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Rookies Learn: All Politics Is Hyperlocal
by Paul Bass | Jan 1, 2013 10:34 am
(Third of three parts.)
Jeanette Morrison was walking the Farmington Canal trail one morning with a canine constituent when she noticed: The city had finally cut the grass.
So an alderwoman can get things done.
Morrison was several months into her first term representing Dixwell’s Ward 22 on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen when she took that regular morning walk with her miniature poodle Justine.
She’d taken those daily early-morning walks for a couple of years. She noticed that the area surrounding the trail could “look like jungle habitat.”
“I always noticed the grass [before]. Then after I was elected I had people calling me. I wasn’t even the alderperson yet.”
Once in office, Morrison, who had an activist history with her state employees union as well as her condo association at McCabe Manor, started calling around the city bureaucracy to find the responsible person. “I let them know I wasn’t going anywhere,” she recalled. “Now the grass is cut all the time without me calling. Someone put it on a schedule.”
That was one small moment in a year of intensive political education for Morrison and 18 other aldermen who began their first terms in office. The bulk of those rookies were also part of a 20-person-plus labor-backed super-majority on the Board of Aldermen promising to change the way politics and government work in New Haven.
The small moments have ended up mattering at least as much, if not more, to their base than the task of crafting new legislation.
“You hear more about constituent services than anything. A lot of people don’t really realize all the aldermen do,” that they also make laws, Morrison observed.
Morrison was also part of a gender shakeup of the board: A full 10 new aldermen this year were alderwomen. The board last got such an infusion of X chromosomes back in 1988, when the new class included Toni Harp, a future state senator; and Elaine Braffman, Liz McCormack, and Robin Kroogman, who would hold onto their seats for years in part through dogged constituent service.
Morrison and the rest of the new aldermen took office this year promising to open up government, bring independent scrutiny to lawmaking, and press a legislative agenda topped by job creation, community policing, and help for young people. Click here for a story about how they fared on that agenda in 2012 inside City Hall’s aldermanic chambers.
Like any elected officials, they also promised to stay close to the neighbors who elected them. So, in between learning to decipher budget items and debating approaches for a citywide “job pipeline,” they found themselves spending at least as much time on the nuts-and-bolts constituent services that can most determine an elected official’s fate. Potholes, overgrown trees, snowbanks ... the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill learned in D.C. that “all politics is local.” New Haven’s rookie aldermen learned in 2012 that all local politics is hyperlocal.
They learned that during Superstorm Sandy, when Westville’s first-term Alderman Adam Marchand, for instance, was inundated with questions about power outages. He supplemented his regular constituent e-newsletter with regular updates on scheduled repairs. Numerous aldermen forwarded the city’s latest emergency updates to constituents.
First-term Alderman Brian Wingate threw himself into getting a new crosswalk light on a treacherous stretch at Blake and Stone streets in West Hills. Seniors at a nearby housing complex had brought it up to Wingate when he campaigned there for votes. He promised to help. “I had put my word out there,” he recalled, so when elected he asked Board President Jorge Perez how best to follow through.
Perez pointed Wingate to city traffic czar Jim Travers. Wingate met with Travers, then followed up with emails and phone calls. He filled out a formal request through the city’s new “Safe Streets” program. Travers showed Wingate a new solar-powered, talking and flashing crosswalk sign he wanted to bring to town; Wingate asked that the first one be tried out at Blake and Stone. It went up this month. (Read about it here.)
“For me it’s been a learning curve about” navigating the bureaucracy to help constituents, Wingate said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Staying close to constituents fits into the labor-backed group’s larger goal: To develop a long-term political agenda and vote-pulling operation rooted in ward-level organizing. They didn’t jointly back a candidate for mayor in 2011 even though the incumbent was vulnerable; instead they reasoned that long-term governing power could rest more in the grassroots and in aldermanic districts.
A number of first-termers spoke in year-end interviews with the Independent about how they’ve kept “knocking on doors” since their election. Morrison, for instance, said that’s how she convinced some 30 Dixwell neighbors to serve on a committee weighing the future of the Dixwell Community “Q” House.
Through a constituent email list, East Rock first-termer Jessica Holmes organized ward meetings to solicit guidance on how to redraw ward boundaries in a once-a-decade citywide redistricting. Some passions were high in East Rock, which was, and continues to be, carved up in ways that pull neighbors apart from other neighbors and lump them instead with voters from other parts of town.
