Dick Lee Wins—Among Would-Be Successors

Third of four parts on where mayoral candidates stand on major issues.

Dick Lee squeezed past John W. Murphy and Kermit Carolina in the latest preference poll for mayor—among the four Democratic mayoral candidates currently seeking to win his old job. The candidates offered their vision for how best to manage city government, as well as some ideas for how to get there.

The four candidates —Kermit Carolina, Justin Elicker, Henry Fernandez, and Toni Harp—spoke about mayoral budgets and management past and future in separate interviews with the Independent. The four candidates are running in next Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary.

Asked who has been New Haven’s best mayor, two of the four cited Lee (pictured above in a period piece of campaign literature), who presided over the city’s urban renewal drive in the 1950s and 1960s. One Lee voter, Fernandez, said he disagreed with the way Lee carried out urban renewal, but admired the way he thought big about making New Haven a great city.

In the management and budget interviews, one of the candidates offered names of two people he might appoint as chief of staff; another hinted at a top official she might not reappoint. The candidates offered varying takes on how to address a brewing pension crisis. Harp split from some of her campaign backers in opposing a move to require the Board of Aldermen to approve top mayoral appointees. And pressed, the candidates offered specific ideas for how they’d cut the budget in order to avoid tax increases.

Their answers from the interviews follow:

Who would be your chief of staff?

Harp: “I don’t know. I haven’t decided.”

Carolina: “I haven’t made commitments to anything or anyone.”

Elicker: No answer.

Fernandez: “I haven’t made an offer to anybody. I’ve always been extremely impressed by [former housing authority official and former schools chief operating officer and former Yale law prof] Robin Golden. A very strong manager, a person with integrity.” Also mentions “super smart” and “super committed” Fair Haven accountant Ed Cleary, who previously chaired the Junta for Progressive Action and Youth Continuum boards of directors.

Name three budget cuts you’d make to keep taxes from rising.

Harp: Reconfigure maintenance operations by consolidating public works and parks and other clean-up crews. Disband the Livable City Initiative (LCI) and spread its functions to other departments. Reduce the number of non-certified staff in public schools (such as “deans” at Hillhouse High). Reduce police and fire overtime by hiring more cops and firefighters, including by starting salaries that are competitive with suburban departments’ starting salaries.

Carolina: Cut police overtime. Reduce money for new school construction. Would that include the plan to build a new home for the Engineering & Science University Magnet School (ESUMS)? (Read about that controversy here.) “I’d have to look closer at that. That would be on the table.”

Elicker: Cap newly issued city debt at $20-$25 million a year. Switch to three-to-five-year rather than annual budgeting; use that as a way to spread some jobs, like street center-lane striping, over three years rather than one while still ensuring money exists to get the job done. Create incentives for employees to save energy long-term—for instance, by calculating energy costs at Wilbur Cross High School and rewarding the principal if she cuts them by convincing teachers to close windows at the end of the day in the winter.

Fernandez: Seek to prevent cops or other city employees from being able to retire with full pensions while still in their mid-40s. Cut costs in the finance department, perhaps partly by doing more work in-house rather than hiring as many outside consultants. Cut energy costs by creating a single massive energy-buying entity that includes city government, local businesses, and everyone else who buys electricity in New Haven; that entity would negotiate with utility companies for reduced rates.

Should all city workers shift to defined-contribution retirement accounts?

That question has arisen because of fears about the future solvency of two city employee pension funds, which are about 50 percent unfunded.

Harp: A mix of conventional pensions and 401k-style defined contribution plans. Going fully to defined contribution plans would be “unstable for the retirees. When the market has been so unstable over the past two years, you could have lost a lot in defined contribution [plans]. I think there should be a hybrid.”

Carolina: “My gut tells me” that rather than switch to 401k-style market-dependent plans, the city should seek to increase employee contributions to the current plans in order to shore up the system.

Elicker: Would explore the idea for higher-paid employees but preserve defined-benefit plans for lower-paid employees.

Fernandez: First try instead to the strengthen current plans rather than leaving employees to “the mercy of the markets” by switching to 401k-style plans. He has floated a proposal to seek a three-way deal with the state legislature, city unions and City Hall to have New Haven’s state Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) reimbursed to a 100 percent level, with the new money used to shore up pension funds, while unions would agree to plan changes that would also shore up the funds. (Read about that here.)

