For New Majority, Campaign’s Just Beginning

Thomas MacMillan PhotoSomeone forgot to tell Delphine Clyburn that the elections are over.

Or maybe she and her fellow labor-backed aldermen-elect preparing to take control of New Haven’s legislature have a new idea in mind for how to spend their time.

Clyburn and 18 other newly-elected aldermen will start serving on the 30-member Board of Aldermen on Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, she has kept knocking on doors four days a week in her Newhallville neighborhood. She’s no longer asking for votes. Rather she’s asking for help in developing a long-range team of politically active citizens independent of party organizations.

“The people will come with me,” Clyburn said. “I promise you.”

Clyburn and her colleagues have the potential to usher in a new era for a legislative body derided as a reactive second-fiddle to a strong mayor’s office. They promised to do just that. Some of them vowed not to repeat a mistake of the 2008 Obama crusade: getting elected by promising “change” and involving lots of new people, then abandoning grassroots organizing.

The potentially powerful new majority on the board isn’t the collection of first-term aldermen (though having 19 new members take office in itself augurs some kind of change). Speculation has centered instead on how an historic bloc of pro-labor candidates will use their potential influence. Clyburn was one of 18 successful candidates backed by the city’s most active independent vote-pulling force, Yale’s blue-collar and pink-collar unions. The unions, Locals 34 and 35 of UNITE HERE, have around 4,500 members; they also have a third union, GESO, which is composed of Yale graduate students.

Three of the successful union-backed candidates were incumbents; the other 15 were first-timers. In the past, Yale’s unions could count on maybe a half-dozen reliable votes when their issues came before the 30-member Board of Aldermen. Suddenly, combined with other incumbents allied with them in the past, this potential governing majority could control a commanding 20 or 21 out of 30 votes on most issues.

If it chooses to.

It’s unclear whether the new labor team will regularly present a set of proposals and meet to plan how to vote as a bloc. Whether it will designate a representative to negotiate regularly with the mayor’s office and the board’s leadership. On the campaign trail, the labor slate, while mounting a sophisticated and well-funded citywide electoral strategy, said remarkably little in unison about specific laws it wanted passed. With most municipal labor contracts in or headed to arbitration, or newly sealed, city employee salaries and benefits do not loom as major issues in the coming term.

So far it seems clear that the labor candidates’ ascendance will mean that Hill Alderman Jorge Perez will probably become the board’s president again. He was deposed six years ago despite backing from labor and opposition from the mayor’s office; Yale’s unions have held that against Mayor John DeStefano ever since. If returned to the post, Perez, the board’s longest-serving member and perennially named a potential mayoral candidate, will assume a leading negotiating and leadership role in city government. Especially if the new super-majority coalesces as an effective force.

One other clear result from the labor victories, most of which occurred in the September Democratic Party primaries. Mayor John DeStefano has taken notice. While short on specifics, the labor aldermanic campaigns delivered a unified general message that neighborhoods want dramatic new action on the city’s deadly violence in the form of a return to 1990s style New Haven community policing; on outreach to opportunities for young people in the poorest neighborhoods; and on job-creation.

This past week DeStefano brought Dean Esserman back to town as police chief. Esserman helped create the 1990s community-policing experiment as New Haven’s assistant chief from 1991-1993. He’s now vowing a return to citywide walking beats, which disappeared along with most of the community-policing approach during DeStefano’s mayoral tenure.

DeStefano has also vowed to pursue a vo-tech school for those kids who don’t qualify for “New Haven Promise” college scholarships and create a youth center, perhaps at the old Goffe Street armory. (Read Abbe Smith’s Register interview about that here.)

“I’m happy with the new chief in reference to him bringing back community policing. That’s what most of the candidates said on their campaigns,” said Brian Wingate, the newly elected alderman from Beaver Hills’ Ward 29. “Someone heard it. I’m very excited.”

“I’m glad the mayor’s paying attention,” said Yale Local 35 President and Greater New Haven Central Labor Council President Bob Proto. “The intention was not to send a message to the mayor. The intention was to get people that were willing to do the work and make change. We’re going to align with the Board of Aldermen to deal with job creation and safe streets.”

Proto said “no structure is in place” at this point to come up with bills to introduce or votes to deliver. “These folks aren’t even sworn in yet,” he said.

Rather, the unions and their affiliates—like their political action committees and their legally separate policy arm, Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE)—are continuing a process that began seven years ago: Developing grassroots candidates and electoral organizations, and simultaneously developing a grassroots issues platform, by going door to door in city neighborhoods, where many of their members live. CCNE has launched “Social Contract” and “Economic Blueprint” and “Community Voter” and “Grassroots Community Agenda” projects and a “Civic Leadership Institute.” Union members and allies have knocked on tens of thousands of doors. They’ve pulled together survey data on what issues people care about, then researched those issues. That process will continue in coming weeks, offering a think tank-type backing for newly elected candidates.

