People’s Caucus Urged To “Overcome Factionalism”

Nick Defiesta PhotoNew Haven has a long history of divisive ethnic and machine politics, a leading political scientist told supporters of the “People’s Caucus.” He told the group he believes it could be one of the few to overcome that history.

Rae (pictured), a Yale professor and New Haven historian and a top official in former Mayor John Daniels’ administration, made these remarks to 100 people who gathered Saturday in the basement of the Springs-Life-Giving Water Church on Sperry Street. The occasion: the first community gathering of the new caucus, a breakaway group on the Board of Alders who have vowed to offer an alternative to the Democratic Party leadership.

Rae’s 10-minute talk highlighted organizations that have successfully bypassed political divisions in the past and might serve as models: the city’s school system, with the implementation of New Haven Promise, the tree-planting prowess of the Urban Resources Initiative; the organizational success of New Haven Youth Soccer in the 1980s, which grew from scratch to enroll 1,000 city kids.

“You’ve got to have a positive [vision] and run with it,” Rae said of his experiences helping to organize youth soccer. He also stressed the need for organizations to “overcome factionalism.”

Rae’s was one of several addresses at the gathering, which also featured break-out idea-gathering sessions.

Caucus co-founder Michael Stratton, a new alder representing Propect Hill/Newhallville’s Ward 19, outlined the caucus’s founding principles (which can be found in this story). The six-alder caucus is “not an opposition party,” said Stratton, but a group committed to developing a legislative agenda “from the people.”

“We welcome union people. We welcome non-union people,” Stratton said. Caucus members have been critical of leaders of Yale’s UNITE/HERE Locals 34 and 35, which supported the supermajority that now exists on the Board of Aldermen and holds leading party positions.

Among the people attending the event was was 2013 mayoral candidate Justin Elicker, who was supported by some of the forum’s primary organizers (including Stratton, one of Elicker’s biggest fundraisers) and by the event’s main invited speakers. (Elicker lost the election to Toni Harp.) Toward the end of his talk, Rae pointed Elicker out to the crowd, which acknowledged the former alder with applause.

Also speaking at Saturday’s event was Mark Abraham, executive director of a local number-crunching and analysis outfit called DataHaven. He gave an abridged version of a presentation he offered at the Institute Library last month on the virtues of evidence-based policy.

Abraham (at left in photo) highlighted — and the crowd latched onto — one statistic in particular: the fact that New Haveners hold only 19 percent of living wage jobs within the city. The other 81 percent are occupied by people who do not pay property taxes to the Elm City.

“Does the city know this?” local housing authority contractor Yul Watley asked the room.

Yes, responded several of the alders present. They said this is the sort of issues the People’s Caucus wants to focus on. (A mission statement drawn up two years ago by the then-new Board of Aldermen had a similar focus, leading in part to the creation of an organization called New Haven Works. Click here for a story on the group’s promises two years later; and here for a story about a similar idea-sharing convening in 2012 by organizers affiliated with the then-new Board of Alders majority.)

At the start of the forum, the organizers handed all attendees two pieces of paper. The first asked attendees for five words or phrases that describe New Haven right now, while the second asked for five items that describe New Haven the way they wish New Haven could be.

For the first list, responses included “divided,” “high taxes,” “corruption”  and “unrealized potential.” The first item on activist Danny Newell’s (pictured) list was “violent”; the final item was “home.”

When asked about the second list, city landlord Ray Whitaker (pictured) gave a longer answer.

“I’d like to see a sort of balancing of the tale of two cities here in New Haven,” he explained. “You have the Yale reality, then you have the Hill reality.”

When Elicker gave his answer — that he’d like to see more trust in city government — the room broke out in enthusiastic applause.

After generating word clouds of responses, forum organizers pledged that the People’s Caucus would find ways to bridge the two visions of the city. The crowd broke out into working groups, each moderated by an alder, to generate ideas of such policies.

“Their next step, according to East Rock Alder Anna Festa: evaluating the input they received from Saturday’s forum, formulating policy ideas and holding more community forums. The group was pleased with the turnout, Festa said, and gave alders an idea of the directions residents would like to take New Haven.

“This should’ve been done years ago,” Festa said. “This is how city government should run.”

Stratton said later that the ideas the caucus will immediately research include better rules ensuring genuine minority hiring on city projects, a cataloging of youth programs to identify gaps (click here to read about the current status of that project on the Board of Alders), dramatically increased mentoring opportunities for city kids, fully funded state Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program reimbursements to cities, taxing wealthier not-for-profits.

In his first few weeks as an alder, Stratton has submitted a range of proposed laws tackling United Illuminating’s tree-trimming plan, seeking to abolish the paid city/town clerk position, opposing city government gag orders on employees, and pushing for more PILOT money.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 26, 2014  11:07am

How come no talk about Proportional Representation.A true alternative to the Democratic Party leadership.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 26, 2014  11:11am

Caucus co-founder Michael Stratton, a new alder representing Propect Hill/Newhallville’s Ward 19, outlined the caucus’s founding principles (which can be found in this story). The six-alder caucus is “not an opposition party,” said Stratton, but a group committed to developing a legislative agenda “from the people.”

