The newly elected chairman of New Haven’s Republican Town Committee opposes Citizens United, bikes to work, supports easier “routes to citizenship” for immigrants, and said he can’t vote for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
Yes, he insisted, he is a Republican. And he wants to help bring New Haven’s decimated party back.
He also wants to take the national Republican Party back from racists, “extremists,” and xenophobes.
But first, New Haven. Where he has a tall order assuming the helm of a party that last elected a mayor in 1951 and fails to win, let alone seriously compete for, any of the Board of Alders’ 30 seats or New Haven’s state legislative seats. At last count, New Haven had 49,330 registered Democratic voters, 18,817 unaffiliated, 413 registered with “other” parties — and 2,712 registered Republicans. Or 3.8 percent of the total.
The new chairman, Jonathan Wharton, was elected two weeks ago to succeed Richter Elser, who stepped down after 14 years.
Wharton, 42, lives in City Point and teaches political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University. He grew up in West Hartford, left to study at Howard University, taught and commented on politics in New Jersey, and worked for Democratic and Republican lawmakers along the way. He also wrote a book on New Jersey U.S. Sen. (then Mayor) Cory Booker, called A Post-Racial Change Is Gonna Come: Newark, Cory Booker, and the Transformation of Urban America. (The title wasn’t his idea, he said.)
Can he bring that change to New Haven?
Wharton tackled the question and discussed his path to the chairmanship during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program. Edited and condensed highlights of the conversation follow; an audio file with the full interview appears at the end of this story.
Independent: I have one question. It has one word: Why?
Wharton: Well, my response would be: Why not? I think we do have a big challenge here, actually in this state, in general for the Republican Party. You begin anew. Fundraising … get some candidates running. There’s a need in this city, in most cities in Connecticut, to have another party alternative to Democrats.
I was in New Jersey for the last 15 years following politics there. I was teaching at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. I was covering Cory Booker ...
He crosses a lot of boundaries. A lot of elite support. He comes from Newark. He is a black candidate who had white support up against the [former] Sharpe James machine … He’s into charter schools … but he is a Democrat. What did you see in him?
He’s kind of this new-generation Democrat who wanted to find ways of reforming urban institutions.… That was difficult.
Did he succeed?
In some ways. He was trying to do it alone, which I found interesting. He brought out some new idealism. A new generation of some voters coming out and participating….
What brought you here?
I more or less missed Connecticut tremendously. So the opportunity [opened] here at Southern Connecticut State University [two years ago]. They needed someone to teach urban affairs.
Why New Haven?
New Haven has got a lot of challenges. There’s something unique to here versus Hartford. Obviously what’s going on politically here is unique.
What’s unique about it?
You see the management teams ...
The ten management teams [in town] have become engines of grassroots democracy.… They’ve evolved [from policing-focused meetings] to a forum every month for any citizen to come to speak to government officials and developers.… You get the pulse of the neighborhood….
I’ve gone to a couple of the meetings. I’m down in City Point, so I go to the Hill South meetings.
That’s an active group.
The meetings are quite enlightening. You have police officials there. You have alders there. It’s direct democracy. I love these meetings.
New Haven is the gold standard for studying political science.… You must be doing a lot of field research.
Between attending City Hall meetings and going to management team meetings, following and observing, I’m quite intrigued.
It is a fascinating model to examine. Not just as a political scientist. But as somebody who is a follower of urban politics. There is something here to learn.
Now you’re playing a role in it. The latest statistics I got from the registrar of voters are ... that we have 2,712 registered Republican voters ...
You have a higher number than I was initially told. I was told 2,500. But 2,700! We’re better than I thought! [Laughs.] ...
I think you do see a lot of split-party voters [registered as unaffiliated], where they don’t have that political affiliation initially. That’s my involvement and concern here [to have them consider the Republican Party].
The last time we elected a mayor was in 1951. We have 30 alders, none of them are Republican. We have zero state legislators. We hardly have any Republicans even running ...
How are you going to turn that around?
We’re going to have to turn that around. I’m going to work hard and diligently with our incumbent [party officers], who are elated [with Wharton’s agreement to serve] ...
They must be excited to have someone who’s 42. That’s youth for our Republican Party.
There was an interest when I started attending those meetings.
What makes a Republican different from a Democrat in New Haven? Democrat is the official city religion. [Previous-generation GOP Alders] Jon Einhorn and Roz Berman raised process and corruption issues, transparent government. They were liberal on social issues, conservative on economics. But their real issue was process and patronage. Is that still what the party stands for?