They’ve also discovered union members or sympathetic neighbors who would make popular candidates. That’s how this slate of new faces suddenly emerged this year and, with the help of an estimated $180,000-$200,000 in citywide labor money, shocked the city by unseating a bevy of pro-City Hall incumbents and other candidates allied with a mayoral campaign that had over $400,000 to spend. (The majority of that money went toward reelecting the mayor. Indirectly, through polling and coordination and joint vote-pulling and candidate development, some of it helped pro-City Hall aldermanic candidates.)

Melissa Bailey PhotoThat’s how, for instance, Wingate (pictured), a Local 35 Executive Board member, unseated the board’s president, 20-year incumbent Carl Goldfield. Wingate had an army of volunteers as well as paid help from the unions, and a popular touch. He did not have a specific agenda, but rather a call for more community involvement, community policing and jobs.

Wingate said this week he does have a specific proposal to shop around to his colleagues after their swearing-in. He doesn’t want to reveal it yet.

Meanwhile, he delivered three Thanksgiving turkeys this week to recession-battered constituents he’d met door-knocking. “One lady was homebound. I was able to give her a turkey and a bag of food. We’re going to deal with the issues, but the little specific issues count too.”

In Newhallville, Delphine Clyburn has continued door-knocking in a concentrated way. Four mornings a week, before going to work at a state group home for the disabled, she spends three hours revisiting constituents she has met during the campaign.

In some cases she’s checking in on what issues people want addressed. In others, she is following up with 79 people who, during the campaign, agreed to serve on a new neighborhood activism committee. She said she asked them to “take part in being leaders to change our community. They will go down to the City Hall when we’re talking about city issues like the crime, like the joblessness that we have here, youth, walking beats.” That committee would be separate from the ward committee, with which she also plans to stay active.

“That’s where I’m most comfortable,” on the doors, Clyburn said. She has been active in her union, SEIU District 1199, since 1987. She has worked on union organizing drives. She has phone-banked and done other work on election campaigns of union-backed candidates. She said she sees her work as an alderman as an extension of that organizing.

In East Rock’s Ward 9, Alderwoman-elect Jessica Holmes, a former Local 34 organizer, drew 20 neighbors to a community meeting a week after the Nov. 8 election to start mapping issue priorities. She said she hopes to turn out more of them to join a Dec. 3 citywide CCNE conference on developing New Haven issues again. She also hopes to include health care experts to a future committee to carry out one of her key campaign promises: to find ways to spend more wisely and efficiently the portion of the city’s budget devoted to health and pension benefits. For instance, she’s convinced the city could save significant bucks by linking its prescription drug plan with the state government’s.

Laurel Leff Photo“The elections came out of many years of trying to build a grassroots community agenda and develop a set of issues” and developing candidates, said Gwen Mills (pictured), the union organizer most credited with coordinating the successful aldermanic slate’s campaigns. “That’s where the elections came from. So that’s what will continue to happen.”

She compared the approach to what didn’t happen after she and countless other progressive activists worked on the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.

“If you look at Barack Obama, there was a huge amount of grassroots organizing to get him into office that ended when he got into office,” Mills observed. “It made it much more difficult to change many of the things he talked about in the campaign. The key to achieving the changes people talked about on the campaign is maintaining the organizing at the grassroots that made the campaign successful in the first place.”

Following is a list of aldermanic candidates elected with union support in contested primary or general election races this year (All but the Ward 1 candidate had official endorsements from Yale’s unions.)

Ward 1: Sarah Eidelson
Ward 2: Frank Douglass
Ward 3: Jacqueline James
Ward 6: Dolores Colon
Ward 9: Jessica Holmes
Ward 11: Barbara Constantinople
Ward 13: Brenda Jones Barnes
Ward 14: Gabriel Santiago
Ward 20: Delphine Clyburn
Ward 21: Brenda Foskey-Cyrus
Ward 22: Jeanette Morrison
Ward 23: Tyisha Walker*
Ward 24: Evette Hamilton
Ward 25: Adam Marchand
Ward 26: Sergio Rodriguez
Ward 27: Angela Russell
Ward 28: Claudette Robinson-Thorpe
Ward 29: Brian Wingate

* opponent dropped out before the election

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posted by: robn on November 25, 2011  11:20am

More likely this is the next step for the local unions… to take the Democratic town committee and then take the mayors office (with more outside money and more outside foot soldiers) In any event the other 130,000 new haven taxpayers will foot the bill for what could be a tyrannical minority looking to feather it’s own nest; all in the name of mediocrity as goal.

posted by: Newhavenpol on November 25, 2011  11:49am

If only other politicians would take notice and try to involve the voters after elections.  I hope these folks can actually pull it off.

posted by: Pat from Westville on November 25, 2011  1:19pm

Small nitpicking note: Ward 27’s alderwoman is Angela RUSSELL, not Morrison.