Do you plan to seek the current people in the following jobs? If not, whom would you rather appoint as ... City economic development director? Livable City Initiative (LCI) director? Housing authority director?

Carolina: Has nobody in mind yet for jobs. Will review each existing appointee based on his or her effectiveness in the job. Does question the reasons for the housing authority chief’s recent 5 percent raise.

Elicker: “At this point in the election, I don’t want it to get personal,” so he won’t state which officials he would or wouldn’t keep. LCI chief “Erik Johnson is someone that has a lot of creative ideas on how to address problems in the city. I don’t want to surround myself with people who say, ‘No, we’ve tried that before.’” He declined to comment on whether the economic development and housing authority chiefs fit that description.

Fernandez: “I will seek undated letters of resignation from every department head when I enter as mayor. I intend to build a team from the ground up.” That said, he considers it “inappropriate” to “say negative things” about any current department heads.

Harp: “A lot” of economic development chief Kelly Murphy’s “supporters have come to me and asked me to keep her,” but it “is not apparent she has my vision of neighborhood development” in corridors like Dixwell Avenue, Whalley Avenue, and Howard and Columbus Avenues. Rather than appoint an LCI director, she might “look at whether or not we need LCI” and instead consolidate its functions with other city departments. As for housing authority chief Karen DuBois-Walton, “she’s my [campaign] chairman! Of course I would keep her. She’s really smart. She’s done an excellent job.”

Do you support the proposal to have the Board of Aldermen approve top mayoral appointees?

The Charter Revision Commission drew up a proposal that city alderman have placed on the Nov. 5 general election ballot to require aldermanic approval of fire and police chiefs, as well as the “coordinators”: chief administrative officer, head of economic development, head of community services, and the budget director. Aldermen would also approve all mayoral appointments to all boards and commissions.

Harp: No. A mayor “should be accountable for her staff.” People supporting Harp’s mayoral campaign were behind this proposal; she still disagrees with it, she said. She worries about this change leading to the kind of political maneuvers seen in the U.S. Senate, where opposition lawmakers block the appointments of qualified people to settle other scores with the president. She said she doesn’t expect to have those kinds of problems with the Board of Aldermen, a majority of which will likely have been supporters of her campaign; but she worries about what would happen with future mayors.

Carolina: “Not in the current environment” with the Board of Aldermen controlled by lawmakers backed by Yale’s UNITE HERE system. Sees too much potential for counterproductive political posturing.

Elicker: No. “The mayor should be able to choose the leadership of the city.” He, too, worries about D.C.-style political maneuvering.

Fernandez: Prefers an alternative option: The mayor can make the first appointment of new top officials. When those appointees’ terms expire, the Board of Aldermen would have to approve their reappointments, based on their performance. That would give a mayor the needed freedom to appoint a cabinet but also give lawmakers a chance to hold the appointees accountable.

Who has been the best New Haven mayor in history? Why?

Fernandez: Dick Lee. “He had a grand vision for the city. When I was [city] economic development administrator, I spent a lot of time redoing that vision and dealing with the idea of ‘super-blocks’ and the focus on the automobile instead of people walking. What I liked about Mayor Lee was that he had a bigger vision. He believed that New Haven should stand apart as one of the great cities in America ... Unfortunately he thought that started with big construction that was not at a human scale. That really required quite a bit of work to rebuild the old Legion Avenue neighborhood, which was all knocked down and is now highway, Route 34. We’re slowly rebuilding that. The next mayor will have to take a lot of responsibility for that. It took decades to replace the old Malley’s and Macy’s, which had fallen into disrepair and the had to be demolished [and replaced] with Gateway Community College. The Coliseum site is another example of the big development strategy that really failed. ... I happen to disagree with the vision. I don’t think it worked. But it was a willingness to try big things. I think New Haven is at a point where it can try big things. It will have to listen more, engage neighborhoods quite a bit more, and look to new approaches the make the city walkable, streets bikeable, accessible for all people who live here.”

