In the season’s first mayoral debate, one candidate tried to convince college-age Democrats that how he raises money “doesn’t really matter”—and received groans of disapproval in response.
Those groans came from a crowd of about 100 people at a Saturday afternoon debate sponsored by the Yale College Democrats at Linsley-Chittenden Hall on High Street. Yale College Democrats President Nicole Hobbs served as moderator.
All five announced candidates so far for the Democratic mayoral nomination participated: former city development chief Henry Fernandez, former Chamber of Commerce president Matthew Nemerson, Alderman Justin Elicker, state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, and plumber Sundiata Keitazulu.
The newest candidate, Matt Nemerson, sought to defend his choice not to run under the city public campaign financing program, under which candidates agree to limit individual contributions to $370 (rather than $1,000) in return for matching government dollars.
“It really doesn’t matter how we collect money,” Nemerson (pictured) said. That’s what got people groaning.
Campaign financing is emerging as a defining issue in the crowded race to succeed incumbent Mayor John DeStefano, who is retiring after 20 years in office. The issue has already prompted fierce debates online.
A sixth potential candidate, Hillhouse principal Kermit Carolina, attended Saturday’s debate as a spectator only.
Although the debate had few fireworks, the question of campaign financing created some heat. Elicker asked for rebuttal time from the moderator, in order to pounce on Nemerson’s position.
“I agree that money should be out of government,” Nemerson said. But there’s a big difference between money in government at the federal or state level and at the city level, he said. At the city level, there is less danger of corruption, he claimed.
“I’ve decided that if everyone is not going to agree to participate [in the Democracy Fund], then I’m not,” Nemerson said. He originally offered a different reason earlier in the week for not participating in the public-financing system, saying he needed more money to establish his campaign’s “credibility.”
In Saturday’s debate, he repeated an announcement he’d made in a Friday Independent interview: that he will have a “financial ombudsmen” for his campaign to review all donations and disclose all donations online within 48 hours.
“I’m not using taxpayer dollars to pay for my campaign,” said Fernandez. “I’m able to raise funds without doing so.” He said he worked hard to “root out corruption” when he served as city development chief under Mayor John DeStefano.
With moderator permission, Elicker (pictured) seized on Nemerson’s comments. “The idea that money doesn’t influence municipal politics — has any one watched DeStefano administration for the last 20 years?” Contractors get work in the city by donating to the mayor’s race, Elicker said.
“The reality is, we’re all really honorable people,” Nemerson said. “There really is nothing to buy here folks.”
After the debate, Nemerson acknowledged that his stance hadn’t gone over well with the Yale students: “This crowd clearly didn’t go along with that.”
“This generation believes money should be taken out” of politics entirely, Nemerson said. He said he has to pay attention to the effect his rejection of the Democracy Fund will have on younger voters.
“I have to think about it,” he said. “Credibility is the currency.”
But Nemerson said he won’t join the Democracy Fund unless Fernandez does.
Fernandez said he doesn’t think that public financing is the most important issue on the race, despite the attention paid to it in the debate. People he talks to are much more concerned about jobs, crime, and education, he said.
Elicker disagreed, pointing to the fact that people had reacted so strongly to Nemerson’s comment about money-collecting. “People care about it!” Elicker said.
The one curveball question of the debate came from the audience, asking the candidates if they would support a ban on plastic bags in the city, for environmental reasons.
Fernandez, Holder-Winfield, and Elicker said yes. Elicker said he’s already working on crafting such a measure.
Keitazulu was more circumspect, saying he would have to see if it made sense for New Haven businesses, since jobs have to come first. Nemerson said plastic bag bans are “a little annoying.” He said the bigger issue is to attract people to move into the city, where people live more efficiently and consume less resources.
The Independent reported on the debate live from a front-row seat in the hall. Read on for a blow-by-blow account of the event.
3:42 p.m.: Quiet here in the hall so far. Gary Holder-Winfield has arrived. Sundiata Keitazulu wandered in not long ago. Justin Elicker just arrived, is shaking hands with Holder-Winfield.
3:57:Room is filling up. All candidates have arrived.
4:02:The candidates are seated. About 100 people are here to watch. Moderator Nicole Hobbs begins by thanking the debate’s co-sponsors, who submitted most of the questions that will be asked. The rules: No applause. 30-second rebuttals may be granted at candidate request.
Opening statements: Elicker is first and leaps out of his seat. He paces in front of the candidate’s table as he speaks, a practice that others follow.
Elicker’s opening statement starts with a history lesson on the founding of New Haven by religious refugees. Modern challenges: de-industrialization, drugs and debt. “A haven is a place of peace, safety and opportunity. New Haven is not just a name but a promise.” Elicker promises to work to fulfill the promise.