[Ed.: Thanks. It’s fixed.]

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on November 25, 2011  1:57pm

I would hope that these newly elected Alderman would understand that they are not beholden to any Union, but certainly are beholden to the interest of the voters and the voters only. 

Moreover, be aware of the individuals that are salivating at the idea of coaxing you as freshman Alderman to vote in the interest of the Mayor and in the interest of Unions. 

The idea that the Unions were responsible for election victory discredits you as an individual.  You hit the pavement and made the necessary contacts with the voters and created a level of believability. That my friends is why you were elected.  Did the Unions help? I suppose so.  But you are now the Alderman of your ward and no one else. 

Your being on the board means absolutely nothing if your ward has gained nothing.  If the Mayor refuses to address the needs of your constituents then they should know that.

My advice to you from a former Alderman is to never compromise your integrity or character for no one.  1. Always do what is in the best interest of the taxpayers.  2. Don’t support legislation based on popularity.  3. If the Mayor wants your support on any particular legislation, let the Mayor tell you himself.  Do a PAPER TRAIL on every contact with the Mayor and department heads.  4. Don’t just vote yes or no and not stand up tell why you voted in such a way.  5. Do your homework before you open your mouth.  6. Don’t be more excited about your position than you are about helping your constituents.  7. Always remember, that the day in which you are sworn in, you are up for re-election.  Maintain this comportment, and you will always be held in such high esteem in your community both legislatively and respectably.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 25, 2011  3:33pm

Things will be the same.Thay are all still   part of the crooked two party run system.

posted by: anon on November 25, 2011  6:24pm

This gives me hope.

In the paragraph on on CCNE, is the sentence supposed to read “Union members and allies have knocked on tens of thousands of dollars.”  ??

or tens of thousands of doors?

If the former, can you clarify?

[Ed.: It was a typo. Thanks for pointing it out!]

posted by: robn on November 25, 2011  9:41pm


You’re just a union hater.

posted by: HhE on November 26, 2011  9:17am

Ms. Delphine burn ... rarely attended Newhallville CMT meetings in her capacity as Treasurer.  At every meeting she did attended, she was late.  She never gave a Treasure’s Report.  She forfeited her vote as a member of the CMT by missing three meetings in a row, and at her last meeting, turned over the bank records to the Vice Chair, apparently unopened.

Ms. Clyburn is very good at holding other peoples’ feet to the fire.  She is not so good at holding her own.

One thing that certainly has not changed; Threefifths’ “Crocked Two-Party System” comment.  I am beginning to think he is not a real person, but rather a computer program that automatically posts variations of the same basic comment, and links to conspiracy theory web sites. 

Years ago, we had the same idea about a friend of ours.  Lane would never show, nor return calls, but he would respond to some e-mails.  So we postulated that Lane had died, and an artificial intelligence, Lane 2.0 was the source of the e-mail reply.  If the system could not come up with a response, it simply ignored the original e-mail, but if the computer system could reply, it did.

AI has certainty a long way in the last ten years or so.

posted by: Kate Pierce on November 26, 2011  11:40am

Boy, I haven’t read this site in months, but the political stories have gone downhill. These people won elections, and you have the editor of the paper making it sound just because they’re union members they’ll be incapable of acting in the public interest.

Meanwhile, you have comments cheering that attitude on.

Voting is a conspiracy! Haven’t you heard?

Sorry New Haven Independent, this is lousy journalism. I’d expect this from the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

posted by: robn on November 26, 2011  4:05pm


The union coalition and their overwhelming outside influence on neighborhoods (money and foot soldiers) would have been concealed from public view had it not been for the reporting of the NHI. Since the coalition candidates didn’t advertise their relationships with outside funders (until forced out into the open by good reporting) the onus is upon the Union supported aldermen elect to prove that their not just acting in the best interests of their collective bargaining units.

posted by: Hhe on November 26, 2011  5:52pm

Once again, well said robn.

posted by: cj on November 27, 2011  4:47pm

I see that the unions 34-35 didn’tsupport Jeffery Kerekes but they sure got the alders seats…...what a set back..the union has it
s own agendas

posted by: robn on November 27, 2011  8:14pm


The union slate wasn’t interested in a mayor that’s dedicated to cutting costs and lowering taxes, it was interested in a weakened spendthrift mayor… So they sat the mayoral race out. Brilliant strategy; for them.

posted by: HhE on November 27, 2011  9:42pm

Well said, Brian L. Jenkins.  I’m not terribly optimistic that your good advice will be taken.

