Ghost Of ‘79 Haunts 2011 Primary

(Analysis) An incumbent white liberal mayor faces multiple challenges in a primary, one from the black community, one from a white candidate. None of the challengers can get 50 percent of the vote. But they carve up the incumbent’s base—and knock him out of office.

That happened the last time more than two Democrats ran for mayor in New Haven—way back in 1979.

Most voters and politicians under 50 don’t remember that election. But its ghost—or at least its math—hovers over the spirited four-way Democratic mayoral primary taking place in New Haven Tuesday.

NH Register PhotoBack in 1979 incumbent Mayor Frank Logue faced energetic challenges by deposed Police Chief Biagio DiLieto and Hank Parker, the state’s first African-American treasurer. Riding a wave of anger from the East Shore, DiLieto won the primary (the equivalent of a general election in one-party New Haven) and slipped into the mayor’s office with just 47 percent of the vote.

In this Tuesday’s primary, liberal 18-year incumbent Mayor John DeStefano is running hard to hold onto his seat against three challengers: two African-American candidates, attorney Clifton Graves and former Alderman Tony Dawson; and citizen budget watchdog Jeffrey Kerekes, who’s white and has picked up noticeable support on the East Shore, among other pockets of the city. The challengers seek to capitalize on public dissatisfaction over a record-setting pace of murders in town amid continuing problems in the police department; tough economic times; a general anti-incumbent mood in American politics; and a perceived lack of openness and democracy in city government and politics.

Also, Democratic aldermanic primaries are taking place in 16 of the city’s 30 wards. Many of those races, too, are hotly contested, and pit loyalists of City Hall against labor-backed or independent challengers. One of those races, too (in Dixwell’s Ward 22), involves four candidates.

Click here to find out where to vote Tuesday and who’s running, and to link to stories about the aldermanic campaigns.

By all accounts DeStefano holds many advantages against the divided field in the mayoral primary: An overpowering financial advantage fueled by “donations” by city employees and contractors (he had a 17-2 fundraising lead over all his opponents combined in the most recent reporting period, with more than $425,000 gathered and counting); the only sizable paid campaign staff; far higher name recognition; considerable support for his new school reform drive; a network of campaign supporters built up over decades; and the ability to boast of being the only Connecticut mayor to grow his city’s grand list amid a recession in 2010.

So why’s he running so hard?

Much of the reason can be found in the anti-incumbent fervor sweeping the nation (some might say the world), combined with tough economic times and a rise in New Haven murders.

The brawl of ‘79 may offer clues, too.

Disco Era Doings

Virginia Blaisdell PhotoDrawing too many parallels between different elections, especially two elections 32 years apart, is tricky business.

The immediate parallels to 1979 have to do with math. No challenger could get 50 percent of the vote against the incumbent mayor, Logue. But with three serious candidates in the race, no one needed 50 percent. DiLieto won with 47 percent.

DiLieto had run in 1977, as well, and lost. No third candidate emerged that year.

Not only did the third candidate—Parker—change the math. He also drew directly from the incumbent’s base. Logue had won office in 1975 with a coalition of white liberal and black reformers looking to oust the Democratic Party machine. When Parker, an African-American, entered the 1979 race, he siphoned votes from Logue. Parker obtained 4,582 votes, or 16 percent of the total. (Lots more New Haveners voted in those days.) Logue’s vote total dropped to 10,775, or 37 percent. DiLieto was able to win with 13,506 votes, or 47 percent.

Click here for the City Clerk’s office’s official breakdown of the 1979 results.

DiLieto’s base was the East Shore. He lived there. He drew support from Italian-Americans angry that Mayor Logue had ousted DiLieto as police chief after an investigation found that DiLieto had authorized illegal wiretaps of Black Panthers and white liberals and radicals. The East Shore is one of three areas of town (the others: East Rock and parts of Westville) where the white challenger in the 2011 primary, Kerekes, picked up early support. Like DiLieto, Kerekes aims to ride a wave of resentment or dissatisfaction; DiLieto capitalized on resentment against hippies, liberals, black activists; Kerekes looks to tap into anti-incumbent, anti-tax anger and dissatisfaction with the way government has been run.

Kerekes, like DiLieto in 1979, benefits from having other candidates in the 2011 race—specifically, black candidates. His voters and their voters don’t generally overlap; in fact, it’s believed that many of Kerekes’ votes would go to DeStefano otherwise; and the same with those of the black candidates, Graves and Dawson. Graves and Dawson early in the campaign said they recognized that it was fratricidal to have both of them on the ballot, because they would divide black votes. (That’s why Tony Dawson has attacked Graves rather than Kerekes.) But neither of the two could convince the other to drop out.

