Sundiata Keitazulu heard from homeless men about how hard it is to find a job coming out of prison. Unlike other mayoral candidates, Keitazulu knew firsthand what they meant—because he’d lived it.
Keitazulu (at left in photo), one of seven Democrats running for mayor this year, didn’t tell the men that during a recent campaign stop.
But while other mayoral candidates talk about poverty, violence, and prison re-entry, Keitazulu is the only one in the race who has lived through those issues.
In conversations in between stops on a campaign swing through town Tuesday, Keitazulu shared those details of his past for the first time: His childhood as a shoeshine boy on Dixwell Avenue, his time as a homeless grifter in Philadelphia, dealing drugs and surviving 10 years in prison, starting a career as a plumber.
He talked about how he got a new name, how he lost his teeth, and how he lost a son to violence.
Keitazulu, who’s 55, is running to replace Mayor John DeStefano, who will step down at the end of the year after two decades in office.
Tuesday afternoon Keitazulu took time off from un-clogging drains to do some campaigning with the Independent in tow. He had no campaign manager setting up the event. He carried no lists of likely or registered voters, no spreadsheets of addresses and phone numbers. He followed no set course. He rambled around town guided only by whim, armed only with photocopied handouts outlining his campaign platform.
Despite this, Keitazulu did find some recognition on the campaign trail, especially in East Rock, where he arrived to try to collect some campaign cash. He’s looking to collect enough to qualify for the Democracy Fund, the city’s public campaign financing program. He’ll also have to collect the necessary signatures to get his name on the primary ballot.
It’s a tall order for a first-time candidate: create a network of supporters from scratch with no political or financial backing and a name no one seems to know how to pronounce—not to mention having faced some of New Haven’s greatest personal trials.
Wearing a grey suit and striped blue tie, Keitazulu stopped his white Chevy Tahoe at a light at the corner of Grand Avenue and Hamilton Street. Through wraparound sunglasses, he peered out the passenger-side window at homeless men waiting for the shelter on the corner to open.
“Some of them might vote,” he murmured. “I know they’re needy. Homeless people are forgotten in New Haven.”
Keitazulu parked at Ferraro’s Market and walked over.
A man named Shawn Reynolds told Keitazulu he’d been searching for work for 10 months but no one would look twice at him because he’s a convicted felon. If you’ve got a criminal record, you can’t get federal Section 8 housing assistance either, said another man. Keitazulu fell into a conversation with Milton Blow (at left in photo) about how a felony conviction can hold you back.
“You can join my campaign committee,” Keitazulu said as Blow boarded a city bus.
He wandered over to another group of men sitting in the shade of a tree. He offered his standard campaign conversation gambit: “What do you think we can do to the make city better?”
“We need more jobs,” replied one man. “Instead of living in the shelter.”
“I agree,” Keitazulu said. He talked about his plans for job training and apprenticeship programs. “I’ve been homeless. I know how it is to not have a job.”
“These are the forgotten people,” Keitazulu said as he walked away from the shelter after a few more conversations. “These are the people who are going to commit crimes.”
That’s how he started breaking the law, Keitazulu later explained: He began selling drugs when he couldn’t make money any other way.
It started in Philadelphia, the city Keitazulu headed to after graduating from Wilbur Cross High School.
“I went to Philadelphia to explore the world. I used to like the Philadelphia ‘76ers,” Keitazulu said. He had cousins in the city, but after arriving there, he couldn’t find them. He ended up stuck, sleeping on the subway or in abandoned houses.
“I just lived off the streets,” Keitazulu said. “I know what it is not to eat for days.”
He sold his blood for cash, and learned quick cons from “a hustler.”
“I was cheating people playing cards,” he said. “I would cheat them in dice. I used to play Three-Card Monte.”
If the cops didn’t run him off a corner, he could take few dollars from passersby. “I was able to buy me a big hoagie. That’s what they call a sub in Philadelphia. I was eating that day.”
Keitazulu said he also earned money by selling drugs: coke and weed. He smoked marijuana but never used cocaine, he said. After almost a year homeless in Philadelphia, Keitazulu made his way back to New Haven, where he kept selling drugs off and on, “any time I didn’t have no money.”
“I was selling drugs to eat,” he said. “I wasn’t going around shooting and killing people.”
He said he was arrested twice for selling drugs. In 1991 he went to prison, where he spent the next decade.
“It was hell,” Keitazulu said. “I didn’t think I deserved no 10-year sentence, because I wasn’t no violent person.”
