Seeking to take the helm of New Haven’s Democratic Party and try to help reelect a governor, Vincent Mauro Jr. hopes to put into practice lessons that he learned from his father—after his father died.
Mauro (pictured) is seeking the job of Democratic Party town chairman in an election Tuesday night at the parish house next to Betsy Ross Arts School on Kimberly Avenue. He is considered the favorite to win; no other candidate has yet emerged, according to current Town Chair Jackie James (who’s stepping down because she has taken a job with the Harp administration). The co-chairs of the city’s 30 Democratic ward committees vote in the election.
As party chair, Mauro would run Connecticut’s largest Democratic Party organization. He would oversee the process of nominating candidates and helping them get elected. That will presumably include Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in his expected reelection quest this year. New Haven delivered Malloy his largest vote total with a crucial 22,298 votes —and largest plurality, 18,613 votes. That was three times his statewide margin of victory.
Mauro’s father, Vincent Sr., served as New Haven Democratic Party town chair in the 1980s. His son doesn’t recall learning much about politics from his dad at the time.
“I didn’t get political lessons from him,” Vincent Jr., said during an interview Friday at Koffee? on Audubon. An outgoing and disarming former Wooster Square alderman who now works as a state legislative aide, Mauro, 40, lives on the East Shore. He was busy before the interview scouting players on his iPhone for an upcoming fantasy baseball league draft.
“I was 14” when his dad was town chair, he recalled. “At 14 the only things I could think about were sports, girls and food.”
On the morning of Dec. 15, 1987, Vincent Sr. dropped Vincent Jr. off at St. Brendan’s School on Ellsworth Avenue. “‘All right, I’ll see you later,’” the son remembers his father saying.
“And that was it.”
Vincent Sr. didn’t come home again. That rainy evening his car hydroplaned while traveling on the Route 40 Connector of I-91. He stumbled out of the car, then was hit, and killed, by another driver. He was 44 years old.
In the view of some political observers, Vincent Sr.‘s death also ended an era in New Haven politics, of a powerful party establishment built on ethnic group loyalties and government favors and rewards with a leader who could settle differences between warring factions in a back room..
Vincent Jr. said he recognizes the political world has changed since his father’s death. Still, he said, he has learned a lot about how his father earned trust in his political life—and he can bring those lessons to steering New Haven’s Democratic Party in the 21st Century.
A New Era
Vincent Jr.‘s father might not recognize Connecticut’s independent-minded political landscape these days, in which unaffiliated voters form the largest bloc statewide and the equivalent of an influential second party in New Haven. But the shift was starting in his time, as New Haven lost its industrial base (along with its large, well-organized industrial unions), much of its government patronage largesse, and high participation in and loyalty to organized civic groups. Not to mention its commitment to showing up to the polls on election day.
The son of a Democratic ward chairman, Vincent Sr. grew up at the corner of Legion Avenue and Porter Street in the old Third Ward. He became president of the Board of Alders (then known as the Board of Aldermen), serving under both an ally (Bart Guida) and a foe (Frank Logue) in the mayor’s office. He succeeded in doing business with both, with allies and foes alike on the board. He continued that tradition as town chair under Mayor Biagio DiLieto, with whom he had a supportive but also independent relationship. He had a reputation as an honest broker. In Vincent Sr.‘s day the Third Ward had a mix of Italian-American, Irish-American, Jewish, and African-American voters. That meant he couldn’t play straight ethnic politics and win, his son observed: “He had to put together coalitions.” By his later years, he earned what must have been a New Haven first, given the mid-20th century “Gaelic-Garlic Wars” between Italian- and Irish-Americans in town: He won both the Sons of Italy and the Knights of St. Patrick man of the year awards.
Probate Judge Jack Keyes, a close ally of the senior Mauro and a close mentor to the son, noted that around 60,000 people voted for mayor in 1953 (when a Democrat, Richard C. Lee, knocked out the last Republican mayor). This past November, 20,779 New Haveners voted in a seminal mayoral election—and that was the highest turnout in more than a decade.
“No matter from what perspective you come in politics, a 66 percent decrease in mayoral vote in a town cannot be good,” Keyes said.
“He will have to be completely different from his dad. That era has passed. His father could rely on huge union support from all the unions. The Teamsters, the AFL, the manufacturing unions. It’s a different voter in a different time.
“In his father’s era, people had ties with each other that went back almost 20 years. You had the unions. You had the aldermen and the chairpeople and the ward committees. Vinnie Sr. started out with 5,000 votes. If he said, ‘I’m for you,’ you had 3,000 to 5,000 votes. Nobody has that anymore. I don’t think anybody in the country has that anymore.” Yale’s UNITE HERE locals certainly organize and pull votes, Keyes observed, “but as opposed to the union level the city was at before, it doesn’t compare to the prior influence.”
