This story originally appeared in La Voz Hispana. It was translated into English by Gilah Benson-Tilsen.
New Haven has captured local and national attention by electing a female mayor for the first time in its 375 years of existence. Also making news is the recent appointment of a Latino leader, who will accompany the new mayor’s vision to improve the future of this city.
The man in question is Tomas Reyes (pictured), who has been an important figure in local politics and is now returning to city government as chief of staff after an absence of more than a decade. Reyes, who in recent years acted as an administrator at Yale University’s Connecticut Mental Health Center, also worked for 18 years as am alderman, much of that time serving as president of the board. Until recently, he was also president of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus.
A few days after he took on the new position, we sat down with him in his City Hall office for an interview.
How did you receive the nomination and appointment for chief of staff?
That was a position that I wasn’t looking for. Lord knows I was content in the position I had at the Mental Health Center, working under the umbrella of the university. What happened was that I supported Toni Harp’s campaign, because I know her very well and we worked together on the Board of Aldermen. Thanks to that, I thought – and it seems like many people thought – she was the best candidate. I’m very much in agreement with her philosophy for city administration, and so I helped her.
I didn’t have any particular ideas of being part of her administration. She called me one day and I thought she was joking when she talked to me about this position. Not only that, while Toni was talking to me, I laughed and then said to her: “Well, Senator, what is it you need?” And she answered me: “Seriously, I want to talk to you.” After that we began to discuss the position. We took a month and a half to reach an agreement, because I needed to ask for a leave of absence from my regular job at the Connecticut Mental Health Center. And that’s how I ended up in this office now with a two-year leave of absence, and if I want to stay in this position I can apply for two more years – because among other things, I want to maintain my position at the university.
As New Haven’s chief of staff, what are your responsibilities?
Here I have a staff that I supervise directly, which includes more or less all the mayor’s staff. In the same vein, I have to communicate on a daily basis with all the department heads and coordinators of the city. Basically, my work involves ensuring that the work and vision of the mayor are brought to fruition, counting on that group of people around her.
When snowstorm Hercules was passing through the region, you had a sort of baptism of fire in your new position. What did you have to do to deal with the problem?
That was my debut in this role, and my first day on the job. Keep in mind that we had to work for ten hours each day for those two days. And in my case, I had to direct operations for most of the day from the Emergency Operations Center in New Haven, which is where the work of confronting emergencies is coordinated. Out there we had police representatives, the fire chief, the director of the Livable City Initiative, leaders of the Board of Education, and leaders from all departments that had responsibility for dealing with the development of the storm.
This new challenge is a sacrifice for you, and it means more time away from your family.
Oh yes. For example, today I’ve been here since 7:30 a.m.. And tonight I’m going to a meeting of the Board of Aldermen.
New Haven, like all major cities in Connecticut, faces challenges related to security, shootings, and lately brawls that have taken place at some local nightclubs, particularly on weekends.
And have you come up with a plan to control these street fights?
The problem of violence in New Haven doesn’t present itself only in nightclubs; it also has a presence on the street. That was the case for a young man, Javier Martinez, who was killed last week: they say he was killed for his shoes, because someone wanted to steal them.
This problem – in Mayor Harp’s opinion – requires the community to unite. It’s not just a problem for the police. To deal with these things, we need to create more youth programs – which we don’t have many of, by the way. In my personal opinion, that’s one of the biggest reasons for the current rate of youth violence in this city.
I remember many years ago when New Haven had more than ten programs for youth in each neighborhood. Today there are only three or four, as a consequence of cuts and the attitudes of leaders. It can’t just be attributed to cuts – the leadership of New Haven, for many years, hasn’t considered this to be very important.
But for this mayor I know this issue is very important, and part of what we’re going to do is to look for external sources of funding. Obviously the city doesn’t have the funds to sponsor a series of programs to give young people an alternative to being on the street. The majority of teenagers don’t stay at home; they go out on the streets. If there’s nothing to do, they go looking for something to do, and typically, that something is illegal. That’s why we see gangs and illegal cash flow. And the solution for this problem isn’t just to put more police on the street or send more boys to prison. It’s a social problem for which every resident of New Haven has a major responsibility to find a solution.
In this case, churches also have a huge responsibility, because religious leaders have the parents of those boys in their congregations. That is, the churches need to be part of the solution.
As someone who is familiar with the way this city is run, do you think that New Haven is prepared to handle any natural disaster that might occur?
I think so. I think New Haven recently led by example: with the cold and the snow that hit us, there was no one – as far as I know – who had to be sent to the hospital. For those few rough days we had last week, the police in conjunction with the fire department and social workers who came from the Connecticut Mental Health Center and from other places, looked for all the homeless people who were wandering through New Haven, and brought them to places commonly known as “warming centers,” so that they didn’t stay out on the street. New Haven, for being such a large town, could use more funds; but generally with what there already is, I think we have enough to handle a disaster.
Mayor Harp is making history after becoming the first woman to reach the highest level of leadership in this city. You also are doing the same by becoming the first Latino leader to attain the position of chief of staff for the city. What does that mean for you as a Puerto Rican?
Although I thought three times about it, I personally feel very honored that I’ve been asked to serve in this role. Well, I’m not the first Hispanic person to have this job. Now I remember, some years back – when I was an alderman – there was a man who served as chief of staff, under the administration of former mayor John DeStefano. His name was Julio Gonzalez.
You were away from politics for a while. What made you come back?
I was away, but not from everything. I can tell you that I did a lot of my political work in the past ten years, on the phone, supporting people. And also helping candidates to raise money for their political campaigns. Recently I stopped being president of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, which I was president of for four years. One of the main functions of the caucus is to try to promote and support Hispanic people to get involved and aspire to elected positions.
In New Haven and in the state, there have been a number of Puerto Rican leaders, but there aren’t many of Mexican origin, Central American or South American. What are you doing to support these new people?
We’ve tried in this city to include others, now that New Haven has a nucleus of people of other nationalities. For this reason we’ve tried to recruit others who aren’t of Puerto Rican origin. For example, we have Angel Fernandez and Alberto Bustos, among others, who have worked with us in some capacity. Our doors have always been open to all, and I hope that they’ll continue to be.
Some years ago you ran for mayor of New Haven against John DeStefano. Would you like to try again to be mayor?
No no, I’m already a little too old for that. And besides, starting up a campaign is a difficult and exhausting thing. For that I have a lot of respect for Toni Harp. It’s not an easy job; John DeStefano worked at least 10 or 12 hours a day. In my case, I’m thinking of helping someone Latino become mayor, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be me personally.
And to conclude, what can the Latino community expect from you, as chief of staff of the city?
Well, first of all to help the mayor accomplish everything that was mentioned during the campaign. And one of the strongest statements Toni made was that she would work hard to make her administration reflect the population of New Haven. And so she will employ Latinos in various positions. I can guarantee the community that I’m not going to be her only Latino appointee. No, she’s going to have many Latinos working in the administration in various capacities.