In Newhallville, Strategy Proves Lasting Power

Melissa Bailey PhotoLatoya Agnew spent Tuesday doing what she’s been doing for the past two years—getting droves of Newhallville neighbors to the polls.

During Tuesday’s municipal Democratic Party primary, Agnew (pictured), who’s 21, headed up a vote-pulling operation that brought out hundreds of voters in Newhallville—and served as an example of how a new coalition of grassroots neighbors and labor activists is changing the face of politics in town.

The new team has helped establish Newhallville’s Ward 20 as the only non-white-majority working-class ward that consistently ranks in the top five highest-voter turnout wards across the city.

And it has served as a model for what the labor-backed coalition has tried to achieve: to draw new people into politics, keep them involved, and build a base of support beyond a single candidate or a single election year.

Newhallville’s Ward 20, which is predominantly African-American, drew 815 voters to the polls in Tuesday’s Democratic primary elections, ranking second only to Westville’s Ward 25, which had 1,057 voters. The polling place, at Lincoln/Bassett School, was one of the most active in town, with a constant parade of poll-standers, candidates and high-profile visitors all day.

Ward 20 Tuesday outperformed wards in largely white, middle-class neighborhoods, including two that had hotly contested primaries: Downtown’s Ward 7 and Ward 19, which is now mostly in East Rock.

Turnout in Ward 20 has been up and down over the past decade. A new team of organizers, affiliated with the citywide coalition organized by people affiliated with Yale’s UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35, has elevated the ward to consistently rank in the top five in voter turnout for three years in a row.

The operation delivered a decisive victory Tuesday to Alderwoman Delphine Clyburn over former Alderman Charles Blango. The effort was a key part of a citywide vote-pulling network that delivered a crushing victory to Toni Harp in a four-way mayoral primary: Ward 20 delivered 569 votes for Harp, the most of any ward. (Click here for a ward-by-ward breakdown.) The vote-pulling network also prevailed in eight of 10 aldermanic primaries, solidifying the labor-backed majority’s control of the Board of Aldermen for another term.

Agnew headed up the Newhallville canvassing operation at 271 Starr St., a former sausage factory that has been converted into a new home for the Peace International Ministries Church. There, Agnew dispatched pairs of volunteers to hit the streets in Newhallville and knock on voters’ doors. Each pair received a list of voters who had already been identified as Clyburn supporters.

Agnew estimated she was organizing some two dozen vote-pullers at the Starr Street headquarters. The lawn was ablaze with campaign signs; the walls were filled with election day charts.

At 6 p.m., two hours before polls closed, Agnew sent Sam Gilchrist and Jamal Pearson with a list of people on Shelton Avenue who hadn’t yet voted.

Pearson, who’s Agnew’s dad, grew up in Newhallville and now lives in Ansonia. He said he still spends a lot of time in the neighborhood; he came back to help out his daughter. Gilchrist is the statewide political organizer for SEIU District 1199 New England, which represents service workers and nursing home workers across the state. Originally from Indianapolis, he has been working on campaigns since he was a teenager. He moved to New Haven one year ago and lives in Westville.

Gilchrist provided the electioneering experience. “Never judge a house by its sign,” he said, walking up the steps of a home with a Charles Blango lawn sign.

Pearson provided the local connection. “Hey! Dad!” he called out to a group of men gathered inside a Shelton Avenue garage that Pearson said doubles as a social club.

Agnew later joined the group, pulling up in a car with tinted windows. Her dad critiqued her parallel parking job. “She just got her license,” he said.

Agnew, a student at Albertus Magnus College, is a fresh face on New Haven’s political scene. She got her start in New Haven politics two years ago. She volunteered for Clyburn’s general election campaign in 2011, and began to learn the ropes of community organizing.

Clyburn herself typified the long-term strategy that union activists undertook over the past decade. They looked for neighborhood-based activists who could develop into leaders to organize reliable ward-level voters and community groups supporting a set of progressive issues. Clyburn works at a state group home; she had been involved for years with her union, SEIU District 1199. She segued comfortably into the role of alderwoman and neighborhood organizer, continually hitting “the doors” of neighbors and championing their causes, and not just at election time. She brought to light the complaints of seniors coping with unhealthful conditions at a Newhallville senior housing project, for instance, and forced the housing authority finally to make repairs. She has also taken independent stands on the Board of Aldermen, differing with some other members of the labor-backed coalition, for instance, on the sale of downtown streets to Yale.

Agnew was one recruit of the new Ward 20 team. She helped Clyburn sail to victory as one of a slew of labor-backed aldermanic candidates who took office in January of 2012.