Harp: Dick Lee. “The reason that he was the best mayor was the economy was better. There was a lot more federal resources that came directly into cities. So there was a lot more that could happen ... In the memory of most people the best times in New Haven were during his mayoralty.”

Carolina: “I want to speak in future tense: I was the best mayor of New Haven!”

Elicker: “Considering the times we’re in right now, we’re facing incredible budget challenges, John Murphy in the 1930s is a great example of a mayor who responds effectively to the cards that he is dealt. During the Great Depression, ... we weren’t getting the kind of support from Yale we are lucky to have more of today. (Click here for an illustration.) But given the cards we’ve been dealt with today, I would aspire to be someone like John Murphy.”  A working-class Irishman from Fair Haven, Murphy organized cigar workers, went on to lead the local labor movement, then served as mayor from 1931-1945. He was a conservative Democrat who convinced his labor allies to accept contract concessions while scrambling to refinance city debts and find new sources of revenue during fierce economic times. (Murphy’s grandson, Mark Mininberg, wrote a book about Murphy’s mayoralty, entitled Saving New Haven: John W. Murphy Faces The Crisis Of The Great Depression. See also, “Recalling John Murphy: The ‘People’s Mayor,’” an article by Carole Bass on page 3 of the June 9, 1988 of the old print edition of the New Haven Independent.)

Previous installment in this series:

Where the candidates stand on housing and neighborhood development
Where the candidates stand on public safety


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posted by: Megan on September 5, 2013  4:00pm

LCI is one of the city agencies that I use the most. I can count many times that I’ve called them because a landlord was illegally kicking a family out on the street, or because a family was living in absolutely unsafe housing. They respond quickly for people in crisis and make sure that people get safe housing.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on September 5, 2013  4:08pm

This is an extremely minor point, but in the 1930s Yale’s finances were radically different from what they are today. It had not yet financialized its endowment, nor was it significantly profiting from patent ownership as far as I know. I hope the next mayoral administration looks into the legal status of Yale’s tax obligation for profiting from patents (should Yale be paying local property taxes on facilities used for commercial profit-making?), as well as inquiring into its endowment that has grown exponentially over the past 30 years through private investment. Taxpayers in the city are picking up the bill for rises in property values that are driven by Yale’s tax-exempt development.

We are not, therefore, “lucky” to have “the kind of support from Yale” we have today (although I do not blame Elicker for putting it that way, since it would be political suicide for a mayoral candidate to truly take on Yale). As was made clear during the street sale debacle, Yale wields its “voluntary payment” as a way to extract what it wants from the city, in that case threatening to reduce or eliminate the payment unless the streets were abandoned by the city and sold to the university. While I am supporting another candidate for mayor, I loudly applaud the attention Elicker has given to merging Yale Shuttles with CT Transit, as the Yale Shuttles are a perfect example of a system essentially subsidized by taxpayers, as well as a vehicle of urban apartheid in New Haven.

posted by: Walt on September 5, 2013  4:37pm

Dick Lee was a great visionary and leader in my book but if he now knows what happened to New Haven improvements like Lee High School,the Malley and Macy buildings, the Mall, 300 George Street,  the Coliseum and many more ventures of his time,  he must be spinning in his grave.

He not only controlled these big projects but the teeny ones like a little store that improperly discarded trash hurting the image of “his”  City

I once stupidly (in retrospect)  objected that just to change one little downtown parking space you had to deal directly with the Mayor and that no underling could accomplish anything by himself.

Within a couple of days, my comment   got to the Mayor,  and within a couple of days more, I was sitting in his office, along with the Chm of the Board of my employer,  discussing whether or not I still had a job (I did, but Dick’s power at that time left little   doubt that if he really so wanted,  I would have promptly been in the unemployment line)

We got along quite well after that mess.  It always   strongly impressed me that despite the immense projects he led, I could phone him directly re other comparably minor projects, get his attention and his prompt action to solve some Downtown problems

An amazing guy and good choice for our best past Mayor.  Glad I knew him.