More Prominent Field

To State Sen. Martin Looney, the differences between 2011 and 1979 are more striking than the similarities.

“The fundamental difference is that you had a much more high-profile race in 1979,” said Looney, who worked for Logue at the time. “You had DiLieto, who had come so close the time before.” DiLieto had lost to Logue by just 243 votes in the 1977 primary, two years before, Looney noted. (Looney, who has an encyclopedic memory for local election results, rattled off that figure without pausing.)  “It was clear there was going to be a rematch. There was going to be a clash of the titans.” (Looney ran for mayor against DeStefano in 2001; he endorsed DeStefano this year.)

As a former police chief, DiLieto had citywide name recognition when he ran in 1979. He was popular. He had money. He had organized help from, among others, the Teamsters, cops, and the old patronage-driven Democratic Party machine looking to get back into power.  A former Republican town chairman also arranged to have many of his party members register Democratic to vote for DiLieto in the primary. (That chairman was rewarded with a city job, which he held until going to jail on corruption charges.) DiLieto would go on to serve for 10 years and build a formidable patronage and fundraising base; he brought a young John DeStefano into city government and became his political mentor, eventually bequeathing to DeStefano fund-raising practices and ward-level relationships that continue to this day.

And the black challenger in 1979, Hank Parker, was also a prominent figure, not just in New Haven, but statewide. He was Connecticut’s treasurer, the state’s highest-ranking black official. For years he had been one of the city’s most prominent civil rights leaders. He had run for mayor before as well.

By contrast, two of this year’s challengers—Kerekes and Graves—have never run for office before. They have been active in civic groups and local issues, but they began with limited citywide name recognition. Dawson was an alderman for 16 years but has little organized support or money in the race. Graves does inherit an organized vote-pulling team connected to State Sen. Toni and architect Wendell Harp.

Undertickets & Moot Hands

As in 1979 and 1980, New Haven and America face tough economic times and anti-incumbency stirrings from the grassroots to national levels. The challengers this year are banking on the degree of those factors looming even larger in 2011.

The engine for “change” votes might come as much from the aldermanic races as from the mayoral races. Yale’s pink-collar and blue-collar Local 34 and 35 are backing a slate of candidates in about half of the city against City Hall and party establishment-backed candidates. The union message is: New Haven needs more democracy and more voices independent of the mayor on the Board of Aldermen, as well as a return to community policing. The other slate’s message: In tough economic times, the city needs to back the administration’s pro-jobs, pro-growth, school reform agenda.

While the unions have not backed a candidate for mayor, they are delivering an anti-City Hall message. A “change” message.

“The aldermanic races are going to be driving turnout. That’s the wild card in this deck,” observed Looney.

On the one hand, many voters drawn to the polls to support an anti-City Hall aldermanic candidate are believed to be likely to pull a mayoral lever for an anti-City Hall candidate, too.

On the other hand, aldermanic races so often tend to be about individual personalities, their connection to their neighbors, and ward-level issues.

Which leaves us where all political punditry and insider mathematics leave us: with “one hand” and “the other hand.” All of which becomes moot when the polls open Tuesday morning.

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posted by: robn on September 12, 2011  2:30pm

Don’t know nuthin about ghosts, panthers or hippies, but if one of the candidates can promise me a pony…they’ve got my vote.

posted by: Cedarhillresident on September 12, 2011  2:35pm

robn I have a vitage pink my little pony in is original box! If you want that :)

posted by: Ellis Copeland on September 12, 2011  2:41pm

Johnny Boy should sleep tight tonight.  He will win tomorrow in a massive landslide.  Not because he deserves to.  He deserves to be beaten as bad as can be.  He deserves to get no more than two votes ... But he will win for two reasons: first, it’s a rigged machine town; second, it’s a town full of masochists who apparently like getting royally screwed—otherwise Johnny Boy would have been one and done 16 years ago.

posted by: anon on September 12, 2011  2:44pm

“Ability to boast of being the only Connecticut mayor to grow his city’s grand list amid a recession in 2010.”

Has anyone checked the validity of this claim?

posted by: Pedro Soto on September 12, 2011  2:55pm

Anon- here is an article on that:

Was the New Haven the only city? Not sure, but it certainly was the largest increase in the state.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on September 12, 2011  2:57pm

Martin Looney opposed DeStefano in 2001 when the city was in far better shape financially and crime statistics were far less than current numbers.  The city is now the complete antithesis of the time in which Martin Ran, and now he (Martin) has decided to endorse the DeStefano???  What an appropriate last name!!