The following February, at the age of 19, Agnew ran for office of her own: She became a Democratic ward co-chair for her neighborhood.

In those two elections, Clyburn, Agnew and her fellow co-chair, Barbara Vereen, cultivated a surge in voter turnout. They registered droves of new voters.

Then they continued door-knocking when it wasn’t election time. The team has been knocking on doors three times a week, “looking for new leaders,” hearing neighborhood concerns, and getting people involved, according to Clyburn. The team has grown the ranks of the neighborhood management team, which meets monthly with police. And along the way, new faces have signed up to vote.

A year after it started, Clyburn’s organizing effort proved strong in the November 2012 election, when there were no local candidates in the mix. Clyburn, Agnew and company helped turn out the vote for President Obama and for Democrat Chris Murphy, who was running against Republican Linda McMahon for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Murphy told supporters that he “knew I’d won” the election when he stopped by Lincoln/Bassett School mid-morning to see a long line out the door, even though polling places are usually quiet that time of day.

Thomas MacMillan File PhotoLines got even longer that November evening. By the end of the day, 2,042 voters had cast ballots in Ward 20, the third-highest number across the city that year.

Tuesday proved a test of whether Newhallville’s new coalition could continue the voter turnout surge. Clyburn faced a strong challenge from Blango, who has strong relationships in the neighborhood. She spent the day pacing back and forth outside Lincoln/Bassett, swooping in for a hug when she spotted someone she knows.

Meanwhile, Agnew and her team worked hard to send more voters her way. Volunteers included Newhallville neighbors; members of SEIU 1199; and local New Haven activists such as Joelle Fishman.

On the 200 block of Shelton Avenue, Agnew came across Nisha Richardson, who was getting out of a car.

Agnew spent several minutes trying to convince her—and a friend who was still inside the car—to get out to the polls, just a block away. The woman complained that she was 8 months’ pregnant and didn’t want to go. She asked if Agnew was getting paid.

“I’m a volunteer,” Agnew said. “This is from my heart.”

“I’ve seen the change” that Clyburn has brought to the ward, Agnew told her.

Click on the video to watch.

Richardson never ended up making it to the polls, revealing that the team still has work to do. (Her friend, inside the car, declined to give her name.)

At 8 p.m. Tuesday, supporters crammed the Lincoln-Bassett school to hear the voting results. They went wild when they learned the news: Clyburn had clobbered Blango by 416 to 297 votes on the machines.

Emerging from a swarm of hugs, Clyburn outlined her path to victory—a mirror of her citywide labor-backed team’s strategy for long-term political change.

“I worked in my ward when there’s no election,” she said. “The people got together and they’re willing to work with me.”

She called her victory—and the high turnout in the ward—a symbol of “the strength from what we did the first time.”

If Blango wants to challenge her again, she said, “we’ll go at it again.”

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posted by: robn on September 12, 2013  8:47am


The optimist in me wants to believe that all of the grassroots good will backing Toni might (if she gets elected) result in something other than a patronage machine. I just can’t get over the fact that 80% of her donations are from outside groups looking to profit off of the city. And I can’t see why the community can’t smell that problem.

posted by: Eddie on September 12, 2013  8:49am

Great article on important work!!  Thanks.

posted by: anonymous on September 12, 2013  9:02am

Very interesting story but turnout is based more on demographics than anything else. A Ward with many immigrants or students or MF apartment structures will generally have far lower turnout than a Ward like 20 or 25 which has more middle-aged homeowners. Then in a primary like this you have the issue of Dems vs Independents and union households to control for.  All Wards are diverse but each has a very different proportion of these groups. Without accounting for this, the comparisons you make to other Wards seem biased. It is good to focus on the residents and other factors that drive turnout in Newhallville, but better to do it without making comparisons, unless you are going to explain how Newhallville compares to other areas in more detail.  It may be that Newhallville has a lower turnout than one might expect whereas Fair Haven is the real unusual place in terms of high turnout.

