Plunging into politics for the first time, lifelong East Rocker Anna Festa vowed to represent the voice of regular New Haveners—unlike, she said, aldermen who voted against public opinion to sell two streets to Yale.
Festa (pictured) made that vow as she formally began her campaign for alderman in East Rock’s Ward 10. She filed papers Tuesday to launch her candidacy.
The seat is opening up now that Justin Elicker, the incumbent, is running for mayor instead of seeking reelection as alderman.
Festa is the first candidate to announce her intention to run. She has Elicker’s support in her quest for the Democratic nomination in a Sept. 10 primary, if there is one.
In a conversation with the Independent, she sounded a lot like Elicker: She pledged to be an independent voice, pushing for transparency and fiscal responsibility, while declining to wed herself to the board’s supermajority of labor-backed aldermen.
Festa, who’s 46, outlined her approach to the campaign in the conversation Monday in the living room of her Canner Street home, where she lives with her husband and three young boys. Festa has never lived outside the neighborhood: She grew up between Orange and Whitney avenues; attended St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s Catholic schools; got an associate’s degree in radiologic technology from what’s now known as Gateway Community College; and earned her bachelor’s in business management from Albertus Magnus College. She worked in medical sales before becoming “CEO of Festa Incorporated,” which is to say, devoting her full time to raising her boys, who attend Worthington Hooker School. She owns her home on Canner as well as two rental properties in East Rock and Fair Haven Heights.
Festa is a block watch captain and an active member of Hooker’s Parent Teacher Association. As a parent activist, she has worked with Elicker to push for more transparency in the school admissions process. She is a regular member of the neighborhood community management team and has gotten involved as a citizen at city budget hearings. She has also learned the knack of navigating bureaucratic hurdles, for example, when her car was wrongfully towed from outside her house.
She said she was inspired to run because she feels the Board of Aldermen is not listening to New Haveners.
“They didn’t listen to the residents on that,” Festa said. Elicker was one of eight aldermen who opposed the decision.
Festa vowed to be a “voice for the people” on citywide issues, including fighting for “fair taxes” and fiscal responsibility. She called for more scrutiny of the schools budget to see where cuts could be made without dipping into resources that directly affect the classroom.
“In every household, we had to tighten our belts and find places to save money,” Festa said. “I wish that the city could do the same.”
In the last revaluation, East Rock was “hit pretty hard” because property values soared, while they decreased in other parts of town, Festa said. Families had to make sacrifices to balance their budgets, she said.
The schools ended up obtaining the $3 million increase from the city, the first major increase in years.
Festa did not say specifically where she would cut spending in the Board of Education’s proposed budget; she said she believes the cuts could be made without stripping resources that directly affect the classroom.
She excluded Elicker from her critique of city legislators. In his four years in office, Elicker has been “incredibly responsive” and a definite doer,” she said. She said she is supporting him for mayor.
Like Elicker, Festa vowed to be an “independent thinker” on the board. She pledged to swear off money from political action committees and limit individual contributions, in keeping with the guidelines of the Democracy Fund. The program seeks to limit the influence of city contractors and big-money political groups by awarding public grants to candidates who accept only small donations from individuals. The fund covers just the mayoral race, not aldermanic races. Festa said she’d follow the guidelines anyway as a matter of principle.
She said she would not vote in lock-step with the bloc of aldermen backed by Yale’s UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35, which have emerged as the most powerful political organizing force in town. Asked if she would seek their endorsement, she said, “Anyone is free to endorse me.” But “I consider myself a voice for my constituents,” not for the unions.
On one of the biggest neighborhood issues—a proposed development for the former Star Supply building—Festa said she supported Alderwoman’s Holmes organizing efforts. Holmes organized neighbors, and some political activists from other parts of town, to make a series of demands of a developer who sought to turn a vacant industrial building on State Street into hundreds of new apartments. After public dissent over the proposal, the city zoning board squashed the plans.
Festa called Holmes “an alder who supports her constituents.” She said “I’m confident they’ll work together” with the developer on a new set of plans for the site.
Festa was skeptical of a Ninth Square developer’s request for a $10-million-plus bailout on back taxes to keep a project alive. Festa said she wasn’t familiar with the details, but at first blush, it seems to her that “we shouldn’t be bailing anybody out.”
On school reform: Festa said she approves of the direction and philosophy of the mayor’s initiative, but the schools need to do more to get parents involved.
On community policing: Chief Dean Esserman is “doing a good job. ... The residents are gaining more confidence in the police department.” She said the city needs to offer more activities for kids.
“I wish I could wrap my arms around them all,” she said of kids who get involved in gangs. “These kids have a future and they’re smart. We need to find ways to get them off the streets and back in school.”
This campaign marks Festa’s first run for public office. She said she takes inspiration from her father, the late Raymond Saracco, Sr., who moved to the U.S. from Campagna, Italy, with only a “suitcase full of dreams.” Saracco and his wife raised four kids in East Rock; Festa’s brother, Ray Saracco, Jr., is a firefighter and one-time co-chair of the Ward 10 Democratic ward committee.
Anna’s dad lived under Benito Mussolini’s fascist rule. In America, her father “instilled in us a faith in democracy,” Festa said.
“That’s what I’d like to see brought back—true democracy in this city.”
Festa has won early support from Elicker in her quest.
Elicker called Festa a good choice because “she’s already been really involved in both neighborhood and citywide issues” ranging from school enrollment to the city budget. He said Festa has been a regular participant in community management team meetings, where she has gotten to know the issues surrounding Cedar Hill, which is also part of the ward.
“Her heart is in the right place,” Elicker said of Festa. “She’s dedicated to improving the city and improving the neighborhood, and not affiliated with one entrenched political group.”
Elicker said the city needs more legislators who “follow their own mind” and “do what’s best for constituents.”
“She’s proven she’s that kind of person,” he said.