Martin Looney is clearly out of touch with voters of the city in which he claims to represent. ...

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on September 12, 2011  3:17pm

Excellent article.

posted by: Chaz on September 12, 2011  3:36pm

Having been involved in politics for years, it is amusing to me that when someone thinks that the Mayor is better than these ... In these difficult times, it makes sense to go with the sure thing. I would be frightened for the future of the city if any of the challengers win. And this is coming from someone who is not a city hall guy or the biggest DeStefano cheerleader. We live in a free country and people are entitled to their opinions- as long as you are on the DTC side- joking.

posted by: anon on September 12, 2011  3:55pm

Pedro: I see the oft-repeated press claim by DeStefano , but not the raw numbers from the rest of the state.

posted by: Cedarhillresident on September 12, 2011  4:33pm

Well we all know who I support Jeffrey Kerekes!

But with that said good luck to everyone and their volunteers!

and remember….

And also remember Kerekes will be running in November as an Independent!

posted by: concernedwestvilleres on September 12, 2011  4:52pm

I find the comparisons interesting, but there is one big difference.  DiLieto was a former police chief who had run before and a state treasurer.  Logue lost because his supporters in the East Shore were angry and many feared what having a black mayor would do coming on the heels of the Black Panthers.  The comparisons are also a stretch.  The candidates opposing Logue had some experience in government and knew what they were doing.

Today, we have 3 opposition candidates who don’t exactly belie experience.  I would classify them as the 3 stooges.  Despite their platforms does anyone think they can run the city better than DeStefano.  I have heard very few viable ideas.  I have studied governement and business (have an MBA and MPA for those who would question my credentials) and I can tell you their “platforms” won’t work. 

DeStefano has his flaws and I wish someone else with a viable platform and ideas would run.  However that is not the case so tomorrow and in November I have no choice but to support DeStefano.

posted by: Wicked Lester on September 12, 2011  4:59pm

Ellis Copeland wrote: “it’s a town full of masochists who apparently like getting royally screwed—otherwise Johnny Boy would have been one and done 16 years ago.”

No Ellis, we’re not masochists. It’s just that there’s never been a candidate that gives the voters the confidence that he/she’ll do better. Sad isn’t it? This primary is no exception.

posted by: Brian V on September 12, 2011  5:25pm

I do believe in ghosts, I do, I do, I do, I doooo believe in ghosts!

posted by: Ellis Copeland on September 12, 2011  6:40pm

Wicked Lester—... The question should not be, “who can do better?” The question should be, “can any of them do worse?” You already know what Johnny Boy is going to do.  And you know you’re going to spend two years griping and moaning.  While the challengers may not inspire the greatest confidence could any of them do a worse job than Johnny Boy. ... So why not take a bit of a risk on someone new? After all, it’s only a two year term.

posted by: richgetricher on September 12, 2011  6:44pm

Voted for DeStefano 9 times for Mayor and once for Governor. But this time I’m voting for Kerekes. John was a good Mayor who really pulled the city up. But in the last two years, he’s gotten off track and out-of-touch. He started his campaign with a “Aren’t we doing great here in New Haven” speech?! His arrogance and bullying is run amuck. He always thinks he’s right, but now he’s not even pretending to listen. Plastering re-election signs on “his” fire engines, using “his” students and superintendent to promote himself, violating public financing rules, violating foi rules, harassing taxpayers with his rude assessor and sham board of tax appeals, demonizing city workers while hiring and promoting his favored ones, and on ... I wish DeStefano had decided not to run again. But it’s up to us to say it’s time to go after 18 years. DeStefano has had the answers many times but he is now the problem.

posted by: @concernedwestvilleres on September 12, 2011  7:22pm

Then you deserve what you get

posted by: henry on September 12, 2011  9:09pm

I think any of the three candidates are very capable of running this City.They will have to deal with a bad bunch of frightened and disgruntled employees.
I remember way back in the Mayors’ early days ,his only campaign promise and public speech was,“There will be no more Dem machine politics,those days are over if u vote for me”

posted by: Edward Francis on September 12, 2011  9:24pm

In 1979 the New Haven Firefighters Union endorsed Biagio DiLieto and worked the polls for him. Many firefighters may not now live in the city, however, the roots are still here and so are their relatives, many of them.  They will lobby again for the person who has a positive track record, and knows the running of government local and state. Everyone makes tough decisions - some good and some bad. And some of the candidates are shooting from the hip using the blame, blame theme.

