NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Last fall's municipal elections here made history. The implications, if heeded, bode well for 2012.
When the new 30-member Board of Aldermen was sworn into office on New Year's Day at the Hill Career High School, the auditorium was packed. This was no ordinary inauguration. It marked the largest number of new elected officials ever here, and the largest number of union members and pro-union community residents ever to take office at the same time. Their composition, including many African American, Latino, women and youth is the most representative of the city's population.
New Haven's new governing body is the product of a reawakened activism throughout the city. Union workers at Yale University, the dominant employer in the city, led the effort neighborhood by neighborhood, ward by ward, door knocking since last spring to find out what was on people's minds and lay the groundwork for 15 primary challenges to incumbent aldermen. When 14 won it was a stunning victory. In the general election a total of 21 aldermen elected are a part of the labor-community movement.
Anger and dissatisfaction was widespred at the lack of investment in neighborhoods compared to downtown, the lack of jobs for community residents created by big new development, and the shocking number of youth killed in street violence.
At first people shrugged off the home visits saying that nothing will ever change. But as the summer wore on and attitudes shifted, more and more residents began joining the team of door knockers in their wards. The idea became contagious that participation and unity can win positive change. Across the city over 400 people, many for the first time, and many youth, made the commitment to knock on the doors of their neighbors and make the case for why they should come out and vote.
There was electricity in the air at an overflow rally before primary election day. No one could remember a campaign rally with such a diverse turnout truly reflecting every section and population of the city including the youth. This composition was duplicated on a larger scale in December at a community gathering held to develop the grassroots agenda that will guide the priorities of these aldermen going forward.
As the bigger challenge of governing unfolds, leadership-building at the ward and neighborhood level to establish permanent organization that can mobilize year round will be the test.
It was the relationships built during door knocking that negated an all-out effort aided by the media to discredit the movement by claiming that union members holding public office would only represent their union's agenda and not the agenda of the neighborhoods. Residents could see for themselves that the agenda is one and the same. The working class values of these candidates were clear. The fact that these candidates had learned their leadership skills within the union became a positive factor. The anti-union split and divide tactic fell flat.
This leadership is already being tested with attempts to create racial divisions by the old political structure. They are going onto the offensive to support the priorities set out by the community. At a jammed crowd of students and parents protesting at the Board of Education and a big community meeting demanding that the Q House, a closed youth center, be re-opened, the newly elected aldermen provided direction and a unity message.
As the challenge to address extreme poverty in the midst of Yale's great wealth unfolds in New Haven, the lessons learned in this election will be critical for the 2012 elections in Connecticut and beyond.
The presidential campaign and the open U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut provide the bigger context. The right of workers to a voice at work with union representation, the role of government for the common good, the equal rights of racially oppressed people and women, the chance for youth to earn, learn and live are all at stake in 2012.
It will take the leadership of the labor movement, the mobilization of the community, and tireless one-on-one conversations about whose interests each candidate represents, in every election district across this country, to win this epic election battle on the side of working people.
Photo: A New Haven rally. Joelle Fishman/PW