Also, Harp’s victory was far from “crushing” - she won something like 10% of total registered voters, right? Many other primaries here and elsewhere have had margins where winners take 40-50% but still failed to predict the general election winner if only 10% of total voters are claimed in the primary.

posted by: DRAD on September 12, 2013  9:31am

@ robn - You are so right.  But what will be even more fascinating is watching to see who get what jobs - by which I mean - I am certain that there are two lists for fans of patronage:  the Harp list, which will include scores of politicians and wannabes that have been exile for the 20 years of John DeStefano’s mayoralty and Union list of who the Locals want installed - I guarantee that reconciling these two lists will leave hard feelings with whomever is left out.

posted by: grounded on September 12, 2013  9:33am

This is a great article on Ward 20 but I wonder if the NHI could take a broader perspective.  In Ward 9, for example, two union-backed ward co-chairs ran and won their seats on a platform of increasing voter turn-out and increasing ward committee participation.  They criticized the then-ward chairs for below par attendance rates at infrequent meetings.  Since they were elected, they’ve had even fewer meetings with even worse attendance rates.  And voter turn-out in Ward 9 hasn’t budged at all (perhaps it has even decreased).

Everyone likes to talk a good game when it comes to turn-out and participation rates but, at the end of the day, politicians and activists seek out the participation rates that serve their interests.  It was in Elicker’s interest to have low voter turn-out citywide so that consistently high voter turn-out in East Rock, Westville, and the East Shore would benefit him (the fact that he did so badly even with low citywide turn-out is a testament to the DOA status of his idiQuixotic campaign).  Similarly, in those wards where it isn’t in the union-backed supermajority’s interest to increase participation, they won’t. On both sides of the aisle, participation is a means to an ends, not an end unto itself.

That’s why we should have mandatory voting a la Australia.

posted by: Seth Poole on September 12, 2013  10:13am

@ Robn.  Please go with the optimist in you and become a part of the movement.  New Haven Rising needs people from all perspectives to keep our elected officials on their toes and beholden to the will of the people.  The real “Accountability Machine” is building steam through our organizing efforts.  Latoya and Ms. Delphine are champions in this movement.  Great work ladies!

posted by: LuvNewHaven on September 12, 2013  10:25am

Does anyone have a way to actually CONTACT Clyburn?  She doesn’t respond to emails sent to her address listed on the city’s website, and her Facebook page hasn’t been updated in a year.

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on September 12, 2013  10:51am

I wish I could predict the future; supposition,  or just plain guessing, what any one person will do in the future, is useful if one’s desire is to slander other people. As in stating that Representative Harp will turn over all city work via patronage.

This is not saying that cannot happen, but who can see into the future. Patronage has been, and continues to be part of the political process. The abuse is what should be detested. The reliance on those that a candidate has come to trust, by being around them, seeing their thought processes, work ethic, motivation, and most of all honesty, is an opportunity to benefit the public.

To survive the “wars” and slander that occur during modern political campaigns, would or maybe should, expose anyone close to a candidate that is a possible “thief” in “sheep’s clothing”, just looking to loot the city’s coffers once their “friend” acquires the power of their chosen elected office. Although nothing is foolproof.

Just look at WH. Their Housing Authority is still under investigation, due to the people appointed to run it under Mayor Borer. That appointment was pure patronage, and at the direction of the “Irish Mob/Morrisey Machine”. The tax dollars are into the millions, and now, with Mayor Picard appearing to have lost his campaign, the “Mob” will be back in power.  But I cannot see into the future, the same as everyone else.

So if someone can see ahead, before you give us the bad news, see if there are any decent, or good things the person you are observing is guilty of, and balance out the forecast so it is not too frightening. We have the press to deal with for being terrified each day.

Thank You, JATP.

posted by: Paul Wessel on September 12, 2013  11:07am

This is great example of how long-term, sustained organizing builds power.  For all those who whine about “the unions,”  they are doing the hard work of building relationships, tracking them well and leveraging them.  Hats off to Latoya, Delores and everyone else. 

Exercising power - governing, in this case - is a completely different challenge.  2013 - 2015 will be a test of that much harder transition, regardless of who our next mayor is.

posted by: mstratton on September 12, 2013  11:09am

My observation of Ward 20 was that Delphine worked incredibly hard for her ward for past two years. When Mothers for Justice had their affordable housing forum 2 weeks ago,there were only two alderpersons there: Delphine and Alfreda Edwards. She also spent countless hours on the streets campaigning personally. She should be primarily credited with this victory.  When you do the work, and do whats best for your constituents you win elections. Recent transplants from Ohio and people who have moved out of New Haven have little credibility in these neighborhoods-without a strong incumbent. Delphine is the kind of alderperson we need—- sensitive to labor but independent.

posted by: anonymous on September 12, 2013  11:15am

Luv, few of the members of the Board ever responds to phone calls or emails, or follows through with commitments if they do respond, even from their own constituents.  They did when they were first elected but they now have their own “priorities” which have little to do with what residents need.  If you want to get something done you are best off contacting someone in the city directly, calling the Mayor’s office, or trying one of the more constituent-service focused Alders like Alfreda, Justin, Angela, or Doug.