posted by: kwheel on September 12, 2011  10:22pm

Excellent article; it has helped inform my vote tomorrow. That is exactly what our democracy needs, most desperately, in these troubled times. To the vitriolic doomsayers I say, ... (well, it’s not polite, so I won’t—but I sure wish I could on live TV).

posted by: Is that true? on September 12, 2011  10:50pm

“richgetricher”, I wasn’t aware of this issue with City of New Haven fire trucks.  Is this really so?  I’m not knowledgeable on the legality of that but I would hope it’s not permitted by election law.  It’s certainly questionable action at best.  At any rate, if this is occurring it’s unacceptable to me, for one.  I pay over 5K a year in property taxes that go to City services.  If the FD is “advertising” for a candidate I don’t support (or ANY candidate for that matter) I would find it very hard to swallow.  Could someone clarify me on this?

posted by: Bruce Rubenstein on September 12, 2011  11:22pm

this article was badly fact checked…Parker was not Connecticut’s first Treasurer,as the reporter alleges, Jerry Lamb was.

posted by: exelmcity on September 13, 2011  2:08am

While it may be true that JD is a liberal candidate, he is a machine politician first and foremost like his patron Ben D. Always has portrayed himself as a “new” Democrat, always has been an old one.

If Graves and Dawson are “African American,” why are JD and Kerakes merely “white.” This seems discriminatory.

Aside from these points—and I think JD prevails simply because he alone is arguably competent—your article is quite well done.

posted by: visitor on September 13, 2011  7:16am


running as an independent? as in an independent democrat a la Joe Lieberman?

posted by: robn on September 13, 2011  8:48am

Speaking of labels, I think its strange to label DeStefano as a liberal. He might be a social liberal and a liberal spender (which is really more of an attitude than a political philosophy), but he’s also somewhat of a control freak and this is anti-liberal. Liberals believe in freedom.

posted by: Intheknow on September 13, 2011  9:12am

I am concerned to hear that Mr. Kerekes has already stated that should he lose the primary today, he will run as an Independent in November.  This tells me many things about his character, and none of them are very good.  He is obviously not confident in his message to the voters, as he is not confident he will receive enough votes to win.  Why is that?  Does he realize that he does not have a fully fleshed-out message?  Does he realize that he really is not qualified for this particular job?  Does he realize that maybe some of those folks stating that he should have dipped his toes into the waters by running for alderman first are correct?
Additionally, if he is in fact going to “switch parties”, so to speak, and run again, isn’t this similar to being a sore loser?  If you don’t win today, why would you think you can win in November?  I would think the best path would be to regroup and really work towards the next election.
I think that Mr. Kerekes ultimately knows that he is not right for this job (at least, not yet) and it is a shame that not everyone can see this.  He has some good ideas, but his platform is really shaky at best.  He does not have the background for this - sure, he is a “budget watchdog” - but what are his qualifications for that?  His education is in the environment and psychology.  He has all of the hipster-lingo down, but people need to look past that veneer and see what is behind it.
It really is a shame that he is going full throttle already - I truly hope the voters speak today and that Mr. Kerekes thinks deeply about what they say.

posted by: Mike Powers on September 13, 2011  9:19am

Interesting article. But I always find it troubling that a progressive media platform like yours never calls for a real choice that is a 2 party system ,a system that is one of the major reasons the US is a great and free country. NH is politically more like the former Soviet Union with no real choice.Would you encourage the US to become a 1 party country as well with the Democratic primary being the final word ?
Of course the fault lies with those few Republicans in NH. But the job of the media ought to be to challenge the GOP to arise and fight, NOT support the GOP and not to support the status quo of 1 party government for the last half a century.

posted by: anon on September 13, 2011  10:20am

Intheknow: Readers with an understanding of modern urban history will understand that your post carries no weight to it.  Most voters in New Haven are not registered Democrats and many more may register before November, so your first point is moot. Second, it sounds like you are not “in the know” about the amazing things that can happen in a major city when you elect someone who hasn’t, say, “run for Alderman” in the past:

posted by: robn on September 13, 2011  10:43am

I think MIKEPOWERS has a good point. New Haven should have open primaries so that Republicans in town can have a meaningful choice in our municipal elections.

posted by: Brian M. on September 13, 2011  11:11am

I don’t think you want to cite Michael McGinn as a model of outsider achievement.

This is the same guy who cut infrastructure and deferred maintenance and stuck it to teachers while, at the same time, he doled out raises to his top officials and offered to have taxpayers pick up the tab for sex change operations for city employees.

