Candidate Encounters 2 Worlds On Huntington St.

Lucy Gellman PhotoLynn Street stood in her door frame, eyes flitting to Robyn Porter as she spoke.

“You’re getting an earful, I know,” Street told Porter.

“That’s what I come out for,” she said. “I’m a listener.”

Porter (pictured) came to Street’s Huntington Street door to listen—and to seek her vote. She is one of five candidates whose names will appear on the ballot April 24 in a special election to fill an open state representative seat in the 94th District. Comprised of parts of southern Hamden, New Haven’s Newhallville and Prospect Hill neighborhoods and parts of Yale closer to downtown, the district is a diverse one.

The candidates, none of whom is an incumbent or household name, are knocking on doors in this most grassroots of all campaigns. Listening is a big part of the trick.

Porter, who is endorsed by AFL-CIO, Working Families Party,  UAW and Carpenters Union but not the vote-pulling UNITE 34/35, heard from two different New Havens walking up and down the Huntington Street hill connecting the wealthier Prospect Hill neighborhood and lower-income and working-class Newhallville. The walk encompasses some of New Haven’s starkest economic and racial contrasts.

Porter heard a lot about taxes at doors like Street’s in Prospect Hill, whose homeowners pay some of the largest tax bills in town. In Newhallville, she heard more about street violence.

For Street, the one of the most important issues in the campaign concerns the necessity of getting New Haven more money under the state’s PILOT program, which reimburses cities for revenue lost on tax-exempt properties.

Porter told Street about a couple who had lived in their home for 30 years and are preparing to move from the city because of ever-higher taxes. Street nodded emphatically, familiar with this kind of tale. “It’s as though you’re being taxed on the investment you’ve made in the fabric of New Haven,” she said. “If the neighborhood does not thrive, the city does not thrive.”

It was a story Porter had heard too often over weeks of door-to-door campaigning. “I am a believer in it [the PILOT program] so that tax burden will be taken off the middle and working classes,” she said.

A few more words (“can I count on your support?”), and she was off to the next house. “It’s like night and day,” she said crossing Winchester Avenue, a large crucifix swinging wildly over her dashboard.

Porter, a first-time political candidate at 47 who lives in Newhallville, is in the race to fill the seat recently left vacant by Gary Holder Winfield’s election to the state Senate. Porter’s strategy: Listen. And listen hard.

“I’m a people person,” she said. “I’m in this because of my passion for people and community.”

“She makes it easy for us, because she likes to get out and walk,” said her deputy campaign manager, Dhrupad Nag. “In a race this small, the only surefire way of winning is knocking on doors. And it’s nice for it to be on a smaller level. Even though this is her first political campaign, she’s done a tremendous amount on her own in the community.” 

As the numbers on the addresses got larger, so too did New Haveners’ more immediate life-and-death concerns.

One man unleashed a torrent of profanities and referred deaths of people close to him as he opened his door on the Winchester Avenue end of Huntington wide enough to take a flyer.

“We’ve lost five.” The man paused as Porter offered her condolences.

Then he asked her how she would tackle the problems of Newhallville in Hartford if elected.

“What about kids? And parents?”

“That’s why I do what I do. I want to make the schools and the streets better,” she answered.

The issue is personal for Porter (pictured at a March nominating convention). She spent years losing out in public-school lotteries and busing her daughter, now a junior on the dean’s list at the University of Bridgeport, to Wallingford schools through ninth grade. “We need better public education,” she said.

She also thinks that neighborhoods need to get better at working together. “Can I tell you, I’ve noticed there is a lot of divisiveness in New Haven,” she noted when invited into city budget watchdog Ken Joyner’s living room. 

Joyner wanted to know about her lack of legislative experience. Porter, who has never held public office, countered with the fact that she is the antithesis of a career politician. A single mom and self-professed “union girl,” she has worked for the Communications Workers of America for several years and served as co-chair of the Newhallville Community Resilience Team. She is also a participant in the William Graustein Memorial Fund’s Community Leadership Program (CLP).

“Why are you in politics?”Joyner asked. “They [legislators] may go up to Hartford and vote, but they don’t know what’s happening in New Haven.”

“I’m not a career politician,” Porter responded. “My motto is, ‘Be the change you want to see.’ I got here and I rolled my sleeves up. If we can’t get it right on the ground level, how do we get it right going up? Are people going to be willing to come together and work together?”

