Meet James Hillhouse. That’s the name the mayor’s chief of staff is using to funnel money to aldermanic candidates who support City Hall.
James Hillhouse (at right in photo) was a prominent New Havener, a U.S. senator who died in 1832 and made a lasting mark on the city’s landscape. His name graces a city high school and one of New Haven’s most elegant streets.
Mayoral Chief Of Staff Sean Matteson (at left in photo above) is using Hillhouse’s name for a new vessel — one that takes in money from Mayor John DeStefano’s supporters and dishes it out to aldermanic candidates who support his administration.
Matteson set up the James Hillhouse Society political action committee (PAC) in January 2008. He said the society aims to “progressive candidates” and voter turnout. He chose the name because Hillhouse is “a dead historical figure from New Haven.”
The society’s activities are detailed in the latest campaign finance reports for municipal races, filed with the city clerk. The filings reveal the forces behind the seven aldermanic races which culminate in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary.
The Money Trail
Bauer is being supported by party leaders to replace retiring Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale, who has been a strong mayoral collaborator. Bauer raised a modest $425 over the last two months. The majority, $375, came from the James Hillhouse Society. Bauer’s opponent, Joan Forte, has raised only $10, according to her filing.
Staggers (pictured) also got a $375 check from the James Hillhouse Society this summer. Staggers, who was recruited by party leaders to run against a City Hall critic, was not endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee; Bauer was.
Where did the money come from? Short answer: the mayor’s loyalists, employees and business partners.
The “society” was set up in January 2008. Matteson serves a chair. Adriana Arreola, a mayoral staffer who ran DeStefano’s reelection campaign, serves as treasurer. The first contribution came a few months later in the form of a $12,500 check from the Committee To Reelect The Mayor, whose treasurer is Alderman Charles Blango.
The only other money into the PAC came from Carter Winstanley, a private builder who has negotiated some of the city’s major redevelopment projects in town and is now eyeing a deal on Route 34. Winstanley and three of his family members gave a total of $3,000 on March 20 of this year.
The James Hillhouse Society spent a few thousand dollars on food and other costs during voter registration drives in 2008. It spent $875 to send five mayoral pals to the state Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson-Bailey dinner, including Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden and the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, Laoise King.
Then the 2009 election season rolled around. Mayor DeStefano lost two allies on the Board of Aldermen to retirement, Sturgis-Pascale in Ward 14 and Michelle Edmonds-Sepulveda in Ward 30. Their hand-picked replacements were facing challengers. The Hillhouse Society opened its checkbook and gave them both the $375.
Why is the mayor’s chief of staff doling out money to aldermanic hopefuls?
“It’s my PAC,” he said. He backs candidates “not because they support City Hall,” but because of shared values. The PAC supports “progressive-thinking candidates” who value issues like prison reentry, education reform and safe streets, he said. He said he chose Bauer because of her work on smart growth and traffic-calming; and Staggers for his work on youth and prison reentry.
Staggers got a little extra help from the mayor’s team, too, according to his finance report. In addition to Hillhouse’s blessing, he received personal checks from four top mayoral staffers: Bolden, Matteson, King, and Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts. None lives in West Rock. Staggers did not report donations from anyone else.
Staggers’ opponent, Darnell Goldson, who has stressed campaign transparency, did not disclose any details in his campaign finance filings. He said he received less than $1,000, so he isn’t legally required to say who it came from.
Mayor’s Team Unites
The James Hillhouse Society support helps two pro-City Hall candidates catch up with the rest of the mayor’s team. That team is united through two candidate “slates” called the West Side and East Side Democrats.
A slate is a committee that represents multiple candidates, who are allowed to raise and spend money jointly.
The Eastern front consists of: Aldermen Joey Rodriguez, Migdalia Castro, Roland Lemar, and Erin Sturgis-Pascale. (Sturgis-Pascale has since decided not to seek reelection.) The group typically, but not always, works in collaboration with the mayor’s administration. None faces a primary challenge. So far, the slate has raised $1,650; it plans to do more fundraising soon for Lemar’s general election contest versus a little-known Republican.
The West Side Democrats face more immediate battles. The slate comprises: Aldermen Sergio Rodriguez, Moti Sandman, Greg Morehead, Katrina Jones, Carl Goldfield, Tom Lehtonen, and Yusuf Shah. The first four face primary challenges. So far, the slate has raised $4,735.
Both slates were endowed with $1,500 from New Haven Alliance, a long-standing local Democratic PAC chaired by attorney Murray Trachten. The PAC’s latest filing showing where the money came from wasn’t available yet.
The West-Side Democrats have drummed up contributions from 20 individuals, many of whom work for or do business with the mayor. Contributions include: $1,500 from developers Ed and Lynn Fusco and seven contributions from city and Board of Ed employees. The mayor’s campaign manager, Keya Jayaram, is shown on reimbursement slips as an unpaid worker for the slate.
Slates are typically used to streamline the process of fundraising, paperwork, and designing and printing campaign literature. Slates let more popular candidates who don’t face challengers raise money jointly with their colleagues.
Unions Weigh In
To launch a challenge against this united front, anti-City Hall candidates are banking on support from unions, as well as two Yale-affiliated political consultants.
Yale’s unions are concentrating on Beaver Hills’ Ward 28, where Alderman Moti Sandman faces a challenge from upstart candidate Claudette Robinson-Thorpe.
UNITE-HERE’s local forces have dwindled this year due to a civil war within the national union, which is sending key campaign organizers out of state.