Look, Jeff Kerekes might be a great guy, but there are some expertise deficits there. And for some voters, that’s going to be a concern.

Dismissing anyone who raises this concern as a supporter has been a huge mistake. You’re dismissing potential voters! Campaigns should be persuasive, no? But this has all been about drawing lines between loyalist die-hards and everyone else. People I know who were considering voting for JK - and who should be natural supporters - have been so turned off by his tone and his surrogates’ arrogance that they’re probably going to sit out the vote in November.

It’s a huge opportunity that’s been needlessly squandered.

posted by: jennifercohen on September 13, 2011  11:31am

There certainly has been bad issues of poll workers and volunteers on campaigns (mostly paid)i recall local residents applying for the once or twice a year job of sitting at a desk crossing names off - It’s way better to have your own community do that,they have a good feel for who’s who and who is not..Not to hear about poll workers calling elderly residents cheaters and fraud (has happened) even naming me a non resident etc.- i guess these suburbanite dwelling new haven volunteers want to push the envelope and really get involved.
fie on them and worse for your local community to be bullied like that.

posted by: FDonlooker on September 13, 2011  11:45am

@Is that true?

It is absolutely true, and as a NHFD firefighter who doesn’t support destefano I found it sad that our union officials took it upon themselves to endorse a candidate that doesn’t reflect the opinions of the membership. Unfortunately I think they’ve forgotten that we are the union, and also forgot that it is against our rules and regs to campaign or solicit-ate for any political, personal or religious affiliation while at work or on city property.

After watching my co workers get suspended for as much as 18 days recently for things in that same rule book such as shaving, uniform, or sick leave policy, by chief egan I think it would be appropriate to see the officers and chiefs in these pictures involved suspended for at least a week. Shame on them for playing pawns in Destefanos game of breaking the rules to use “his” city property and employees as his campaign billboard! Also I would like to see destefano punished for his blatant disregard of the laws and the rules after having other candidates thrown out of city hall for campaigning at city hall on city property. News flash mayor…...The firehouse is city property!

And just like our union is ours not the presidents, the city is the tax payers NOT yours!

posted by: Count Pete on September 13, 2011  12:05pm

Odd to me that InTheKnow would criticize Kerekes for his degrees in psychology and the environment, which seem to me a pretty good background for politics.  Lawyers and public policy wonks we have aplenty in office—how’s that working out?

posted by: Intheknow on September 13, 2011  1:06pm

@CountPete - I am not necessarily criticizing Jeff for having those degrees.  I think the psychology degree is quite beneficial, especially when having to figure out how to deal with multiple types of personalities one is bound to encounter in politics.  My concern is more around his qualifications in budget-issues (I’m sure he had math courses in school, but business finance?  Probably not.).  Any one with a decent education, heck with decent common sense, can be a “budget watchdog”; when it comes down to then nitty-gritty though is where I have a concern.  I just feel that this is a situation of armchair-quarterbacking, and if Jeff gets in there he is going to be completely underwater.
I do know Jeff - I have known him for a while now - I think that AT THIS TIME this is a mistake and hopefully the voters will see that.  I truly agree with those who have said he should start out smaller, like Alderman, and go from there.  I think if he did that, he would have a stronger platform, with more concrete viable ways to back up his plans.
My vote today is not going to him - there are no “good” candidates running today, but he is not yet “good enough”.

posted by: Wicked Lester on September 13, 2011  2:09pm

Ellis Copeland wrote: “The question should not be, “who can do better?” The question should be, “can any of them do worse?”

Not doing any worse leaves a lot of room for ‘just as bad’.

posted by: liberaltarian on September 14, 2011  3:52am

Minor correction- Henry Parker was not the 1st African American treasurer. If I recall correctly, a Democratic gentleman named Lamb held the spot through most of the 60s before resigning and having his term filled by an appointed Dem,,then one or two Republicans (Berden rings a bell, unless he was LG) served the 71-75 term, THEN Parker came in…. two tired to research the details. (Oops, looks like Bruce beat me to the punch on this one…)

Also, it is highly unlikely that Parker was that heavily responsible for Logue’s TEN point loss- I would guess many of his supporters were new or re-energized, rather than merely 1977 Logue supporters switching sides. 1977 and 1975 vote totals would make that analysis more feasible…

posted by: Stan Maclachlan on September 19, 2011  1:07pm

Paul, this was a great article and harkens back to a time when voting was not a spectator sport in New Haven. People were very passionate about the races for Mayor, City-Town Clerk and the Board of Aldermen. The Logue/Dilieto primaries were like Ali/ Frazier fights.