Doubt if any current candidate can,  in any way, compare.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on September 5, 2013  5:51pm

SteveOnAnderson is spot on re: the issue of fair taxation, but it’s not just Yale; it’s all the wealthy non-profits that tout their largesse, while building a moat around their fiefdoms.
They are shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover chronic unemployment, poverty and crime on the other side of the moat.
If the unions or any of the candidates had a true vision, they’d stop celebrating the Emperor’s new clothes and speak the simple truth about tax inequality that drains the life from New Haven and blames its residents for their fate.

posted by: NewHavenerToo on September 5, 2013  7:18pm

Of course Harp would keep Karen at the head of HANH.  How great of a job is she really doing when the Section 8 program is running in the red and positions are created over and over again that are high paying non-union jobs.  The Glendower Group is managing properties without union employees, and to boot, Karen and Jimmy Miller both got a 5% raise while the workers got less than a 2% raise.  How do I know all of this?  Just guess.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on September 5, 2013  7:39pm

Briefly, on Mayor Dick Lee:

“Even Mayor Lee, the staunch ally of the Yale Administration, conceded that tax-exemption was a problem for the city’s continued operation, announcing in February 1969 a five-man commission to probe the city’s more than $200 million worth of untaxable property.  Part of the problem, Lee explained, lay in the ways in which the city was subsidizing, through municipal services, properties which did not serve the city alone, but rather the state and the nation.  This, explained Lee, was ‘not equitable.’”

posted by: anonymous on September 5, 2013  8:35pm

SOA: You are correct that these large employers are heavily subsidized by infrastructure, services, and all sorts of other public goods. However, I am not sure that correcting that can be done judiciously or effectively at a municipal level. The large employers can just decide to conduct all of their expansions in a nearby town, as they have done since the UNITE HERE backed Board was elected. Housing developers will move away too (as we saw with Star Supply) which ironically makes housing here even more expensive, workers even more impoverished, and our tax base even smaller. (Thanks UNITE HERE and the DTC for damaging the city, losing us thousands of jobs, and further impoverishing our residents in just two short years.)

A better bet would be to push for regional, state, and national structural reform. These steps are obvious but unfortunately our current elected leaders in Hartford and on the DTC are more interested in Keno revenue, making sure that programs to foster public debate like the New Haven Democracy Fund and state finance laws are shut down, claiming that crime is down due to a few walking beats (when homicides are up over last year), and endlessly grandstanding about a “pipeline” program for the unions, than about addressing any of our structural issues in a way that would work.

On a side note, Harp dates herself when she says, “In the memory of most people the best times in New Haven were during Lee’s mayoralty.” How is this possible given that well over half of New Haven’s population is under 30? Electing Harp, judging from the few times she has issued any tangible statement on policy, would be a trip back to the 1980s, not the best practices of the past decade.

posted by: citoyen on September 5, 2013  10:34pm

This series of articles, based on recent interviews, continues to be fascinating.

Fascinating aspects to Part 3:

a) I literally exclaimed out loud upon reading that Toni Harp wants to disband the Livable City Initiative. After its bumpy start (which Henry played a part in overcoming), it has become a noteworthy, valuable, and important city agency. (Ach! it just occurs to me: does she want to stop it from being able to monitor Harp family housing properties? Talk about a conflict of interest!)

b) It will be interesting to see, as we approach November, if Toni wins the primary, whether she will actually campaign against the charter revision proposal that we will vote on about Board of Aldermen approval of mayoral appointments—or whether the UNITE HERE union movement, which now controls the Board, and which is in back of her candidacy, will require her to recant her opposition to it.

c) Kermit shows (and admits—in the video, although not cited in the writeup) no familiarity with past mayors of New Haven; Toni and Henry go for the obvious in Dick Lee, regardless of whether it makes any sense (he did big things but they were the wrong things); and Justin demonstrates he has actually informed himself about history, and has a thoughtful answer.

