Lynn 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.”