Latoya 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.
Lines 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.”