate include reforming the education system, reducing crime, and spurring economic development in the city.
Before becoming involved in politics, Holder-Winfield served in the military as a nuclear electrician based out of Virginia, started a company called Quest Educational Initiative, and became involved as a community activist after moving to Connecticut to work for Alstom Power as a field advisor and manager of electrical construction.
Q: Just to start off, could you briefly describe your platform as a mayoral candidate?
A: I would say: the effort to improve our school systems, to reduce crime across the city, and to expand our economic development of the city.
I know that as part of your career, you helped support a bill that called for the creation of councils that would have parental voice be a greater part of the school reform movement, and I wanted to know if you wanted to speak more about that and the specifics of what you want to fix about the school system.
That reason that that bill came about was in the discussion about education reform, one of the bits that we heard often is that parents aren’t
involved they way that they should be in the school system. It’s my belief that parents want to be involved more than we see them involved. So the
question in my mind became: “What is the barrier to involvement for parents?” Some of the things that we figured out was that the type of involvement in school sometimes, for parents, doesn’t really bring those parents into the schools, meaning that they might have been a part of organizations set up by the school, like you get to decide the color pf paint in the school, or something that doesn’t really matter. Many of our parents have very little time, and that time needs to spent as effectively and efficiently as possible. We said, “Listen, we want to create a place where parents can be involved but actually have some power, some say in what’s really happening in the school.”
In order to get that, parents have to spend some time on the councils that we created. I believe that if you give people the power to actually change the trajectory, they are going to play a greater role in whatever organization allows them to do that. The other part about that that’s important for people to remember is that what these school governance councils do, by their structure, is bring parents, teachers, and administrators into a relationship they might not already have. They become reliant on each other and connected in ways that are not very easy to do in the school system right now. So, that’s that part.
When I think about what we need to do in our schools, we need to be thinking about the issues that young people bring to the schools, especially for
people of color and people of lesser economic means, which are the origins of the achievement gap. If schools aren’t doing anything about that gap, it worsens. If you have communities with students with English as a Second Language, we need to develop policies to really deal with that. We want a more systemic approach to what we do in this city.
I also know that you have talked a little bit about the importance of early childhood education and wanted to know if you wanted to say a little
bit more about that.
I think early childhood education is certainly important and worth the investment that we need to be making in it. If you’re speaking to a young
person early on, and you have a system of education that serves them, those young people are much more likely to succeed. Part of the problem we’ve had in the past is that we’ve thought of early childhood education as giving a child a seat where there is an educational process going on, but it really has to think about how a child brain develops, what need each child needs at that age.
In terms of reducing crime, what are your thoughts on that? I know that you support community policing and that you’ve said publicly that even
though the crime statistics have lowered this year, you still don’t think that’s enough, so I wanted to hear more about that.
I do support community policing. I think community policing is most effective when police are actually engaging with the community, not just walking around. In some places in New Haven, we have police doing an excellent job with community policing, but in other places, some of our officers are not really engaging with the community, so my perspective would be that community policing really requires building a close relationship.
Another thing that I believe about how you reduce crime is investing in who you would call “criminals,” making sure that they have the resources to make better decisions so that they don’t have to rely on crime to survive. We have programs that are supposed to help those in prison get jobs, but one of the problems is that they can get jobs but they can’t keep them. Another component of the program should be teaching you how to keep a job, teaching soft skills to help reduce crime.
What are your more specific ideas about expanding economic development in the city?
New Haven is a place where we are we are well-situated. We are a place where we have a rail hub, we have an interest to a highway, in both directions; we have airports down the road; we have an actual physical port. Those are some of major components a city needs to develop. Actually, no other city in Connecticut is set up with all of those things right in one place. So, just from the outset, we begin to see New Haven is a place where, if you have a business, you want to be.
Not only that, but we have an industry of higher education. We have Yale, we have Southern, we have Gateway, we have Albertus Magnus, we have University of New Haven right down the road. We have an industry that can feed right into business, when we talk about businesses with a little bit of higher-order thinking. We are a place where your business can thrive and expand because we have a workforce. The mayor of the city needs to make it very clear that the city of New Haven appreciates business and that businesses are integral to the survival of the city.
How would you plan to plan responsibly, as in making sure that business come in, but also making sure that gentrification doesn’t happen as well, in a way that would be damaging to residents?
One of the reasons that you have gentrification, is that you have communities set up to be gentrified, communities that are full of people who
don’t have opportunity. The mayor of the city needs to be thinking about what creates that position: lack of access to jobs, lack of access to
So, you know, when you talk people from home renters to homeowners, gentrification becomes a lot more difficult. So when people are renters, and they are given a stake in the community, you don’t see gentrification as you see in other places. When you are developing the city,
you have to have a long term plan where you build how you want that city to develop, from how you put in the sidewalks, to what you are going to do about how neighborhood services are available. All of those things go into your vision. One other thing is, when we talk about opportunity, we
have to start thinking a little bit differently than we have in the past. There is a way that we can do this that we haven’t thought about in the past, which is to break down packages on these construction jobs to ensure that minority contractors can actually take these jobs. There needs to be an effort to break down these jobs in a way that can be given to smaller contractors in the city.
What are your thoughts on the Yale-New Haven relationship?
Yale has a significant portion of the city that it has ownership over, and I think that anybody that comes in as mayor needs to have a relationship that works and is tight. The mayor has a responsibility to make sure that the people of the city understand that relationship. I want to be a different type of mayor, and I think to do that, the mayor has to be willing to say to the people that say of the city who think that “Yale is a big bad villain on
the hill” that Yale isn’t that. What needs to happen is the city has to do its part and expand its taxable land base, but Yale is different. If we didn’t have Yale, we would be worse off than Bridgeport, and that’s reality.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
One of the things that I think is important, particularly in a city like New Haven, is how do we think about the immigrant community? Because we have a large immigrant community. That’s why, as a state representative, I’ve worked on those issues for a number of years. Right now, I’m working on a bill, you know, after Secure Communities, I’ve recognized that a lot of people think hat the federal government is going to do something about immigration, but we don’t know that, and so, we need to have a position on what do we do about these issues. So, what my bill would do, is it would
say: the state of Connecticut does not respond to [requests to turn over] immigration detainees [to] ICE [the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency]. Back to the point to make communities safer, if a woman is raped, she shouldn’t feel that she should keep that information to herself because she might be detained. Those things are important, and the mayor of the city needs to be a part of that, and also be the one who can explain to all parts of the city that this is not just an immigrant issue, but is about the safety of the whole community.