By Anthony Kayruz, Jillian Kravatz, and Aaron Mak

On April 12, Fish Stark ’17 arrived at High Street Gate followed closely by his campaign team. They crowded around the table set up by the Yale College Democrats, making small talk and stooping over to pick up blank voter registration forms. A few minutes later, Sarah Eidelson ’12—who represents Ward 1 on New Haven’s Board of Alders—walked toward the table too.

Eidelson said nothing to Stark, and Stark said nothing to Eidelson. The two may have been united in their effort to register Yale students to vote in Connecticut, but the tension between them was palpable.

Stark had announced his candidacy for Ward 1 alder on March 3, challenging Eidelson for her seat, but Eidelson was not going to back down. Both progressive Democrats agreed to run as Independents to avoid a primary; both assumed they were each other’s only competition.

Yet while Stark was gathering his campaign team—mostly members of the Yale Dems—for a picture by the High Street Gate, and while Eidelson was visiting students in Calhoun to encourage registration, a third contestant was gearing up to vie for the seat.

Ugonna Eze ’16 has informed The Politic that he will be running for Ward 1 alder as a Republican candidate.

This race could shape up to be one of the messiest and most exhilarating that Ward 1 has ever seen.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 8.30.14 PMUnaware of this announcement, Tyler Blackmon ’16, president of the Yale College Democrats, told The Politic, “It’s really, really unlikely for a Republican to come in [to the alder race]. I’d be very surprised if the Republicans ran someone. They just don’t have the infrastructure right now.”

But according to Eze’s campaign manager, Amalia Halikias ’15, “the Republicans” are not running Eze. In his candidacy statement, Eze praised the diversity of his campaign staff, a group “composed of Democrats and Republicans, YCC representatives and environmental advocates, a cappella singers and rap artists, journalists and local activists.” Already, Eze’s team includes Halikias, who also serves as the Communications Director of the Yale College Republicans, and Sterling Johnson ’15, the former Legislative Coordinator of the Yale College Democrats and the treasurer for Eidelson’s 2013 campaign.

The last time three candidates ran for Ward 1 in 2009, they all leaned left. Minh Tran ’09, Katie Harrison ’11, and Mike Jones ‘11 ran as Democrats, but the race only lasted a few short months as they decided to compete for the Democratic nomination in April. In 2015, however, all three candidates are committed to running in the general election. Given the unusual factors at play, this race could shape up to be one of the messiest and most exhilarating that Ward 1 has ever seen.

***

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 8.25.30 PMWith just under a month to go before her first Election Day, Sarah Eidelson sat down in the Yale Daily News (YDN) newsroom with then-opinion editor Julia Fisher ’13 for a taped interview. The issues in 2011 were largely the same as they are today—crime, student involvement, unions, education. Eidelson was composed, didn’t need the water sitting on the table in front of her, and answered the questions with a smile.

It was October 2011, and Eidelson was a senior American Studies and Art double major at Yale with a progressive platform to revive the economy of downtown New Haven, “build a bridge” between town and gown, and strengthen grassroots community engagement.

Eidelson’s earnestness and a 164-vote margin of victory over opponent Democrat Vinay Nayak ’12 carried her into the alder seat. Since then, reactions to Eidelson’s work in the city have ranged from enthusiastic applause to lukewarm skepticism—few, if any, have condemned her performance as the chair of the city’s Youth Committee. When asked about the proudest accomplishments of her last term, Eidelson pointed to the Youth Map, an interactive online database that connects students with afterschool programs, and a fund that has provided $1.25 million to expand dozens of youth violence prevention programs in New Haven. And on April 20, she was elected the Board of Alders’ Third Officer, a position that ensures she will have weekly, one-on-one meetings with Mayor Toni Harp and plum committee assignments.

The son of former U.S. Representative Fortney “Pete” Stark Jr., who served in various California districts from 1973 to 2013, Fortney “Fish” Stark III started his political activism early. In high school, he was elected president of the Princeton Model Congress and founded Teaching Peace Initiative, a nonprofit that stresses the value of teaching young students nonviolence and compassion.

At Yale, Stark can be found at debates of the Independent Party and meetings of the Yale Dems, an organization he helped lead as Membership Coordinator. His campaign’s website and Facebook page testify to his active involvement in the New Haven community: his time volunteering at Squash Haven, in New Haven schools, and on the city’s Peace Commission. This summer, too, Stark will be in New Haven, working at the Calvin Hill Day Care Center. Sergio Lopez ’18, Stark’s campaign manager, told The Politic that Stark intends to expand his voter base by meeting with Ward 1 residents outside of Yale during the summer.