Nemerson starts with a story from 1968. His father drove him through the Winchester neighborhood and Nemerson saw empty “hulking” buildings. His dad predicted more riots if something wasn’t done. Fifteen years later, Nemerson had the opportunity to start Science Park ... “to figure out how we could actually fix New Haven.” New Haven needs someone with experience, who’s been in the city.
Keitazulu says: Jobs are the number one priority. “In the inner city we’re living in a crisis each and every day: High poverty, crime, unemployment, murder rate. My plan calls for vocational education. “I’m tried of seeing our city blow up.”
Fernandez offers a personal history, starting with an apology for having attended Harvard. He came to New Haven 23 years ago for law school, started the LEAP youth mentoring program. Later he was in city development, bringing Ikea to town, among other accomplishments. Since then, he’s been working on “social justice” movements nationwide. Has an 8-year-old son.
Holder-Winfield (pictured): The major issues in the race are crime, economics, and education. He became an activist after coming to New Haven as an engineer. Then he continued his social justice work as a state representative.
Kermit Carolina, who’s expected to officially enter the race soon, just arrived. He’s not participating in the debate.
4:!5: The first question is from the Ward 22 Democratic Committee: What are your plans for the Hill, Dixwell, Newhallvile and other neighborhoods dealing with high unemployment?
Nemerson: 10,000 jobs over 10 years. We’re well positioned because of transportation infrastructure. We have lost our manufacturing advantage. We should be the center of manufacturing. We have the immigrants and the training programs.
Keitazulu: My plan is to train people. There are a lot of jobs, people don’t have the skills. I would open 20 voc-ed schools. And city jobs should go to city residents. All companies that sign contracts with this city will hire our residents. I would hire Mayor DeStefano to work with me to get people hired.
Fernandez: I was economic development administrator for 5.5 years. We were able to create new jobs and new businesses. The nature of work is changing. Having Gateway downtown is essential, to retrain workers. I live in Fair Haven. I’m committed to small business as well as large. I created the River Street re-development area.
Holder-Winfield: I live in Newhallville. There are a lot of people looking for jobs. Many people can’t get construction jobs, they can’t get the big contracts. Those big jobs can be broken down. New Haven is poised to expand because of rail, harbor, and airport. We can bring development here because we have those things.
Elicker: “I plan on bringing 10,000 and one jobs to New Haven.” DeStefano has been effective developing downtown but that hasn’t been felt around the city. Economic development needs to help businesses develop along neighborhood economic corridors. Jobs: Biotech/life sciences. We need to connect the unemployed to training to employment. And: Minority business enterprise programs. People with criminal backgrounds have a hard time getting jobs.
4:24: Next question is from Students Unite Now: How would you support the current aldermanic agenda of public safety, youth programs, and jobs?
Keitazulu (pictured): I would hire young kids. We need voc-ed schools. I’d open up teen centers. I have four kids in school right now.
Fernandez: The aldermanic agenda is the right one. I was a director of one of the city’s largest youth agencies. We do need more youth centers. The shift to community policing is good. We need jobs. Good jobs, with benefits and health care.
Holder-Winfield: This is the correct agenda. I’m happy about the move back to community policing. But it needs to work better. The cop in my neighborhood doesn’t know me, but the one in Westville does. The cops need to be more a part of the community. This agenda is served by support from the state. The mayor needs to be in conversation with the state. [Holder-Winfield is playing up his connection to and experience with state government, as he did at his campaign kick-off at the Greek Olive.]
Elicker: These are the issues I hear in every neighborhood. Good jobs, safe neighborhoods, good schools, youth programs. The level of crime is highest between the end of school and nighttime. How do you pay for more youth centers? We have beautiful schools. We need to partner with organizations and open our schools. There’s no reason every child shouldn’t have a tutor, with so many universities.
Nemerson: We don’t create jobs. We compete for jobs. Investment capital is looking for cities that are working together. We need to have a different compact between power. We have an opportunity with a big university, an active union, a big board of alderman, a mayor. It’s a unique opportunity, maybe unique in the Western World.
4:31: Next, Yale Law School Democrats’ question is about New Haven’s relationship with Yale. What’s working and what needs improvement?
Fernandez: The university is an important ally in the growth of the city. That has changed dramatically over the years. We work best together when we’re honest about the strengths and interests of the university and the city, when we look for our shared interest. That said, when we need to stand up to the university, we need to do it. I’ve done it in the past.
Holder-Winfield: Honesty is critical. It’s better now, but people still see Yale as a problem. It’s a partner. A good partner. It’s part of the reason that this city doesn’t look like Bridgeport. That said, the mayor has to stand up and say what’s real. They are a partner. If there are issues, they are because the mayor hasn’t figured out what to do with the parts of the city that Yale doesn’t own.