What troops remain are focused on Beaver Hills, said Laura Smith (pictured), president of Local 34, which represents clerical and technical workers at Yale.
“We’re looking to put whatever limited resources we have in this race,” Smith said, “because we want a strongly pro-union candidate.”
Alderman Sandman “has demonstrated an anti-union and anti-worker stance,” she said. She cited one example: a union organizing effort at a commercial laundry facility run by New England Linen.
Labor activists sought aldermanic support in their battle against the company two years ago. When 26 of his colleagues signed on to a resolution condemning the company as an “unwilling” community partner, Sandman was the only alderman who didn’t join in. At the time, Sandman said he didn’t have enough information and did not feel comfortable with “inflammatory language” first included in the bill.
Sandman (pictured) echoed those words this week. He said the resolution came in at 1:30 p.m., right before a board meeting at 7 p.m. It called the company a “bad community partner.” None of his colleagues had called the company. No one had reached out to him with information. The resolution was submitted under the fast-tracked “unanimous consent” process, so there would be no public hearing. Sandman said he wasn’t comfortable with any of that.
“If you don’t call up the company, and no one reached out to them, how could you pass this? I felt it wasn’t fair to the folks at New England Linen,” Sandman said. Out of respect for his colleagues, he didn’t deny unanimous consent — he abstained from the vote. He said his actions came not from anti-union sentiment, but from a lack of information.
Smith contended that Sandman also didn’t stand with the union on “a number of issues” they approached him on, including increasing the local living wage.
Sandman refuted that claim. “I believe in the living wage,” he said. He said he supports increasing local wages over state and federal minimums, and supports the worker’s right to a safe, clean working environment and medical coverage.
He said the union’s “political attack” stems from a different agenda — putting Alderman Jorge Perez back in the board president seat. Unions reckon Sandman would support Carl Goldfield for president again and Robinson-Thorpe would support Perez, he surmised.
To battle Sandman, union activists have contributed to Robinson-Thorpe’s large war chest. She has raised $3,500, by far the most of any single candidate who filed a report. (Three candidates missed the latest filing deadline.) The vast majority came from her own fundraising efforts, from friends and family. The support also included a $375 check from a Yale union-affiliated PAC.
Bobby Proto, head of Local 35, which represents blue-collar Yale workers, is treasurer of that PAC. (It’s called UNITE HERE Tip State & Local Fund- CT.) The PAC also sent a $200 check to Ward 22 Dixwell Candidate Lisa Hopkins.
Local 34 has officially endorsed three aldermanic candidates: Robinson-Thorpe, Green Ward 10 Alderman Allan Brison, and Ward 24 incumbent Liz McCormack. McCormack has shown “tremendous loyalty” to the Yale unions, Smith said. In making the endorsements, the union encourages its members to vote for the candidate, too.
McCormack faces a challenge from Marcus Paca, a mayoral ally. Little information on Paca’s finances was available this week; he was one of three aldermanic candidates who didn’t submit their Sept. 8 campaign finance filings on time. Paca, McCormack and LaShell Rountree in Ward 26 each face a $100 fine for that omission, said deputy city clerk Sally Brown. Paca submitted his Friday morning and paid the fine, she said.
McCormack’s earlier filing sheds some light on her campaign. In keeping with her union support, McCormack got a $250 check from the Uniformed Professional Firefighters.
A “Grassroots Movement”
McCormack also got help from two young political activists who have devoted the past few months to working on what they call “grassroots,” “independent” campaigns.
Those activists are Sochie Nnaemeka (at right in photo) and Hugh Baran. Each has been paid to work as a “political consultant” for four candidates: McCormack, Robinson-Thorpe, Hopkins and Brison. They’ve earned about $2,000 each since April for their work. They’re the only paid consultants listed on aldermanic campaign finance reports.
The duo has a lot in common: They entered Yale College the same year: Baran just graduated in May; Nnaemeka has one more semester to go. Both did internships with the labor-affiliated activist group, the Connecticut Center for a New Economy. Both worked on the Obama campaign. Both spent their summers door-knocking in New Haven’s local races. Both are 21 and full of energy.
Though both are working for the same four campaigns, they don’t see their candidates as any kind of slate. They’re united through common values, Nnaemeka said — “independence,” and “putting community first.”
The four candidates “work for their constituents, not for the administration,” she said. She added she chose candidates who will emerge as strong leaders.
Nnaemeka said while slates of candidates can speed things up by generating uniform literature and “shoving it out” to neighborhoods, she and Baran don’t work that way.
“We’re not exporting services,” she said. She said each of them has “forged a relationship” with their candidates, and built a campaign from there. Baran works closely with Robinson-Thorpe, Nnaemeka with Hopkins.
Like the founders of the James Hillhouse Society, neither Nnaemeka nor Baran is from New Haven.
Nnaemeka said she and Baran make sure to spend a lot of time talking to candidates and voters in the wards they work in. Their goal, in part, is to maintain a momentum from the Obama election and encourage people to assert more power in the electoral process.
In Dixwell, she said, many people suffer from “low expectations” of their aldermen.
“They don’t understand that your alderman can do something — not just be a social coordinator,” Nnaemeka said.
People in power take advantage of those low expectations to maintain power, she argued. In each neighborhood, she said, she hopes to build a “grassroots movement” to change that.
James Hillhouse Society Treasurer Arreola said her organization has idealistic goals, too. The PAC has bought food to sustain workers through many hours of voter registration drives.
The PAC helps candidates who support issues important to working families, she said.
“We’re helping candidates who we think will make a positive impact on the community,” she said.