Where Are The Women?

Paul Bass Photo 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.

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posted by: MotiS on February 1, 2013  9:49am

Hi Paul:

In the story you failed to mention the late Caroline Denniger, who ran as a Republican for Mayor a number of times. She like the other Republicans, in my opinion was doing it out of loyalty to her party and never had much chance but does deserve to be mentioned.


[Thank you for noting that Moti! I remember interviewing Caroline Dinegar. She was definitely being a good sport to try to keep the GOP technically breathing in New Haven.]

posted by: robn on February 1, 2013  10:10am

“Where are the women?”

Ummmm….smart enough not to run?

Badumbump!(symbol crash!)

posted by: anonymous on February 1, 2013  11:08am

What woman would want a job that is primarily remembered in terms of the number of city roads you have helped the DOT widen into child-killing death traps? 

There aren’t any women in the city engineering departments, either.

posted by: BLACKFEMMEWALKING on February 1, 2013  11:25am

I am terrifically impressed by the women who lead and serve with ferocity and grace in this city. I am proudly represented by a female alderperson (a single mother at that).  It would be great to have a female mayor, I think Jackie James could be a great candidate for that. Nice article, very few articles about women in politics are inspiring, but this one reminds me that New Haven actually has incredibly progressive and open female heads!

posted by: Babz Rawls Ivy on February 1, 2013  2:21pm

Where are the women indeed?

Women would indeed run, however there are different barriers to women running…. perhaps raising young children, perhaps holding jobs/high powered careers. 

Men run, because they have wives and partners who often do the heavy lifting of running households, shuttling children to events, appointments and other activities.

Running for office as a working mother may not be worthwhile in the face of the sacrifices that have to be made. Many men have the luxury of those pursuits.

Older women who might consider a mayoral run may not want the added stress of rigorous administrative duties. They may want to spend their time making a difference in community on other fronts.

I would love to see a woman sitting downtown New Haven.  I know A Sister in particular who would be AMAZING!  But as I said it requires a great deal of sacrifice.  And sadly women are harshly criticized for those sacrifices.

I remain hopeful. OMG I am hopeful… otherwise…. (sigh).

posted by: Brian Tang on February 1, 2013  4:05pm

At first I was shocked by the low historical voter turnout. Then I remembered that the real aldermanic and mayoral elections are the primaries. I volunteered with Jeanette Morrison’s canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts in 2011 and it seemed like there were quite a few people voting. A young union organizer deployed us volunteers with amazing precision and efficiency, and that seemed to be going on all over town. I would think that, with a competitive mayoral race this year and the further maturation of the union organizing machine after several incredible election cycles, voter turnout could be closer to 30,000 this year. Or is that just wishful thinking? Perhaps this would be a good subject for a future NHI article. I’d be curious to hear what Mr. Bass thinks.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 1, 2013  5:26pm

Here is a woman.The Rev. Bonita Grubbs.

posted by: Hooker Mom on February 1, 2013  9:59pm


posted by: getyourfactstraight on February 2, 2013  8:52pm

I think that there are probably women in New Haven that perhaps are unknown but would be a wonderful mayor. Not only might they be qualified, but also would be smart enough to surround themselves with good smart common sense people in their administration that would enhance their serving the people of this city. Frankly Ben D. did so and that is part of the reason he was electable time and time again. I do not believe that was the case with this present mayor. It was his pay offs to people through jobs,contracts and so on that just kept him strong all these years. That cost the taxpayers dearly. I also believe people are afraid of change. 
The one thing I do know is that after this power lock Destefano had, we really need to be quite careful and thoughtful who we choose this time around. I personally don’t care if it is a man or woman as long as they do the right thing and run this city well. The advantage of having a woman is they are able to see things more clearly. Not just in black and white,they seen to know how to get into the grey areas more easily. Well, there is still time so lets see what happens. Perhaps some wonderful female will come forward and be so dynamite that she won’t need much money but carry herself right into 165 Church St. with the right issues and plans that will lead this city to glory! If that happens please pinch me so I know I am not dreaming.

posted by: Edward Francis on February 4, 2013  12:31pm

newview states “The advantage of having a woman is they are able to see things more clearly”. I hope he doesn’t mean “more clearly” like Peyton Patterson the former big wig at NewAlliance Bank in New Haven. That kind of thinking was self-serving and lined her and fellow cohorts pockets at the expense of other employees and customers.

posted by: getyourfactstraight on February 4, 2013  12:43pm

No Edward I don’t mean like Peyton silly man. Oh and it is not he, I am a she.

posted by: HhE on February 4, 2013  1:38pm

I think it would be very bad for this city to have the next mayor come from the current administration.