“Some of it was challenging. Not everybody got what they wanted,” Holmes said. “I’m impressed over and over about how my constituents care about the city at large. They care about their own interests. They care about the city at large. They’re willing to show up and participate.
“In the end a couple wished it could go differently. When it didn’t work out, I think they understood.”
“It was almost like childbirth,” Morrison (pictured), a mother of two and a supervisor with the state’s Department of Children and Families, remarked during a group discussion with some fellow alderwomen about the constituent-service learning curve and their overall first year in office. “The first child.”
Rookie West Rock Alderwoman Tyisha Walker, a cook at Yale Commons who has also has two kids, agreed.
“It was worse!” put in Newhallville Alderwoman Brenda Foskey-Cyrus, a retired mother of three,
“You don’t know what to expect,” Morrison explained. “You go through your ups and downs. You find out all sorts of things you’re responsible for that you didn’t know. It’s a cycle of newness.
“And you have no time for nothing. Just like having a baby.”
Along with all the hard work, all the little steps that add up, comes gratification, of course.
Foskey-Cyrus discovered that when she started visiting seniors at the Prescott-Bush public-housing apartments and encouraging them to come to events. “They said no one ever checked on them before,” she said.
Like other aldermen, West River’s Walker has heard a lot from constituents about crime. She heard from one neighbor who wasn’t seeing any of the new walking beats on the block.
Walker’s job: Call Sgt. Rob Criscuolo, the neighborhood’s top cop. She found she called him often this year. He’s “awesome,” she said. He’ll review the schedule of which walking beats patrolled which streets, when. In the case of the neighbor who hadn’t seen a cop, Criscuolo made sure to dispatch one.
Early in the year Walker heard from seniors living at the Berger Apartments on Derby Avenue. The building had flooded; some couldn’t get to their apartments, Walker said.
Walker started calling around to city offices; she couldn’t find the right person. She turned for advice to Jackie James, who has been a Hill alderwoman for 11 years and serves as the board’s number-two leader. Call Rob Smuts, the city’s chief administrative officer, James told Walker, explaining the different departments that fall under the aegis of different top city officials. Both emergency management and the fire department report to Smuts; Smuts made his own calls and the Berger seniors got help.
Walker said her “aha” constituent service moment came at Berger Apartments in November. She was working the polls there for the presidential and U.S. Senate elections. A woman from the ward, the mother of a disabled person, came up to her. The woman has been struggling to fix up the rundown home she owns and occupies in the neighborhood. She’d been calling Walker. Walker contacted Erik Johnson personally and linked the woman with staff at his agency, the Livable City Initiative. It turned out it was too late this year for the woman to apply for programs to help cover the cost of improvements. But she was on track to apply next year. She made a point of telling Walker how grateful she was just to have gotten information and gotten connected.
“All the work of being tired—that made it real for me,” Walker recalled.
Spreading Out Small Steps
One of those moments came for Jeanette Morrison when she got a call from a voter after temporary “Do Not Park” signs went up on Winchester Avenue, signalling trees were to be cut down.
“Jeanette!” she said. “Did you know those people were here cutting those trees down? I’ve been calling downtown for two years!”
Morrison helped change the way the city made that decision. She and other aldermen had heard complaints that City Hall too often decided whose sidewalks to fix, whose street trees to trim, based on political patronage, on rewarding loyalists. City officials adamantly denied that accusation. But they worked together with Wooster Square Alderman Michael Smart and other members of the new labor-backed majority to come up with a new process. They created a joint aldermanic-administration committee to divide up sidewalk repairs and tree-trimming equitably among neighborhoods, based in part on a survey of needs and concerns neighbors bring to aldermen. Morrison and fellow first-term labor-backed Alderwoman Evette Hamilton of Edgewood have served on that committee along with Alderman Smart and city officials. (Click here to read a story and click on the play arrow above to watch a video of Rob Smuts explaining the new system.)
When it snowed last winter, Morrison braced for complaints. She’d heard about how in the past Dixwell’s streets seemed to get plowed later than in other neighborhoods.
As it turned out, she said, “our area was one of the first ones to get cleaned this time.” That wasn’t an accident, she said. She’d been calling around until she obtained the cell-phone number of a person at public works who could make things happen
Who was that? she was asked.
“I don’t want to tell my sources!” Morrison responded—chalking up another first-year lesson.
Previous installments in this series: