New Haven Mayor Candidates Respond to Social Justice Questions at Public Debate

Last Tuesday night, just before 6 PM, a line stretched out of the downtown Gateway Community College campus onto the Church Street sidewalk. Over 250 people were waiting to file into the college cafeteria for the New Haven Mayor Social Justice Debate, where six out of seven mayoral candidates seeking to win the September 10 Democratic primary election were sharing their views on a range of social justice topics.

In New Haven, a city effectively segregated along class lines, it should come as no surprise that a debate on the future of justice and social disparities would draw such interest. New Haven is home to Yale University, an institution with an x billion endowment — yet the city also has a poverty rate of 26.7 percent, the second highest in Connecticut. According to a 2011 publication from the Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE), over $1.5 billion in private development in the past decade or so has spurred New Haven’s “renaissance” of restaurants, businesses, and condominiums.  However, the rising tide of revitalization has not lifted all boats: CCNE points out that this renaissance has not remedied ongoing poverty challenges, such as unemployment, the rising cost of housing, or wage rates that are inadequate for basic living expenses in New Haven.

New Haven is afflicted by a litany of social justice challenges. The rate of home ownership in New Haven is 31.6 percent, the second lowest in the state, and the national foreclosure crisis hit the city hard.  Median income has not increased much over the past 10 years, even though per capita income  has increased substantially in the same time — suggesting that the city has grown both wealthier and more unequal. New Haven’s high school graduation rate in 2012 was a fairly low 70.5 percent, although up from 58.1 percent in New Haven in 2009. The city’s crime rate is more than double the national average, and closely concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

The six candidates participating in the debate addressed many of the above themes as they fielded eight questions from four local organizations: New Haven Legal Assistance, Christian Community Action, Junta for Progressive Action, and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS).  These four groups asked questions related to affordable housing, government transparency, bilingual health services, law enforcement relating to juveniles, the need for living wage jobs, personal accomplishments relating to social justice, geographic inequalities in city services, and wage theft.

Creation of living wage jobs and job training was a recurring theme in the comments of many candidates. Sundiata Keitazulu, a Newhallville plumbing business owner, repeatedly emphasized the need to develop a skilled workforce, and advocated for creating vocational schools and training centers to achieve this end – also controversially noting that jobs should go to citizens before immigrants. Justin Elicker, East Rock alderman and graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and the Yale School of Management, highlighted the need to invest in underserved areas of New Haven such as Dixwell and Whalley Avenue, and suggested improving the city bus system on the grounds that public transportation is among the largest barriers to employment. Henry Fernandez noted the necessary expansion of healthcare workers in the city to serve the growing elderly population, and stressed the importance of building capacity so that new jobs can go to New Haven workers. Matthew Nemerson proposed enhanced connections between the Yale community and the “opportunity community,” including a buddy system, and saw his primary responsibility as mayor as competitively attracting billions of dollars of investment to New Haven.

Another prominent theme in the debate was affordable housing. Hillhouse High School principal Kermit Carolina suggested reviewing all policies to see how they impact homelessness. Fernandez cited his affordable housing experience on the Obama-Biden transition team at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and prioritized the need for accessing federal and state government resources to build new affordable housing in every neighborhood in New Haven. CT State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield talked about his work as a social justice activist on issues of poverty, education, and immigration. (A seventh mayoral candidate, CT State Senator Toni Harp, was unable to attend the debate.)

Elicker, who spoke passionately about the importance of transparency and making government immune to big money, is one of four candidates participating in the New Haven Democracy Fund, which is intended to help level the financial playing field among candidates. Under the terms of the Demoncracy Fund, Elicker and the other participants — Holder-Winfield, Keitazulu, and Carolina —  agree to comply with restrictions on fundraising and campaign spending, including a cap on the size of individual donations; in turn, the Democracy Fund provides public matching funds.

Although the debate covered a wide range of topics, it wasn’t quite comprehensive: points of overlap between social justice and the environment, and the potential to improve both simultaneously, went unmentioned. The debate could have covered access to healthy food and green space, infill development in brownfields and vacant lots, and the potential to weatherize and improve energy efficiency in affordable housing developments to help residents save on their energy bills. Hopefully an upcoming debate — Sunday, May 19th, on the topic of economic development — will touch upon some of these concerns.

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