Keyes and another mentor, state Sen. Martin Looney, both blessed Vincent Jr.‘s quest to run the party. (Mauro serves as Looney’s top aide in Hartford.) “No one on the local level in New Haven inspires more confidence. He has some of the same gifts that his father had in terms of being trusted by factions who may not always get along with each other but see him as an honest mediator and broker,” Looney said. Mayor Toni Harp Friday said she, too, supports Mauro’s candidacy: I look forward to working with Vinnie. He seems to have inherited some of his father’s ability to work with people. He’s very effective.”
The 2013 mayoral election also revealed a divided city—divided by race and by political factions, as it was in Vincent Sr.‘s day. Today’s opposition faction of Democrats on the Board of Alders calls itself the People’s Caucus. One of its members, Bishop Woods Alder Richard Spears (pictured), said he considered challenging Mauro for the party chairmanship next week, then decided against it. “I just didn’t have enough votes,” he said. He called Mauro “a good person” and “a polished politician.” He said the same of current Town Chair Jackie James. “I think they’re both good people,” Spears said. “But at the end of the day, they’re part of the union machine that continues to push out the same candidates. Somebody needs to break up the monopoly.”
Mauro said that if he becomes town chair, he hopes to convince the People’s Caucus’s members that they have a place in the party.
“The board has always had different groups,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to sit down with everyone. As long as your goal is a better city at the end of the day, you can talk to anybody, and you should. As long as you check your bullshit at the door.”
Since last fall’s mayoral election, in which 45 percent of the city voted against his candidate, Toni Harp, Mauro has sought to sit down with supporters of other campaigns. That has included Michael Jefferson, a key supporter of Democratic primary candidate Kermit Carolina.
Jefferson Friday called Mauro “a good choice” to move the Democratic Party forward.
“I think he understands the politics of this community,” Jefferson said. “He’s someone who knows how to build bridges and help people connect. It’s going to be challenging for him. I think he’s up for the task.”
A Book & A Bus-Stop Recollection
Before he died, Vincent Sr. did try at one point to teach his young son about New Haven politics.
It was a summer or two before his death. By this time Vincent Sr. had moved the family from the childhood home on Legion Avenue to a house in Westville near the Yale athletic fields. He threw a book at his son, a book called The Fifteenth Ward and The Great Society. A Yale professor named William Lee Miller wrote it. It was based on his experiences serving as an East Rock alderman while New Haven was in the midst of its “Great Society” urban renewal experiments in the 1960s. It offered both an intellectually sophisticated and a readable, if starry-eyed, look at how ethnic politics and backroom political haggling produced urban policy. Miller watched how a city run by an old-fashioned white ethnic machine came to embrace civil-rights social policy.
College students and urban policy wonks, not middle-schoolers, generally read that book.
“He said, ‘Read this,’” Vincent Jr. recalled. “It was summer! I said, ‘It’s not on my reading list.’” But his father said he had to. So he worked his way through the book. And obtained his first in-depth look at how politics work in New Haven.
The rest of the lessons Vincent Jr. learned after his father died—after his world suddenly changed, when he started to help look after his younger sister along with his single mom, when life suddenly demanded more responsibilities. All the time, it seemed, people would stop him on the street and tell him about his dad. How his dad had helped them. Or how he had fought with them.
One day he was on the Green waiting for the Q bus back home to Westville. The late Fred Wilson approached him. Wilson, a sheriff and longtime leading Dixwell politician, had been a member of the People’s Caucus-style dissident faction of his day: the “Magnificent Seven”/“Parker Seven” group of seven alders (then known as “aldermen”) elected in the late 1960s to challenge the party machine.
“I was like 17,” Vincent Jr. recalled. “He was big. He grabbed me.
“He said, ‘Your father was right half the time. I was right half the time. I said, ‘Vinnie, when we’re together, we’re never wrong!’
“That conversation resonated with me today. Two guys saw the city through different lenses. They were about the same age. They’d yell and scream at each other in a civil way. At the end of the day, you got a better product for the city. They loved the city more than they loved their own egos.”
Recalling that story, Mauro segued into the approach he’d like to take as town chair.
“It’s too small a city to be petty. You’ve got to check your ego and bullshit at the door. You can have heated discussions about how the city should go. But if you want to do petty politics, go to Washington. This is the biggest party in the state and arguably the best. There comes responsibility with that. Not just a vote-getting operation. Not just voter turnout. It’s setting an agenda for what it means to be a Democrat going forward in Connecticut.”