posted by: ARCing on September 12, 2013  11:17am

nice to know all that hard work paid off Are entire staff was all volunteer. It’s amazing what you can do with some hard work. GO TOYA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  GO TOYA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

posted by: 32knot on September 12, 2013  12:12pm

Reading this article I get the impression that somehow lists of who has or has not yet voted are being generated during voting day. ITs bad enough my name is loudly announced for everybody in the room to hear when i present my Elm City ID to vote at the poll but I would be very upset if my name is put on a list because i had not yet voted and then distrubuted to somebody who is going to go to my house and try and drag me to the poll. Voting is a private act and the above senario boarders on the illegal and is certainly not ethical. If a neighbor came by it would be one thing but an out of towner being directed by a politacal professional is a horse of a different color to borrow a phrase from the Wizard of OZ.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 12, 2013  12:32pm

posted by: mstratton on September 12, 2013 11:09am
My observation of Ward 20 was that Delphine worked incredibly hard for her ward for past two years. When Mothers for Justice had their affordable housing forum 2 weeks ago,there were only two alderpersons there: Delphine and Alfreda Edwards. She also spent countless hours on the streets campaigning personally. She should be primarily credited with this victory.  When you do the work, and do whats best for your constituents you win elections. Recent transplants from Ohio and people who have moved out of New Haven have little credibility in these neighborhoods-without a strong incumbent. Delphine is the kind of alderperson we need—- sensitive to labor but independent.

My observation is what MALCOLM X said.

The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way. The liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor, and by winning the friendship and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or tool in this political football game. Politically the American Negro is nothing but a football, and the white liberals control this mentally dead ball. Through tricks of tokenism and false promises, and they have the willing cooperation of Negro leaders. These leaders sell out our people for just a few crumbs of token recognition and token gains

posted by: DrJay on September 12, 2013  1:05pm

“Agnew headed up the Newhallville canvassing operation at 271 Starr St., a former sausage factory that has been converted into a new home for the Peace International Ministries Church.”

What happened to the IRS rule that churches are not to be involved in partisan politics?
Will the tax exempt status of this property be investigated?

posted by: HewNaven on September 12, 2013  1:16pm

I have no doubt Clyburn worked even when there was no election looming. But can we really say the same for Toni Harp? Shevery spent the majority of her last 20 years in Hartford and only became interested in the race for Mayor after she found Destefano would not run and that a political reformer (Elicker) would replace him.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on September 12, 2013  1:23pm

Thank you Melissa Bailey for this great article. Big thanks to Latoya Agnew, Sam Gilchrist, and Jamal Pearson for doing this difficult (and in my experience often thankless) work of engaging your fellow residents to make their voices heard. Wards 20 & 25 have set a very high bar that the rest of us ought to aspire to. Alder Clyburn has been incredibly passionate, dedicated, and inspiring in all contexts I’ve had the privilege of hearing her speak. This article nicely points out the long-term, grassroots organizing and coalition-building that has gone into elections over the past several years—a perspective that is all-too-often neglected on the NHI.

The article also demonstrates that people all over the city have extremely good reasons for supporting Toni Harp—reasons which unfortunately were not explored as the “New Haven Independent” basically became a mouthpiece for the Elicker campaign and an East Rock blog over the course of the summer. While the money spent in the race is an issue that I think is worthy of critical attention, no single neighborhood or constituency has a monopoly on truth, and we would do well to engage in conversations with fellow residents about their reasons for supporting a candidate, rather than conclude that their vote was bought or that they have been hoodwinked.

Threefifths, good quote. Do you know Phil Ochs’ satirical song “Love Me I’m A Liberal”? Very worth a listen (you can find it easily on YouTube):,_I’m_a_Liberal. Tim Wise couldn’t put it any better!

posted by: cedarhillresident! on September 13, 2013  1:26pm

Interesting how Unite takes the credit! And who do you think will reap the rewards?? I remember they did the same thing during the malloy campaign. Wake up people don’t be pawns! Vote for harp if you truly think that after she wins she will remember. But if your gut tells you different….follow it. You have a choice.

posted by: Noteworthy on September 13, 2013  7:04pm

Does Agnew/Unite encourage civic engagement or are they just signing up people, promising them a special visit from Ms. Santa Claus, and turn them in to IRobots? Teaching people to take orders and vote accordingly is not much of a voting agenda.

posted by: HhE on September 16, 2013  9:45am

LuvNewHaven, have you tried

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This is the address I have.