As she returned to her car, Porter added: “I enjoy talking to people and listening because you can learn so much. When you hear something over and over again, that’s what pushes change. I feel like a sponge. I soak it up.” 

She took a breath and looked up at the Newhallville sky, an unchanging smear of blue. Way up the hill, someone walked straight along Prospect.

“If we could get these groups together,” Porter reflected, “do you know how powerful it would be?”

She’d Shrink The “Zone”


Asked later about specific stands on issues, Porter said she would follow in the “progressive” tradition of Holder-Winfield and his predecessor in the 94th District seat, former state Rep. Bill Dyson.

On PILOT, she supports pending state legislation, like a bill by New Haven state Sen. Martin Looney, to boost payments to cities. She said she would have voted in favor of the recent minimum-wage hike. She said she backs universal pre-K.

And Porter said she supports Holder-Winfield’s bid to shrink “drug-free zones” that boost penalties for drug dealing.

She argued in a position paper: “Given that nearly the entirety of New Haven, with the exception of the Yale Golf Course, is within the enhanced penalty zone, it has had the effect of creating two classes of drug laws, one for suburban areas and one for urban areas. This ultimately unfairly targets low-wage, minorities who live in the densely populated urban areas. If the aim of the special drug zones is to deter drug dealers from selling to children, by making the zone so large that it encompasses the entire city it is no longer special but rather the norm and no longer functions as an effective deterrent. Given that enhanced penalties already exist for dealing to someone two years younger than you, the only consequence of the current enhanced drug zones is the creation of a tier-based criminal justice system concerning drugs that arbitrarily targets low-wage minorities.”

Previous coverage of this campaign:
Map Discovery Throws Convention Into Disarray
A Candidate Un-Draws The Line

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posted by: robn on April 18, 2014  9:46am

So Ms Porter isn’t backed by the local unions but is a self described “union girl” running exactly on the UNITE platform? Have they decided that their fabulous bamboozle in the last election went so well they can just phone this one in?

As for shrinking drug penalty zones; it was a bad idea when GHW raised it and it’s still a bad idea (the idea being that shrinking penalties increases their effectiveness.)  Tell it to the parents who are trying to raise their kids right.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on April 18, 2014  10:15am

She will be the same.Part of the machine.

posted by: HewNaven on April 18, 2014  11:04am

One man unleashed a torrent of profanities and referred deaths of people close to him as he opened his door on the Winchester Avenue end of Huntington wide enough to take a flyer.

“We’ve lost five.” The man paused as Porter offered her condolences.

This quote would seem normal coming from a resident in a war zone, not from someone who lives in what too many prematurely proclaim to be the ‘Greatest Small City in America’ (#GSCIA). Seems we still have too much to work on to be considered great…Unless you choose to ignore neighbors like this.

posted by: LookOut on April 18, 2014  12:06pm

Does anyone else find the drug zone reversal disturbing?  In a neighborhood/city where drug violence is having catastrophic effects on our youth, our families, and our general safety, the proposed solution is to make it easier for drug dealers to get back on the streets?!?  If Porter and Holder-Winfield were really trying to help this city and they really thought about the consequences of this change, I cannot imagine they would be publicly supporting it.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on April 18, 2014  12:47pm

I am 100% against the drug zone change….but with that said.

Robn, I know robyn (in fact when you first started posting I thought she was you), I have worked with her on a few campaigns..none unite backed people. She is more like what we remember unions to be like girl. She is extremely independent minded. And her journey in life makes her the most qualified. I think she is the perfect candidate to represent all the people of this district…she has a better and intelligent insight to both sides of the coin. She has been hands on involved in city issues. Not just now because she is running but for a long time…because she loves and cares for this city and everyone that lives here.

If you live in this district…take some time out to speak with her..she will truly impress you.

posted by: Really? on April 18, 2014  9:00pm

Lynn Street is right . The New Haven residents are getting taxed into oblivion.  Many are moving out of New Haven because of the ridiculous mill rate . We need more Alders like Stratton who keep a close eye on payouts and shady real estate deals . Kudos to the Independent for being a watchdog for New Haven.

posted by: sandybeaches2015 on April 23, 2014  10:38am

All these union mailings from her are disgusting. It is more of the same! This election is awful. I think I’ll vote for Rowe-Lewis if I vote at all. At least she doesn’t owe anybody anything in the NH machine.