The son of Nigerian immigrants, Ugonna Eze spent the first eight years of his life in the north side of the Bronx in New York City. His family had little, and basic accommodations like electricity were no guarantee. He recalls having trouble with the poor public school system and avoiding the crosshairs of violent crime, but credits his parents with placing him in charter school and supplementing his education with what the community had to offer, such as afterschool programs at the local YMCA.

Eze is now the Speaker of the Yale Political Union (YPU), a brother of the Black Men’s Union, a co-founder of the Yale Freestyle Collective, a courier at the Yale Law School, and a contributing columnist for the YDN.He has advised students at Hillhouse High School on issues affecting black youth, such as stop and frisk policies. “I interact with New Haven in a bunch of different ways,” Eze told The Politic. “Tomorrow I’m going to go play chess with this lady Monique who works at HGS. I take drives through the city in my Zipcar. I like to have conversations with random New Haven residents.”

The three candidates’ backgrounds are different. Their experiences are varied. They have different visions for the city and different plans for convincing Yale they can deliver that vision. But they all share the same hope: to be elected the alder of Ward 1.

***

Ward 1 stretches from the bottom of the New Haven Green on Church Street to the Pierson College Gate on Park Street. Covering Old Campus and eight of Yale’s residential colleges, it’s the only ward in New Haven that is comprised almost entirely by Yale students.

“As residents of New Haven, we all have a responsibility to our new home city, and Ward 1 is our vehicle for fulfilling that,” Jacob Wasserman, the current Ward 1 Democratic co-chair, explained to The Politic. For Wasserman, this requires an alder who can “facilitate student interaction with the city, while recognizing that student needs are both legitimate and compatible with those of most everyone else in New Haven.”

Yet many feel that Eidelson, now in her second term as Ward 1 alder, has not done enough to reach out to current students and establish a presence on campus. “You only see Sarah during an election year between the months of April and November. That’s just a fact,” Johnson, Eidelson’s former treasurer and a member of Eze’s campaign team, told The Politic, “In terms of being a bridge [between Yale and New Haven], she has not done that.”

Sam Sussman ’16, a member of the YPU with Eze, was even blunter. “Eidelson’s time in office might best be characterized by her absenteeism. Where is she around campus?” he wrote in the YDN.

When asked about the criticism she has received over her supposed truancy, Eidelson responded, “I’ve taken a lot of different approaches like physical newsletters, email newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, events. I’ve held office hours every week for three years now. But I’ve found that the most effective thing tends to be the actual conversations with people. I try to have as many conversations as I can.”

Of course, some Ward 1 residents continue to laud Eidelson, claiming that the alder’s presence on campus is not a good indication of her impact on the greater New Haven community. “Quality of interaction is more important than quantity of interaction,” Sarah Giovanniello ’16, the other Democratic Ward 1 co-chair, told The Politic. “From what I’ve seen, Sarah’s interactions [with students] are very high quality.” Giovanniello pointed to Eidelson’s leadership in the final stages of the New Haven Board of Education reforms, noting that the alder brought in Yale students who had been members of their high school education boards to testify on behalf of adding student board members in New Haven.

Stark, too, has faced criticism. Johnson called Stark a “budding politician” and worried, “Fish [Stark] will just show up when the sun’s shining to shake hands.” Stark told the The Politic that he understands why people might be concerned about his intentions, but directed his critics to focus on his track record in New Haven instead of his political pedigree.

So far, Stark’s campaign seems to be geared toward filling the perceived desire for a more involved representative. Stark is indeed a presence on campus, organizing meetings with an array of progressive student groups and hosting Friday night dinners to share his ideas for New Haven with fellow students.

“The reason I am running is because I treasure the experiences I’ve had, the folks I’ve met, and what I’ve been able to do in this city,” he said. To Stark, his experiences working in New Haven have done more than earn him a good track record; they’ve also given him insight into where Yale needs to improve its outreach. For example, although Dwight Hall currently serves to promote student involvement in New Haven, Stark thinks that “it can’t do everything on its own.”

Eze agrees that Dwight Hall needs help, recalling a time when the Black Men’s Union volunteered in the city, but was given tasks that did not best suit the group’s abilities. He also feels that Stark’s campaign, while well intentioned, suffers from a  “White Knight complex” common among Yale students. He explained to The Politic, “Oftentimes we [Yale students] may even feel like we’re doing a favor to the residents of New Haven, which is not the way we should be thinking about these issues.”