Elicker: We have a lot to learn from Yale, particularly in the area of hockey. [Elicker tends to start his responses with a joke, which sometimes works and sometimes falls flat.] We get more with a carrot than with a stick. Standing up to Yale is the wrong language. Several areas to work with Yale: Tutors, transportation (Yale shuttle should be combined with CT Transit busing), business incubation.
Nemerson: There are many Yales. It’s a complex institution. We have to look for opportunity. Yale is one of the great brands in the world. Together we can be one of the great communities in the world.
Keitazulu: Yale is the number one employer. Yale is doing a good job. I used to come on the Yale campus all the time as a kid. Today you can’t come on the campus because of crime and violence. People don’t feel welcome down here.
4:40: Next question, from the Yale Daily News: How would you approach the Democracy Fund as mayor?
Holder-Winfield: I’ve been an advocate of clean elections for a while. A person with $10 needs to have a say in the election, and that’s what public financing makes possible.
Elicker: Americans are tired of money ruling politics and New Haven is the same. People are tired of special interests and rich people running our government. Money doesn’t need to run politics. Look at Obama vs. Romney, and Murphy vs. McMahon. Participating in the Democracy Fund forces us to engage with more people. We’ve had over 600 contributions.
Nemerson: I agree that money should be out of government. But there’s a big difference between federal and state and city governments. I’ve decided that if everyone’s not going to agree to participate, then I’m not. We’re going to have a financial ombudsmen and publish donations every 48 hours. You’ll have transparency. This election should be about the future of New Haven. I don’t think campaign money is going to influence how to deal with the critical problems the city faces.
Keitazulu: The Democracy Fund gives everyone a voice. I’m finding it’s hard to get money for my campaign. I’m strapped.
Fernandez: I support the fund. I’m not using it. I’m not using taxpayer dollars to pay for my campaign. I’m able to raise funds without doing so. Obama opted out of public financing. No one thinks he’s controlled by big financial interests. That is, compared to the person he ran against. I’m the one candidate who came into city government and worked hard to root out corruption.
Elicker asks for time for a rebuttal: The idea that money doesn’t influence municipal politics—has any one watched DeStefano administration for the last 20 years? Contractors win work in the city through campaign contributions. Nemerson’s 48-hour reporting pledge it’s like saying, as a smoker, I’m going to tell you how many cigarettes I’m smoking every two days, instead of once a month. You’re still smoking. If you support the Democracy Fund you participate in the Democracy Fund.
Nemerson: The reality is we’re all really honorable people. It really doesn’t matter how we collect money. [Groans from the audience] There really is nothing to buy here folks.
Holder-Winfield: The Democracy Fund allows people to get into the race who otherwise can’t. Without public financing I wouldn’t be a state rep.
Keitazulu: The Democracy Fund has given me a voice in this race.
4:50: The next question is about immigrant rights in New Haven.
Elicker: I’m an ethical person and a practical person. If the federal government can’t fix the immigration system, then we need to address the problems. [Elicker is prepared for this question. Pulls out his Elm City ID Card.] I’m the only candidate who can speak Spanish.
Fernandez: Matt, if you answer in Spanish right now, it’ll be a home run. Si Se puede, Matt.
Nemerson: [In English:] The city has always been about immigrants. We need to have the opportunity for them to have jobs and businesses. New Haven needs to have jobs, so that they have opportunity. Otherwise, it doesn’t mater how fair and just we are.
Keitazulu: I habla espanol. Poquito. My granddaughter is espanol. I know a few words. I wish I knew more. I know “cuanto cuesta?” “How much?” More people should know Spanish.
Fernandez: This has been my life’s work for the last 10 years. Fighting for immigrant rights. I’m a board member at Junta. I’ve led rallies here and in D.C. New Haven’s role as a beacon for immigrants is essential to maintain. The push for drivers licenses is essential. We have a lot to be proud of. My wife only speaks to our son in Spanish and I only speak to him in English.
Holder-Winfield: I’m the lead sponsor on a bill to deal with secure communities. I grew up, like other African-Americans, afraid of the police. When I go to take out the trash, I make sure I have ID on me. Immigrants are afraid of the police, just like people were where I grew up.
4:57: Question from the audience, on education reform: What are the missing pieces?
Nemerson: We need to be able to say that our high school graduates are able to compete for any job in North America. We can’t say that now. We should have a lab school that people can test into, the best school in the state.
Keitazulu: I’d turn Hillhouse and Strong School into voc-ed schools. Our schools don’t prepare students for the real world.
Fenandez: I have an 8-year-old in the public schools. I want to be held accountable as mayor, to dramatically improve the schools. The New Haven union contract is groundbreaking. But we need to have more transparent evaluations of schools. It should be much simpler: A, B, C, D. And why.