Then why not bring the Progressive Bull Moose Party.

posted by: HewNaven on January 26, 2014  11:25am

It appears that BOTH BofA factions want to shine a light on the dearth of livable wage jobs in New Haven, and the fact that almost all the available livable wage jobs go to suburban residents (4% to New Haven residents in poor neighborhoods).

Maybe this would be a good place to start building a bridge between the two factions.

posted by: wendy1 on January 26, 2014  12:09pm

The turnout was good.  Let’s hope the turnout at public BOA hearing and zoning board hearings improves.  By the way, the comment, TAX YALE, got the most applause.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on January 26, 2014  3:41pm

The ongoing activism in New Haven is one of the things that make this such an exciting place to live.
The diversity of ages, ethnic backgrounds and political thought reminded me of the group assembled in Washington when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his heart-touching speech. We are part of a rainbow and we exist in New Haven.
The exercise in drawing visions from the people there was a lively and well thought out process.
A small P.S., taxing ALL wealthy non-profits, not just Yale, should be a long term goal. Start with an update of the 1985 Tax Commission Report authorized by the Board of Alders.
Jobs and taxes are related and we need fairness in both.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 26, 2014  7:37pm

I think slogans like “Tax Yale” are unproductive and conversation stoppers since any legislation formed from a theoretical baseline of “tax wealthy non-profits” would be dead-on-arrival and pretty easily refuted as unconstitutional. In order to craft any kind of legislation that might have an end result of wealthy tax-exempt institutions and non-profit organizations paying some type of property tax or payment in lieu of taxes, the factors that enable certain institutions to amass so much wealth yet retain tax-exempt status and whether or not those factors are actually profit-making would need to be dete.

In my opinion, buildings that perform a public good like museums, or are primarily occupied with classroom space should be tax-exempt. On the other hand, the residential colleges with their housing units, dining halls, private theaters, libraries, cafes, gyms, and game rooms, are commercial and should be treated as such.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on January 26, 2014  9:59pm

If you read the history of Yale’s tax exemption on its own website, there was a provision for taxation of income or assets over a set amount.
When a multi-national corporation can amass a tax-free $21 billion endowment and sits surrounded by a dying middle class and the chronically impoverished, it’s time to re-visit the reasons for an exemption and the cost to all municipalities, not just New Haven.
Between Yale, Yale New Haven Hospital, Gateway, etc., homeowners and renters pay too much in property taxes, real and personal, while the CEOs of the so-called non-profits rake in millions.
The Board of Aldermen can authorize an update of the 1984 Tax Commission and we can see if the political will exists to rectify the inequities of this tax system before it all collapses.
Or has that already happened?

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on January 26, 2014  10:56pm

“Rae’s 10-minute talk highlighted organizations that have successfully bypassed political divisions in the past and might serve as models: the city’s school system, with the implementation of New Haven Promise…”


posted by: SteveOnAnderson on January 28, 2014  12:39pm

“This should’ve been done years ago,” Festa said. “This is how city government should run.”

Actually, “this” has happened multiple times in very recent years; for example, this citywide meeting of 300+ people in December 2011: As the article points out, generating good jobs for New Haven residents with a commitment from large employers in town has been a top priority for the labor-backed BoA elected in 2011.

Don’t get me wrong—I am very in favor meetings such as this one that bring together people from across New Haven to discuss problems and solutions in the city, regardless of who is running them. But it’s that last point that confuses me about the “People’s Caucus.” What exactly is new here, besides the people who are leading the meeting? If the issue the “PC” has with their colleagues on the BoA is really about process but agree on issues & content, then it seems more productive to me to first give credit where credit is due for things like New Haven Works and discuss ways of working together more openly, democratically, and publicly.

If every group celebrates their own “independence” by forming breakaway caucuses claiming to be the ones with the right answer, then you are never going to “overcome factionalism” (it’s incredible that the irony seems to have been lost here). The problem with this group—like that of the Tea-Party-ehoing “Take Back New Haven”—isn’t so much their critique of BoA univocality, but that they don’t seem to be willing to reflect on the fact that they are one of many factions…and that’s okay. As soon as you become an umbrella group bringing many different people together, groups like this splinter off and condemn you as “the machine.”

The question I have is how this group can make their critique but also work with the rest of the BoA constructively, since they seem to have a lot more in common than they do differences.

posted by: win win on January 29, 2014  12:56am

...and isn’t it ironic. “Overcome Factionalism”?? This group was launched for precisely the OPPOSITE purpose. Prior to this meeting their SOLE purpose was PROMOTING FACTIONALISM. aiyaiyai

That said, they were some good ideas and good people in that room and if they mean what they say I hope they will get back to working WITH their colleagues on the board who have already been pushing to get more New Haveners into good jobs (and address crime and high taxes etc by going to the roots of the problems).

Good luck. Brains, degrees, and “media savvy” (aka exploiting the anti-hype machine) will get you so far. But doing the hard work of organizing colleagues and communities will get ALL of us a whole lot farther.