The NHI has been providing so much material the past couple weeks! that voters can evaluate, as they will.

posted by: Eddie on September 6, 2013  8:30am

I find it absolutely bizarre that Elicker does not support the proposal to have the Board of Aldermen approve top mayoral appointees.  Within just the past few months he voted to support the revisions to the public charter and he failed to raise any serious objections to this particular proposal.  He has plenty of opportunities register his objections to this proposal.  I wonder what accounts for this inconsistency in such a short amount of time.

posted by: OneCityManyDreams on September 6, 2013  9:15am

Richard Lee was absolutely the worst mayor in the history of New Haven. He destroyed the City and made millionaires of corrupt politicians. New Haven has NEVER recovered from this.

posted by: A Contrarian on September 6, 2013  11:12am

Walt describes a power-hungry, control freak and bully.  Not admirable in my book.  Perhaps he should be spinning in his grave over his bad decisions rather than “what happened to New Haven improvements.”

posted by: Walt on September 6, 2013  1:44pm

Yes, Contrarian—  Dick Lee was probably all of those things, also an organizer,a politician promoter,  do-gooder, do-badder, hypochrondriac(sp[?) and a lot of other things,

Depends on how you look at it.

While old Oak Streeters still bemoan the loss of their   neighborhood,  I then saw a new highway replacing a slum,a red-light district,  a drinking district which was   at that time deemed   by the feds as “off limits”  for our servicemen being trained at Yale or home on leave.

I organized a few busloads of businessmen (few if any women at that time, as I recall)  to head to Hartford seeking funding to extend the Oak St Connector past the Boulevard to connect with the Naugatuck Valley, and , when we succeeded in getting the OK from the Governor and State Bonding Commission, was naïve enough that I expected its construction to begin in a year or two. (Never did of course)

Those moves and the new Malley,s/Macy,s , Temple St, Garage, the worldwide center of the Knights of Columbus and other ventures may (or may not)  have lengthened Downtown’s continuance as an important center when soon thereafter competition like Hamden Plaza and the CT Mall and other retail centers developed

Real -old Sargent’s and Ives’  and the Register new construction kept important jobs here.  Some remain

Not sure that the fact that many of the Lee- led projects no longer exist after 60 years or so means that the original ideas were bad or just that fate said they would not last forever

His time as Mayor was,  despite everything,  was still an exciting time to be active in New Haven

What do you expect folks will be saying 60 years from now   about the current plans to fill in the big Oak St ditch?  Good or bad?

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on September 6, 2013  3:58pm

“‘A lot [of economic development chief Kelly Murphy’s] supporters have come to me and asked me to keep her,’ but it ‘is not apparent she has my vision of neighborhood development’ in corridors like Dixwell Avenue, Whalley Avenue, and Howard and Columbus Avenues.”

“The reason that [Dick Lee] was the best mayor was the economy was better. There was a lot more federal resources that came directly into cities. So there was a lot more that could happen ... In the memory of most people the best times in New Haven were during his mayoralty.”

This is very confusing. Mayor Lee did have a plan for Columbus Avenue and it was turn it into an arterial highway as part of the never-completed Ring Road System. Does Harp hope to revive this plan for the development of neighborhood corridors and turn Columbus into lower State Street (the only part of the Ring Road that was completed)?

The floods of Federal cash into New Haven is probably what destroyed the city because we created an enormous bureaucratic apparatus to allocate Federal funding, which we are now left with despite the Federal money drying up. The city cannot continue to operate on cash injections from the State and Federal governments. That’s what worries me about Harp, she will just seek new outside funding sources to continue the inefficient model of government that New Haven has been working with since Lee’s Mayoralty.

Who says they were happiest under Mayor Lee? There was a 4-day riot in 1968 due to unhappiness with urban renewal and racial tensions. I don’t recall there being any 4-day riots lately, do you? I don’t understand. I just don’t get what Harp is talking about.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on September 6, 2013  4:03pm


Upper State Street used to be drug infested and and prostitution hot spot in ‘80s, so was Chapel West, but with a little investment they turned into really great shopping, living, and congregation areas while using the existing buildings. The same could have been true of Oak Street - tenements could have been fitted with hot water and mechanical systems, small units could have been combined into larger apartments, street improvements could have added new lighting and sanitation systems, and façade restoration could have attracted new retail tenants. It’s not that difficult.

posted by: A Contrarian on September 6, 2013  6:39pm

RE: Mayor Lee & Urban Renewal

As I see it, the only grand urban renewal that worked was Paris.  New Haven might well have been redeveloped slowly but with an impressive historic core.  I think about the Southern cities like Charleston and Savannah, too poor to tear everything down after the war.