Holder-Winfield: We need to go to the foundation of problems. People with less economic means come to school with fewer words. That gap in words becomes the achievement gap. We need to deal with the trauma people come to school with: Complex PTSD. I grew up in a community where getting an education was a fight. It shouldn’t be a fight.
Elicker: Four things: 1: early childhood education, Engage children at birth = better education outcomes. 2. Character education: conflict resolution, persistence, anger management. These are proven to lead to success. 3. Mental health support is desperately needed. 4. More transparency. A hybrid Board of Ed. The school board needs more accountability.
Nemerson asks for 30 seconds more: Not everyone has to go to college. Keitazulu has it right.
5:06: Would you support a plastic bag ban? What about the environment?
Keitazulu: I’d have to talk to business to see what the cost would be. If business doesn’t want it and it’s not cost-efficient, we won’t do it. Jobs have to come first.
Fernandez: I support not having plastic bags. It’s smart policy. When I was in city government, one of the key issues was the possibility of restarting English Station. I worked hard to make sure it would not be re-fired, with the high asthma rates in the neighborhood. We need environmental education in the schools. We need better, more efficient transit. We need to clean up brownfields.
Holder-Winfield: I would support the effort. The mayor needs to focus on environmental justice. There is such a movement in the city. New Haven’s high asthma rates are a badge of dishonor.
Elicker: [Lifting plastic water bottle:] I championed and passed a ban on bottled water purchases. Plastic bag ban: I’m already working on it. I’m working with a UConn student. It’s complicated because of the cost. We’re working on a sustainability plan for the city. We need a sustainability director. We can afford it by cost savings through environmental programs. That’s what I do as an environmental consultant.
Nemerson: My wife is one of the world’s foremost recycling experts. Plastic bag bans are “a little annoying.” More importantly, people need to move here from the suburbs. That will save more resources. If we fail to do that, if we all become Bridgeport, the environment is done. We need to make the city so attractive that people will come here.
5:12 p.m.: Final question, from the Black Student Alliance: Because so much land in the city is non-taxable, New Haven will never have robust tax base. How do we get enough money for programs we need?
Fernandez: We need to grow the number of tax-paying properties in the city. We’re going to do that between downtown and the medical center. And we need to deal with revaluation spikes. We need to keep property values up in poorer neighborhoods by reducing crime and strengthening those communities.
Holder-Winfield: We need to grow the city, to bring more businesses to the city. We can make it easier for businesses to come to the city. We need to deal with crime.
Elicker: Our city is facing a crisis and the budget problems will only get worse. Our taxes are so high that we’re driving people out or not attracting them. I support participatory budgeting. We can identify more efficiencies: The windows at Wilbur Cross were open all year long. Ultimately, the city needs to grow. We can do that because of all the things we offer. A kinder gentler New York or Boston.
Nemerson: Our taxes aren’t that much higher. Our property values are way too low. We have to support formulas for PILOT from the state. The state is going to have to fully fund PILOT. The future of New Haven needs to be secure enough to that people will pay more to move in here.
Keitazulu: We need more job growth. That will reduce crime, increase home ownership.
5:20 p.m.: closing statements:
Holder-Winfield: It’s important to look at the work people have been doing before they have a title. The job of the mayor is to look at pockets that are often overlooked. That’s what I’ve been doing.
Elicker: I talked about a new day for New Haven. We need a new mayor who will work. Ask my constituents. Ask Betty Thompson, who I helped get a new playground. [Speaks in Spanish about helping a Fair Haven woman.] “I can show you the dirt under my fingernails from clean-ups in Fair Haven.” I will be the hardest working mayor New Haven has ever seen. That’s a fact. The roots of the Elm City are strong. The branches (neighborhood corridors like State Street, Dixwell Avenue) need to be too.
Nemerson: I’ve been here for 35 years. Whom are you going to trust with this very, very, valuable piece of property? It’s about having the strength to share. This is an amazing panel of people. It’s going to be about my skills at sharing power. I understand how you make things happen by bringing people together. The next mayor doesn’t have to have the ego to always be in front.
Keitazulu: I’m ready to lead this city in a new direction. We can’t have one part of the city living in poverty and another in glory. I’m going to ask for help from you, you, you, and you. It’s time to bring about real change. I need all the help I can get.
Fernandez: You are going to be essential in this campaign and in the future of this city. I hope most of you choose to stay. You can make a huge difference here. We have a theme in our campaign; thanks Gary for saying it. It’s one city. What helps one neighborhood builds up all neighborhoods. For too long we’ve been divided. We need to work together. We need to create jobs, careers for the residents of this city.