“My background is not all that different from most New Haven residents,” Eze added, explaining that his platform was informed by more than just good intentions. “I lived in a part of the Bronx where I faced many of the same challenges that New Haveners face. Local public schools were crappy. There was violence on the streets. There was a big divide between the wealthier parts of the city […] and the parts where I lived.” It is this background, he said, that will motivate him to tackle problems that other alder candidates may overlook.

Eze’s involvement in New Haven, however, is neither as visible nor as celebrated as Stark and Eidelson’s efforts. “As opposed to Fish, who is very involved with the city, […] I am more involved with Yale’s campus proper and student life here at Yale,” Eze said. Regardless, Eze hopes to leverage his relationships with campus leaders to connect Yale students to the New Haven community. Eze observed, “You have to understand the organizations that you’re interacting with, and you have know that an organization like Black Men’s Union will be able to bring out 20 people versus a random group at Yale that may have looser ties and won’t be able to bring people in the same numbers.”

In terms of goals and ideology, Stark and Eidelson are almost identical. “Sarah and I are both progressive Democrats,” Stark said. “We both have pretty similar visions for the city. I doubt there are substantive differences.” Stark’s main selling point, then, is that he is far more involved in student life than Eidelson and can “work to bridge the divide between Yalies and the city.”

On matters of policy, none of the candidates has yet rolled out a concrete platform. It remains to be seen whether Eze’s relative conservatism will result in any substantive differences from Stark’s and Eidelson’s unabashedly progressive agendas. Still, he focuses more on the attitudinal difference he would make as an alder. “The issue right now is that there hasn’t been any debate,” said Eze. “A lot of what’s been going on with the campaign so far is each person is trying to size themselves up and portray themselves in one light versus the other rather than from the get-go talking about certain issues that really affect the student body.”

Eze has made it clear that he is not afraid to hold Eidelson accountable for what he sees as the missteps of her last term, something that he asserts Stark is neglecting. For example, when asked about the Q House, a former community center that has been awaiting a restoration with Eidelson’s vocal support, Eze exclaimed, “Oh my God, it’s absolutely ridiculous!”  He decried what he sees as incompetence in the process, highlighting the “rising cost of consultants.” He added, “These are the kinds of things that we should be pushing candidates on, and we haven’t seen it yet come from Fish. This is not negative campaigning, this is just accountability.”

Three very different candidates guarantees that the debate on campus will be more charged than it was during the last two aldermanic elections. How these debates play out, however, remains to be seen.

***

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 8.24.56 PMThe next time Yalies will trek to the New Haven Public Library to cast a ballot is seven months away, but already Eidelson, Stark, and Eze are seeking to lock down support for their candidacies.

Stark’s outsized presence and work with the Yale College Democrats—the university’s largest activist organization—has swung a large contingent of Dems in his favor. Every member of the Dems’ executive board has endorsed Stark except for the president, vice president, and elections coordinator. These three leaders decided to abstain from endorsements, they said, to ensure that the organization remains neutral.

The Dems have a policy of not supporting one candidate over another when multiple Democrats run, so the organization is not officially endorsing any candidates in this race. “We never want to endorse one Democratic candidate over another because we have a very diverse membership,” Blackmon told The Politic. “We don’t want to alienate certain parts of the membership.” Instead, he sees his role in this race as a neutral arbiter, ensuring that debates between Eidelson and Stark “stay above the belt.”

Of course, the Dems are far from the only activist group on campus. Many members of Students United Now (SUN), for instance, are already firmly in the Eidelson camp. (The Politic approached a SUN leader three times in person, and emailed other leaders eight times in total, but the organization made no representatives available for comment.) Eidelson works for Yale’s unions Local 34 and Local 35 as a graphic designer and is listed as the press contact on their website. In her previous two elections, the unions threw their endorsements and manpower behind Eidelson’s campaign. “The unions will obviously being doing a lot of work in this race,” Blackmon said.

With progressive organizations divided between Stark and Eidelson, some campus activists openly worry that a split vote could throw the election to a Republican. “If there are two competitive Democrats running against each other, the Republicans would be crazy not to run someone,” said Jackson Beck ’17, the Legislative Coordinator for the Yale Dems. While Blackmon doubts that a Republican challenger would garner much support on campus, he nonetheless noted, “If it became obvious that a Republican was really going to spoil the election and one of the [Democratic] candidates started fading, we might bolster one [Democratic] candidate and push the other one out.”

