Two men have announced they’re running. Two more are seriously considering running. Other men’s names are in the mix. They want a job—mayor of New Haven—that 49 men have held before them.
Forty-nine men. No women.
Many people considered State Sen. Toni Harp next in line to become New Haven’s mayor. She has led or ranked near the top of opinion polls. She’s not running.
Karen DuBois-Walton, head of the housing authority, former mayoral chief of staff, has had people urging her to run this past week. At least one know-it-all pundit (this reporter) had always thought she could well become New Haven’s 50th mayor. But she’s not running, either. (She’s pictured at center in top photo between New Haven’s newest U.S. senator and outgoing mayor.)
State Rep. Toni Walker? Not running.
Not a single woman has joined the growing crowd of mayoral wannabes since 20-year male incumbent John DeStefano announced Tuesday night that he’s not running for reelection. Only one prominent female politician, state Rep. Pat Dillon, has declined to take herself out of the running.
Never has a female candidate even come close to becoming mayor of New Haven.
No wonder DeStefano, in his retirement announcement Tuesday night at the Russian Lady tavern, gave the crowd his advice on “the next guy you hire to replace me.” (Emphasis added.) Bridgeport and Hartford have had female mayors. When it comes New Haven City Hall—just as with Yale University, which is replacing another 20-year leader this year with a male, and unlike its Ivy League siblings has never chosen a female president—it appears that females don’t get close to running the show.
That could of course change before now and this year’s mayoral election—although the dance card for the city’s most brutal electoral dance is filling fast.
Where are the women?
Some of the not-running women said they’re plenty busy, and happy with what they’re doing.
“I really don’t have the time to run. I’m chairing a working committee on mental health. I chair the [state legislature’s powerful] Appropriations Committee” in a brutal budget-cutting year, remarked Harp (pictured), who said she has in the past thought about pursuing the mayoralty. “I think this work I do is important. I don’t want to not do it to the best of my ability because I’m trying to run for some other office.” She considers her current work “really important for the city. And I like it!”
Men and women tend to respond differently to sudden vacuums of power, Harp suggested.
“Men are usually the first one to think, ‘I could be out there.’ Women are thinking, ‘What policy can I make better?’” she observed. “Men are more likely to promote themselves. And once a man gets out there ... For example, Gary [Holder-Winfield] is out there [running for mayor already]. It’s hard for me to get out there now with other people out there.”
DuBois-Walton, too, spoke about enjoying the demanding job she has now—running the city’s housing authority, which under her leadership has expanded to helping other communities like Ansonia fix their own authorities. And she spoke of other priorities: “I have a son launching off to college right now. My other son is in 7th grade now. Those are the things that have really been in my immediate focus. I am very thoughtful and planful in what I do. I actually had thought the mayor was still running, so it was not something that I had been spending any time planning for.
“There’s some of that old still stereotypical sociological stuff about the demands on women that probably play into it.
“I think the nature of the job is absolutely something a qualified woman can do. There often has to be a first. Why we haven’t had that first? I don’t know that I have answer for that. I also don’t think that the field is necessarily is fully decided yet. Maybe there will be.”
State Rep. Dillon said she doesn’t “know of anything specific to New Haven that would be a drawback” to women becoming mayor.
“We have New Haven women in strong positions now who may choose that they want to serve where they are,” she observed. “Generally voters are receptive to women candidates, more so than party insiders.”
A woman, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, does hold New Haven’s other most prominent elected spot, and has owned it without serious challenge for 22 years. A woman, Dorsey Kendrick, runs Gateway Community College, overseeing its transition to a new downtown campus. (Kendrick was out of town and unavailable for comment for this story.) In addition to the housing authority, the city’s Democratic Party is run by a woman, Alderwoman Jackie James, who succeeded another woman in the job, Susie Voigt.
“I’m not sure why” the mayor’s job has remained Y-chromosome territory, James said. When people ask where whether she’ll pursue the post this year, she tells them she enjoys her current work.
She also said she believes a town chair should remain a neutral party in the mayoral candidate-selection.
“I do want to respect those that are considering [running]. I have a lot of respect for [Hill Alderman] Jorge Perez, and he is considering. And I want to respect the process. There may be women who are interested who have not come forward. I encourage them” to run, too.
Women have run for mayor before in New Haven, but never with a citywide vote-pulling organization or enough money to have a serious shot at winning.
In 1981, for instance, few people even noticed when Republican Elaine Noe ran against Democratic Mayor Biagio DiLieto. She picked up 25 percent of the vote, basically the automatic non-Democratic tally. (A few Republicans still got elected to other offices in New Haven back in those days.)
The Republicans also put a woman’s name on the mayoral ballot in 1989, 1995 and 1997, without offering any real money or organization back-up.
Robie Pooley was still believed to have an outside shot as the GOP candidate in 1989 because the seat was open—and the Democrat, John Daniels, would become the city’s first African-American. It turned out Daniels trounced her, anyway, 16,871 to 7,232 votes (with another 664 votes for the Green, the late Matthew Borenstein). Pooley did win one ward, Moris Cove’s Ward 18. Either the city’s racial math had changed for good. Or sexism trumped racism. Or voters just thought Daniels would be a better mayor.
By the time the Republicans put Ann Piscottano up against Mayor DeStefano, the elections were pro forma. DeStefano clobbered her 14,800 to 4,011 in 1995, then 13,895 to 2,063 in 1997.
Sherri Killins ran a spirited Democratic mayoral primary against incumbent DeStefano in 2003, performing well against him in debates and impressing many voters. But she had no vote-pulling organization to speak of; for a while a suburban high-school student served as her campaign manager. In the end, only around 12,000 people in all of the city even bothered to vote. Killins walked away with 4,200, or 35 percent, of that vote.