Kate Pierce, I must completely disagree.  The New Haven Independent may not be good enough, but it is the best we have.  This article is rather balanced and informative.  It gives leverage to what Ms. Delphine Clyburn is doing by drawing attention to her current door to door work, yet balanced that with evidence that two local unions spent significant social and finical capital on this election.  That is hardly Wall Street Journal editorial page grade bias.  Look at how long it took them to put up my post, and that they edited it. 

I for one share robn’s concerns.  I hope I am proved wrong.

posted by: Denny Wally on November 27, 2011  11:44pm

It sure does look as though the unions have their own agenda. They realize the pensions are unsustainable. It spells bad news for new haven taxpayers. Does anyone know if a New Haven Taxpayer’s association exists?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 28, 2011  9:51am

posted by: robn on November 25, 2011 9:41pm

You’re just a union hater.

Sounds like you are the union hater.

posted by: robn on November 25, 2011 11:20am
More likely this is the next step for the local unions… to take the Democratic town committee and then take the mayors office (with more outside money and more outside foot soldiers) In any event the other 130,000 new haven taxpayers will foot the bill for what could be a tyrannical minority looking to feather it’s own nest; all in the name of mediocrity as goal

I hater the crooked two party system that all of you keep voting for.

posted by: SteveOnAvon on November 28, 2011  12:01pm

@ robn,

What I simply cannot understand is why you, as someone who presumably cares about your community and city, would not be willing to see where this goes (and hopefully even participate and contribute), rather than sniping with venomous cynicism from the comments page of the NHI. I would like to explicitly reject your preempting those who disagree with your perspective; I am not calling you a “union hater.”

One of the things that I am excited about with this incoming slate of candidates is that they are trying to reach out and involve people who live in their neighborhoods, whether those people voted for them or not. Having been present in the Ward 9 community meeting mentioned in the article, I can say that there truly was a plethora of issues brought up by those in attendance, and it was far from “a tyrannical minority looking to feather its own nest,” let alone a meeting “in the name of mediocrity as goal.”

If you’re skeptical, you’re free to be skeptical, but I would think that is all the more reason to get involved. Angrily and cynically lobbing bombs does your community and city no good whatsoever. There is a community management team meeting tonight at 7, so maybe I’ll see you there.

posted by: SteveOnAvon on November 28, 2011  12:16pm

I’d also like to repeat my request that people specify which union they are talking about rather than just make generalizations about “the unions.” I know we Americans are extremely poorly educated when it comes to labor history, but it would be nice to see otherwise insightful commenters here be a bit more nuanced in their analyses.

posted by: Henryct on November 29, 2011  6:51am

I am one of the volunteers who knocked on hundreds of doors in my ward. This is the first time in my nearly 40 years living in New Haven that INSIDE-the-ward influences, neither outsiders nor insiders,  prevailed. We are the 99%.

The campaign represents action and decisions made by voters in the ward and in the city. The union members and nonunion members who ran for Alder and who volunteered are grass roots.

The campaign continues because we refuse to allow the 1% in New Haven, nationally, or globally to run, or ruin, our lives.

Democracy means being engaged, not just being represented.

The proof will be in how we, the new Alders and their newly-active constituents, engage more people in the neighborhoods and what we together accomplish.

posted by: robn on December 2, 2011  11:09am


I have an extremely nuanced view of unions and believe that they can be used as an effective tool against exploitation. I don’t believe that they should be used as an assertion of power of the employed against an employer. The teachers union gets it. Local 34 and 35 don’t.

Also, a poorly (if at all) advertised meeting with an incoming alderperson is essentially a private meeting. An alderperson who considers herself a collectivist should try harder next time to avoid the appearance of impropriety.


This election was decided by Local 35 and 35 who dumped an unprecedented $200,000 into the election and flooded the city with footsoldiers. No matter what percentage of locals were involved, this outside influence taints the process and makes it “astroturf”, not “grassroots”.

posted by: Henryct on December 2, 2011  2:55pm

Unions by their nature are grass roots. They are people who work together and have chosen to create a collective voice. They are basically democratic organizations, far more democratic than private employers. Locals 34 and 35 are local, grass roots organizations. All the aldermanic candidates who were members of those or any other union do not live in the suburbs. They live in the neighborhoods and wards where they ran. Those who provided the campaign shoe leather, although I didn’t take a poll, were largely from New Haven. Everyone involved had and has a direct stake in the future of the city. The campaigns were not controlled or run by community outsiders. Nor was it controlled or run by Democratic Party insiders.

Exploitation by employers is the exertion of economic power. Workers combat that economic power with their unity. To argue that “assertion of power of the employed against an employer” is at the same time not fighting exploitation is an oxymoron.

Of course employers also exploit workers using political power, manipulating, influencing and buying elected officials, to exploit workers, those who live or work in the city for example.

What is new in New Haven and in the country is that the New Haven union community is joining with the broader community to use their combined economic, organizing and people power to counter employer economic and political power.

Whose city? Our city.