In prison, Keitazulu quickly learned he would have to fight to survive. “You better be tough or you get raped. There ain’t no protection. If you do not fight, you’re getting raped.”
“I learned not to accept anything for free,” he said. If you accept a present from an inmate—soap, cookies, deodorant—he’ll ask you to sell drugs or smuggle them in from visitors, Keitazulu said.
The war on drugs doesn’t work, he said. “They just grab everybody. If I had a job and a skill I would not have done this.”
When he got out of prison, Keitazulu found he couldn’t get a job anywhere. “Once you’ve been in prison, all opportunity ceases to exist. ... I had to create my own job. Because if you have a record, ain’t nobody hiring you.”
“I know about all the struggles. I’ve been through it all,” Keitazulu said.
“I want to change the city,” Keitazulu declared to 63-year-old Jesse James Johnson, who was leaning on his walker near the corner of Newhall and Bassett streets, waiting for a ride to a chemotherapy appointment.
Keitazulu had climbed out of his Tahoe and approached the first person he saw, unrolling his campaign platform: jobs, job training, job apprenticeship programs, and—what has become his signature issue—vocational high schools.
“That’s a good thing,” said Johnson. He said he was surprised the city doesn’t have a vocational school already.
“I think it’s surprising too,” said Keitazulu. He argued that public schools gear students toward only one goal: college. That’s not realistic, he said. Lots of kids aren’t going to college. They need a vo-tech school like Hamden’s Eli Whitney technical school, Keitazulu said.
The city is opening a vocational school at the old Gateway Community College on Long Wharf Drive. Staring in the fall it will offer supplementary training programs for students at New Haven high schools. Keitazulu said he’d like to open two full-time vo-tech schools by converting Hillhouse High and the shuttered Strong School in Fair Haven.
Walking west on Bassett Street, Keitazulu expanded on the point. He pointed out boarded-up houses that vo-tech students could fix up for the city, which the city could then sell—a new revenue source that would lower taxes.
As Keitazulu sees it, opening vocational schools are the first step to any number of virtuous cycles. For example: With more training, more people would have jobs. Crime would go down. The city would spend less money on police, and could lower property taxes.
“You Got To Start With Your Feet!”
After walking on Bassett for some time, knocking on a few doors at random, Keitazulu doubled back to climb into his SUV.
“I know what neighborhood I might be able to get some votes at,” he said. “I know they need jobs in the Hill.”
Keitazulu’s car radio was tuned to 94.3 WYBC, “number one for R&B hits and oldies.” Air fresheners were clipped into the vents. On the floor was a copy of Barack Obama’s Dreams Of My Father, borrowed from the library.
“That’s one thing I never thought I’d see in my life: a black president,” Keitazulu said. “That gave me hope. Anything is possible.”
“I always wanted to run for office,” Keitazulu said. As a kid growing up in Newhallville, he would walk by Mayor Dick Lee’s house. “I said I wanted to be mayor. People used to laugh at me.” A little black boy can’t grow up to be mayor, people told him.
But he could shine shoes. That’s what Keitazulu used to do as a kid on Dixwell Avenue. “You’re all dressed up but your shoes ain’t shined!” he would call out to men in suits. “If you want to look neat, you got to start with your feet!”
He also caddied at Ailing Memorial Golf Course. He worked construction with his dad and his two uncles—a carpenter, electrician, and plumber. In the early ‘80s, he started his own business, Keitazulu and Sons Home Improvement.
Three years ago, Keitazulu started his plumbing business, Nate the Snake. He chose the name because it was similar to a successful competitor’s. “I saw Jake the Snake down the street,” Keitazulu said. “I did a marketing move so that people would think I was him,”
The ploy worked. “It’s not tricking people,” Keitazulu said. “It’s like McDonald’s and Burger King. They got Big Macs and they got Whoppers.”
“I didn’t go to college. I wish I did. I’ve got to work with the cards that I got,” he added.
Nate the Snake’s main business is cleaning drains: $100 for a toilet or a tub, $200 to $275 for a main house drain.
“It’s messy job. They stink like Ess-Aytch-Eye-Tee. With capital letters. Sometimes it gets into your pores,” he said. “It’s a job nobody wants.”
When he gets home from work, his wife makes him take off his shoes and clothes immediately, to keep the smell out of the house, he said.
Keitazulu said he also started a business called Dependable Home Care, hiring people to take care of elderly people. Business is slow there, because he’s not licensed to take Medicare and Medicaid, he said.
He said it’s about time to start a new business: “The mayor’s office! Hey! Getting people to work, man!”