We have … ethical concerns as it relates to the Democratic Party in the city, but also at the state level. Right now we have to find our pulse and say, “Here are our core issues.”
My emphasis will be ... to recruit more. Voters, consideration for candidates, and fundraising. Are we ready right now to run a candidate citywide? No.
What about alder candidates?
Alder candidates, I think we came pretty close in the first [ward] with Ugonna [last fall]. He narrowly lost, by 17 voters.
I would assume the first pitch is: “We need competition in New Haven. Just having two parties gets us a better result, if someone’s watching.” But that other party could be Green, or independent, or focused around a personality. Give me the pitch. What do you want to stand for?
We want to be an alternative party, another consideration, beyond the Democratic Party. We’re seeing it right now with the consideration of the taxation of the endowment at Yale. At City Hall, some officials were very supportive, including some of the unions, [UNITE HERE!] Local 34 and 35.
So you would disagree with Democrats about taxing Yale’s endowment over a certain level if [Yale doesn’t] invest it in New Haven?
Some of us are concerned about how far they’re willing to go.
Are you totally against that bill?
Myself personally, I’m concerned about it. I wouldn’t say 100 percent …
You’ve got to take a stand on something, Jonathan! Tell me something you’re different [from Democrats] on …
Well, I would emphasize one of the things is that we want as a [town] committee, as a party, we want to see somebody and others get elected and be involved who are not just Democrats. We want to have consideration of something like that tax, “Hey let’s take an alternative stand.”
You’ve mentioned locals 34 and 35 of UNITE HERE!, Yale’s blue and pink collar unions, which dominate the [local] Democratic Party ...
They elected a majority slate [on the Board of Alders]. It’s not a hidden thing. They did community organizing about issues, decent paying jobs and commitments from major employers. Do you see yourselves as an alternative to that? And if so, specially, on what kinds of issues?
That’s something we’ll have to corral as a committee. We haven’t quite formulated that yet.
Give me something that you’re going to be for that’s different from the Democrats. Because I don’t see how you’re gonna build a base without at least having something you stand for beyond just competition. Because competition comes from the right, the left, the center, the stratosphere ...
Down the line, one of the things we’re going to see is municipal aid cut form the state.… That’s going to come down to affect us in the cities. Who’s going to say [whether] taxes are going to be on the rise again? What cuts will really take place on the budget?
Thankfully, the Harp administration has not had any tax rise at least for property owners, yet … I think down the line this could be a significant issue for us.
Do you wanna see [local] government cut rather than taxes raised if we lose the $15 million increase we were promised [in state urban aid this coming year]?
I can imagine for us a committee, we would want to make an issue of that, yes.
Where would you cut?
That is something we will have to work out.
I understand you don’t have all the details and you can’t speak for the whole group. But you’re a Republican, man! You don’t have to speak for a whole group after 20 meetings. You can stand for something! Come on!
It’s something we’ll have to consider. We’re not 100 percent there yet.
Why are you a Republican?
Four generations of my mother’s side of the family were very much involved in the Republican Party. For me personally I’ve had an interest in this party. Part of it is a familial legacy thing.
What are the issues?
I lean libertarian. I am very much concerned with government [being] too involved in too many issues. I don’t mean just social programs, social initiatives. I mean civil liberties as well.
You’re not a big fan of NSA [National Security Agency] spying?
Not at all. Absolutely not.
I worked for Congress for years. I also worked in the state legislature in New Jersey. I would be one of those people who would actually [work on] some of those bills.
I’m kind of a throwback. I worked for [U.S. Reps.] Charles Rangel and Glenn Poshard, who are both Democrats, and also for Chris Shays, who is a Republican. I have worked both sides of the aisle. So I’ve been on the inside. I’ve grown concerned about government’s involvement [in people’s lives].
You’re African-American…. Republicans all over the country were African-American in Abraham Lincoln’s day. That was the party off freeing the slaves. ...
Exactly. My grandmother is always reminding me of that.
So I understand why historically there’s been a connection to the Republican Party. You mentioned Chris Shays. There’s historically been a [socially moderate, economically conservative New England wing] …
Susan Collins …
Lowell Weicker ...
But most of them have been booted out of the party.
New Haven Republicans like Rick Elser have always sported moderates like Chris Shays. Is that where you are?
Yes I am.
Are you a [Libertarian] Rand Paul supporter? Or you more of a John Kasich supporter?
