The one local Democratic Party ward chair primary taking place in the city on Tuesday will pit a four-term “independent” incumbent up against a challenger associated with Yale’s UNITE-HERE unions.
Challenger Art Perlo, a longtime community activist, is running on a slate with Co-Chair Randall Furlow in Edgewood’s Ward 24 Democratic Party Ward Committee.
Meanwhile, Arthur Gary Stewart, one of former mayoral challenger Marcus Paca’s most vocal supporters, is running for a fifth two-year term as the other co-chair of the Edgewood neighborhood’s branch of the local party. He argues that he represents an independent voice in a party beholden to what he calls old-school, machine-style politics.
Perlo is a longtime union organizer with UNITE-HERE and a stalwart of the local Communist Party branch. UNITE HERE recruited and supported a majority of candidates who serve on the Board of Alders and most of the Democratic party co-chairs.
Whichever two of the three candidates get the highest number of votes will serve as the neighborhood’s next party co-chairs, meaning that Stewart, if he secures enough votes, could serve alongside Perlo or Furlow.
The voting takes place on Tuesday at the firehouse at 120 Ellsworth Ave. No other wards have contested co-chair primaries.
The Democratic Party ward co-chairs represent their neighborhoods at New Haven Democratic Town Committee (DTC) meetings, where they cast endorsement votes. They will vote on which delegates to send to the state party convention this May and decide on which gubernatorial and other statewide candidates to endorse in the 2018 elections. They cast ballots for aldermanic and mayoral candidates during election years, and generally act as the neighborhood-level Democratic Party representatives.
Stewart, 70, has been a social worker in and around New Haven for over 45 years.
A native of North Stonington (where, he says, there were more cows than people when he was growing up), Stewart moved to New Haven in 1970 to work for the state Department of Social Services, which was then called the Welfare Department.
After earning a masters in Social Work from Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), Stewart spent most of his career working for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) and the Department of Children and Families (DCF). He is currently a social worker at the Cheshire-based Rushford Center, where he helps lead group and individual support sessions for adults struggling with opiate addiction.
During the 2017 mayoral race, Stewart was a visible presence at DTC meetings in his white-and-bright-orange Marcus Paca T-shirt, adamantly campaigning for a candidate whom he said represented a decisive, independent break from New Haven Democratic politics as usual.
“To me, it looks like we’ve got an incestuous mix of mayor’s office, the Board of Alders, the town committee and the Yale union, UNITE HERE,” Stewart told the Independent during an interview from the third-floor apartment where he and his wife live in on Norton Street. “And it seems like, if you’re not totally in line with what they want done, then you become a pariah.”
Stewart said that, despite his criticism of the UNITE HERE unions, he has a long and largely positive history of union involvement. While working at DCF, he said that he served as a union steward, and then as a union vice president for AFSCME Council 4, a union that represents state and municipal employees, during two stints: in the mid-1980s, and from the mid-1990s until his retirement from DCF in 2003.
His first involvement with any union came in 1980 when he was temporarily fired from DCF for insubordination. He said that the department had come up with a sudden change in rules for how many hours employees needed to spend out in the field, that he and his colleagues had opposed the change, and that he was fired.
Stewart said that he met with his union representatives, who then sent a telegram to the Gov. Ella T. Grasso’s administration demanding that the department rehire Stewart and work with the union to mitigate the effects of the work change. After three days, he was rehired without any further repercussions. That was the moment he decided to become active with AFSCME.
In New Haven today, however, Stewart argued that local Democratic Party leaders are too closed off to outside criticism of what he describes as a “monarchical” City Hall.
Stewart argued that the mayor ignored the concerns of students, teachers and parents when she threw her support behind Carol Birks for school superintendent. He said that he is concerned that “chickens are going to come home to roost” in regards to outstanding lawsuits by terminated City Hall employees like former Commission on Equal Opportunity (CEO) director Nichole Jefferson.
“There is too much ‘unity’ in New Haven in terms of new people being able to get in and run for office,” Stewart said. “It seems like challenging anybody for any level of office is such a rare event these days. People basically just stay in office as long as they want to.” He said that he would love to see more young people and more people not connected to UNITE HERE getting involved in local politics.
“The change I hope to see in the DTC,” he said, “is to have more people willing to say: it’s ok to have some independent thoughts and not just follow the herd.”
He said that he first got involved in local politics campaigning for Marcus Paca when he challenged and defeated Liz McCormack, a two-decade incumbent, for Edgewood alder in 2009. Paca was then defeated by UNITE HERE-supported candidate and current Edgewood Alder Evette Hamilton in 2011.
Stewart said that, though he has been in this position for several years now, he is committed to keeping an independent voice involved in local Democratic Party politics, and hopes to cultivate that type of political debate in his ward and beyond.
“Nobody will question my work ethic,” he said, citing his campaigning in 2012 for U.S. Senator Chris Murphy. “I’ve been told that my feet have earned me a lot of respect, but my mouth has pissed a lot of people off. We need people to be able to not run with the herd all the time.”
Perlo and Furlow
Arthur Perlo and Randall Furlow are running as a slate against Stewart in Tuesday’s Democratic Party primary for the two Ward 24 co-chair positions.
“We are running to be Ward Co-Chairs because we think we can do more to get our neighbors engaged,” Perlo and Furlow wrote in an email statement sent to the Independent, “both through voting and through organizing for the needs of our ward along with our Alder.”
“We’ve been knocking on doors for the last month alongside Alder Evette Hamilton and other engaged neighbors,” they continued, “and have been very gratified at how much our neighbors care about the issues facing us all and how many are willing to join the Democratic Ward Committee and work with us on these issues going forward after the election on Tuesday.”
A longtime union organizer and the son of Marxist economist Victor Perlo, Arthur Perlo was one of the founding members of UNITE-HERE Local 34, the clerical and technical workers’ union at Yale University. He is the husband of the New Haven People’s Center’s Joelle Fishman and a member of the Community Party USA’s Economic Commission.
Furlow is a New Haven-based minister with degrees from Oral Roberts University and the Southern New England Regional Bible School. The “About” section of his Facebook page lists Furlow as an “Apostle, Prophet, Teacher, Mentor, Coach, Husband, Father, Conference Speaker, and Entrepreneur.” He currently serves as the Ward 24 co-chair along with Stewart.