How Much Does It Pay?
Keitazulu parked on Hurlburt Street near Rosette in the Hill. He walked south and talked vo-tech with Scott Pierce (at left in photo), a contractor who was renovating boarded up homes for NeighborWorks. He might have earned a vote—if Pierce didn’t live in East Windsor.
Near the corner of Lamberton Street, he stopped to talk to Jamesha Belton and Shanelle Washington, both 20 and unemployed. Keitazulu’s message resonated.
“Jobs. I need a job,” said Belton.
“I’m looking for young people like you” to help with the campaign.
“Are you? And how much does your campaign pay?” asked Belton.
Keitazulu said he couldn’t pay. Belton (at right in photo) and Washington (center) walked on.
Fundraising has been difficult for the Keitazulu campaign. To qualify for matching money from the Democracy Fund, he needs 200 $10 donations from registered New Haven voters. He said he has far less than that so far. He said he has handed out “over a thousand” Democracy Fund donation forms and gotten back “very few” with donations.
“I read a book about how to start your campaign right. I got it at the Hamden library,” Keitazulu said. “I’ve got a chance of winning, if people listen to what I have to say.”
But it’s hard to get your message out without money. Keitazulu talked to a few more people on Hurlburt Street, then climbed back in his car and headed to East Rock to try some fundraising.
“I’ve been getting people out of that area who like my ideas for the city,” Keitazulu said. And they have money. “The people we just met, I’m not going to get any money from them.”
“Good For You!”
Fifteen minutes later, Keitazulu pulled up on Livingston Street between Canner and Cold Spring. Unlike in Newhallville and the Hill, he left the windows rolled down, the doors unlocked, his cell phone in plain view in the center console. “I know where I am now,” he said. No one’s going to steal anything in East Rock, he suggested.
Keitazulu knocked on a door and introduced himself to homeowner Bob Parker (at left in photo), who works for Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES).
“Yes. I recognize you,” said Parker. “I was at the first debate.”
“See! I was telling you! People know me here,” Keitazulu said. He made his pitch to Parker: More jobs equals less crime.
Then he asked for a campaign donation.
“I don’t usually give money to political campaigns,” Parker said. “Keep trying to think of good answers for us. We need them.”
A few houses down, Keitazulu found Katie Gerhard sitting on her front porch watching a video on her iPad. He told her he is a candidate for mayor.
“Good for you!” she said. “How do you say your name?”
“Not too many people know how to say it right,” Keitazulu said later, on his way to Westville to try again to collect donations in another middle-class neighborhood.
He Wasn’t Playing
Born John Brown Denby, Sundiata Keitazulu took his new name in the ‘70s in honor of his South African great-grandfather, who belonged to the Xhosa and Zulu people. He was a whaler who traveled the world, according to family lore.
“The story goes he came to New York, got off the boat and got drunk. The boat went out. He missed the ship and met my great-grandmother,” Keitazulu said.
The “zulu” part of Keitazulu is in honor of his Zulu heritage, he said. “Keita” was the name of his great-grandfather’s mother. “Sundiata Keita” is the name of a famous West African king from the 13th century.
Keitazulu continued the Zulu name tradition when he had the first of his seven children. He named his son Bambaata after the Zulu chief.
Twenty-one years later, Bambaata Carr was killed in a downtown nightclub. “He was stabbed 21 times,” Keitazulu said. “It was the worstest news I ever heard. It was like a nightmare. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t do nothing.”
Talking about the loss brought Keitazulu back to his campaign platform. “People need to get jobs,” he said. “People without jobs are dangerous.”
More evidence: A few weeks ago, Keitazulu’s daughter’s boyfriend was killed.
Keitazulu himself lost his front teeth during a mugging in 2011.
He was coming home from a Hamden bar at 2 a.m. when a mugger confronted him near Lincoln-Bassett School in Newhallville.
“He said, ‘Give it up,’” Keitazulu recalled. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy.’”
Bam! The guy hit him in the mouth with a wooden baseball bat. Keitazulu crumpled to the ground.
“I told you I wasn’t playing,” the mugger told him. Then he took his wallet.
Keitazulu didn’t have any luck raising money from people on Fountain Terrace in Westville. He turned back home to Newhallville and spoke about his time behind bars.
“Prison is a dark and lonely place, and you miss out on life,” Keitazulu said. “I’m ashamed of it, because it cost me a life with my family. Being a father is a great joy.”
With campaigning done for the day, his plan for the rest of the afternoon was to pick up his 4- and 6-year-old and take them to the library.
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