I do find Kasich intriguing. But I agree with you. I’m a ‘90s throwback Republican, if you will. I’m a centrist in some ways. I’m also a libertarian in terms of civil liberties. I would like others to recognize that there is a possibility of being a centrist. Most people see the Republican Party, especially at the national level, as a hyper-partisan party. I don’t see myself that way at all.
For the record there are a lot of Republicans out there in New Haven and in Connecticut who are not those kinds of extremists.
And yet look who’s winning at the polls.
Isn’t that something.
Immigrants & Unions
Do you support [presidential candidate] Donald Trump?
Can you see yourself voting for Donald Trump if he’s the nominee?
For me, no. I just don’t see myself doing that.
So could you vote for Ted Cruz?
That’s something I’m kind of divided with. But no, I don’t think I could go 100 percent with him either.
So who are you left with? John Kasich? Or a candidate who’s brokered at the convention?
Myself, and some of my friends who are Republicans, we are all divided right now. We have a huge, by the way, college Republican chapter at Southern. We’re all divided. I don’t think any of us are 100 percent behind any one candidate. That’s the problem.
We need to support candidates who are not extremist. I hope we can find a way to corral and come together and decide that.
Do you think we should accept more of a pathway to citizenship [for immigrants]?
Yes. We have to have some kind of reforms. There’s got to be a better pathway. Not only that: We have to find a way to negotiate better between the parties. Not just on immigration. Most of these issues.
Would you support holding hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee?
For me that’s so important. The hyper-partisanship in Washington is so problematic that you can’t even have a discussion taking place about a candidate for the Supreme Court.
Would you vote for him?
I find him interesting, intriguing… I don’t know if I would support him 100 percent. But hey, he’s better than most of the alternatives. And look what’s going on now at the Supreme Court.. It’s 4-4.
How do you feel about the influence of labor unions on politics?
I’m not against unions. I’m not that kind of person. But when you see the unions and what’s going on at the state, clearly they have a big upper hand in negotiations.
Should they accept concessions?
At least they’re considering talking. That’s a start.
What do you feel about the role of UNITE HERE! in New Haven? You’re going to attract a lot of people who say they hate unions. … What is it about that union influence that you think people oppose who might support you?
I’ve gone to a couple of union rallies to be curious, as a political scientist. A lot of information gathering is taking place by the unions. They’ve been the filter. They’re offering information about local politics. What about alternative perspectives? Often you don’t hear the alternative point of view. We need to have an alternative. That is what the Republican Party can do in New Haven.
Anything they’ve done you disagree with?
Look at the Board of Alders, how many are involved with unions. Directly.
Are you concerned about corporate influence? Yale’s influence?
Citizens United [the Supreme Court ruling lifting restrictions on corporate giving to campaigns] — would you overturn that?
Absolutely. For me that is very disconcerting, that corporations are [considered] people.
So [Senate leader] Mitch McConnell’s not inviting you to run for Senate, I think.
I wouldn’t have a shot at being a senator in the doghouse.
[What about] bike lanes?
Separated bike lanes?
I believe in “complete streets.” I bike to work every day. It’s a better alternative than an automobile. I don’t want to speak for the town committee.
Do I support them? Yes. I kind of stand with Cory Booker on a lot of these reforms. Parents should have some kind of school choice, some kind of school alternatives, beyond the conventional schools.
[What do your parents think?]
My father retired [as state] bureau chief for adult education. My mother was involved in the school board in West Hartford.
My father is a Democrat. My mother was a Republican, but she’s lapsed
Is it because of the racism in certain sectors [of the party]?
A lot of people are turned off by the Republicans in terms of Washington, especially the anti-Obama rhetoric. It’s problematic.
Part of that is racial.
I think so.
The extremists in the party, particularly those attempting to get media attention, that’s what it’s all about right now. All the focus has been on Washington. I want to get our party at the local and state level to think about what’s going on here. Some people, especially younger people ... we have this group called the Nutmeg Republicans. Informed, centered, concerned younger people who want to find some kind of change in the party in Connecticut and beyond. We meet often and talk about these issues.
We start at the grassroots. We don’t want to get involved at the national level.
Click on or download the above sound file to listen to the full interview on WNHH’s “Dateline New Haven.”
The New Haven Republican Town Committee meets the second Thursday of every month on the ground floor of 200 Orange St. beginning at 7 p.m. “We welcome anyone who is interested in good government to join us in putting an end to one-party rule in the Elm City,” the party stated in a release.