Interesting to consider the urban-renewal riots.  Justice Thomas was an angry young man at the time and spoke about this time in New Haven in a c-span interview I heard recently.  At least New Haven got a new, if not “improved” downtown.  Other places have blocks of wasteland, waiting for urban renewal that may never arrive.

posted by: Walt on September 7, 2013  6:02am

Urban renewal riots???  Hopkins makes up a new theory and Contrarian hops on   board,

I was there, even took a daughter to Yale -New Haven emergency with police escort while a load of cops with Ray Eagan Jr in the lead,  held back the rioters at the corner of Congress and Howard.

Had many meetings with mixed racial groups in the aftermath.

Never, in my memory, was   urban removal brought up,  It was racial tensions and problems of discrimination and poverty and attitude and yes, a large injection of the drug abuse goose towards extra- wild behavior,

Not a single mention of urban removal that I recall, even when our offices were taken over by a gang who stole pocketbooks from several secretaries (This part is hearsay, I missed the office raid , recovering at home from an accident)

If it is not against policy, I’ll say these “urban renewal riots” claims are pure BS.(If it is,  please just delete

Jonathan’s blue sky comments re Chapel and State St.  seem overblown too, as,  although   I have never seen those meccas as as great as he describes,  he has the right to promote his own perceptions.

posted by: Walt on September 7, 2013  10:07am

Sorry.  A couple of typos—-

Please remove “removal”  and read “renewal”  where I   erred.


posted by: Dwightstreeter on September 7, 2013  11:18am

Why is the down town always the focus of development?
How many millions of dollars have been wasted on various “visions” and how many have succeeded or failed?
Playing out schemes with tax payer dollars comes at no cost to any mayor or economic development head. They simply move on while the residents who funded the disasters wait for a new one to be funded.
New Haven has a beautiful core that must be protected or it will be the next Stamford - great tax base, but totally about corporate buildings in the downtown (with a few minor exceptions that escape urban redevelopment), dependent on the car, full of franchises instead of local businesses and totally lacking in any kind of historical memory.
Development that focuses on the tax base and not the quality of life is just another nail in the coffin for New Haven.

posted by: A Contrarian on September 8, 2013  12:09pm

Walt:  I didn’t “hop on board” any train, bus, or plane…  I wasn’t around then, and I have no research to cite.  I just find it interesting that the arguably “most conservative” SC Justice brought up “urban renewal” as “negro removal” as a particularly important moment in his life while he was at YLS.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on September 8, 2013  1:58pm

I did not and would not call the riots in 1967 (not 1968, my mistake) the “urban renewal riots”. While urban renewal played a part in creating the atmosphere that resulted in rioting, there were many other factors that were influential as well, including the fact that many other cities had similar riots earlier in the year.

According to the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on the summer riots of 1967, “Ghetto residents increasingly believe that they are excluded from the decision-making process which affects their lives and community. The feeling of exclusion, intensified by the bitter legacy of racial discrimination, has engendered a deep seated hostility toward institutions of government. It has severely compromised the effectiveness of programs intended to provide improved services to ghetto residents. In part this is the lesson of Detroit and New Haven where well intentioned programs designed to respond to the needs of ghetto residents were not worked out and implemented sufficiently in cooperation with the intended beneficiaries.”

Urban renewal, which dislocated black families for redevelopment at a rate of 4.5:1 with white families, was a part of creating the racial tension that resulted in rioting. While urban renewal certainly wasn’t primarily concerned with race, its application in the city certainly had racial components.

Had the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 had been passed 15 years earlier, Oak Street could have been saved and rehabilitated into a livable urban environment, without question.

posted by: Walt on September 8, 2013  6:18pm

Jonathan is correct that what he said was that the riots were “due to unhappiness with urban renewal and racial tensions” 

Contrarian   switched to “urban renewal riots”  which appear a rewording and   about the   same meaning as your description.

Contrarian—Justice -to- be Thomas, whom I admire,  was not involved locally at that time to my knowledge,  nor did Yale law students show up often, 

Many agitators were then or later   hired to run City or business-financed action groups,  most but not all of those with whom I dealt really tried to help those who were their clients,

Never, that I recall   was there reference to urban renewal as their main or important concerns

Really makes no difference now,  but I was here, and you two were not. To me the statements are not correct

I just do not get what Hopkins is talking about.