But even with a potential vote and resource split on the Democrats’ side, Eze’s decision to run as a Republican could seriously hamstring his campaign. According to a survey of 437 students conducted by The Politic on April 18, only 10 percent of Yale undergraduate students in Ward 1 identify as Republican, while 60 percent identify as Democrat. Whereas the Yale Dems count more than 150 students as active members, the Yale College Republicans often struggle to attract double-digits to their meetings.

In order to win, Eze will have to convince a sizeable number of Democrats and Independents that he deserves their votes. Eze acknowledges the potential downsides of his party affiliation. “I know I would probably have a better chance as an Independent,” he admitted. “But this goes back to what I said earlier—raising the level of discussion.” Eze later wrote in an email, “Growing up, I saw that many Democratic policies, though well intentioned, had negative effects on the people and neighborhoods they were supposed to help.” He imagines a New Haven in which “the communities themselves dictate what kind of policies they want from city government.”

Eze’s political ideology is difficult to pin down, but he believes his views on national partisan issues are irrelevant to his campaign for alder. “I would like to differentiate between the reputation of the Republican Party on the national level and my choice to identify as a Republican on an individual level,” he told The Politic via email. “I firmly believe that the Republican institution has room to grow with regard to its views on racial politics and climate change.”

In an attempt to shed associations with the national GOP, the campaign will promote the pragmatic advantages of the Republican label. Eze pointed out that he will most likely be the only Republican on the board if elected, making him the de facto leader of a minority party. According to the New Haven charter, minority leaders get first choice for any committees they would like to sit on and are entitled to weekly meetings with the mayor. Eze argued that an amplified voice on the board would allow him to better serve the constituents in Ward 1.

On April 20, however, Eidelson was voted in as Third Officer by the board, which gives her the same privileges. Due to a charter provision in 2013, the board is now allowed to pick a member of the majority party to fill the role of the minority leader. Since the board is entirely Democratic, Eidelson’s voice is also amplified. Her remarks before the board bidding for the position read, “There are over 50,000 people in New Haven my age or younger, under the age of 25. Often youth voices are overlooked.” She went on to say that she would work to harness those voices.

When asked for a comment on the recent development, Halikias said, “It is clear that the appointment of Alder Eidelson to [Third Officer] is not a meaningful advancement that has been earned through merit, but rather a Machiavellian statement of support for the absent Democrat incumbent, whom the establishment supports because she serves as a mouthpiece for the unions rather than her constituents.”

The last Ward 1 Republican candidate also argued that he would take advantage of minority privileges in Ward 1, but to no avail. In 2013, Paul Chandler ’14, then an economics major and a star pole vaulter for Yale’s track team, challenged Eidelson in her bid for a second term. For the first time in 26 years, a Republican tried to end the Democrats’ reign in the ward. With a campaign team consisting of leaders of the Yale College Republicans, Chandler built a vague platform of fiscal responsibility and revamping public schools; his signature proposal to build a crosswalk connecting the New Haven Green and Phelps Gate was widely mocked.

Ultimately, Chandler received 37 percent of the vote in the predominantly Democratic ward. Ben Mallet ’16, Chandler’s campaign manager, sees these numbers as a sign that they “won the argument, but lost the election.” However, Blackmon argued, “People who voted for Chandler were not voting because they hold Republican ideals. It was because they were frustrated with Sarah [Eidelson].” Going into the next election, he predicts many of most of these voters will be attracted to Stark instead.

Mallet admitted that the Republican label was a considerable obstacle in the 2013 race. “We didn’t do a good enough job of overcoming [party affiliations],” he said, noting that freshmen in particular tended to vote along party lines. “Those students are more likely to vote on labels because they haven’t been in New Haven long enough to understand the issues affecting New Haven and the role of the alderman.” Alders, after all, do not often handle many of the partisan issues that are contested on the national stage, such as abortion and gay marriage—but according to campus political leaders on the left and the right, many students don’t consider this distinction between national politics and local policies.

Eze acknowledges this potential knowledge gap. “It’s a barrier, absolutely,” he said. “In a lot of the conversations I want to have with student groups and in common rooms, I will be explaining what this thing is and why it’s important.”

Halikias, who was Chandler’s press secretary, believes that Eze’s base of support is more diverse and more excited than Chandler’s campaign was. “Paul wasn’t particularly involved on campus outside of his circles. I think that’s one area where Ugonna and Paul are completely different,” she said. “Ugonna has this huge laundry list of extra curriculars and Paul was a varsity athlete, which is a pretty huge time commitment.”

Though they stress that this is a completely new campaign, Eze and Halikias are also applying the power of hindsight, drawing and discarding elements from the Chandler campaign. For one, they plan to be much more aggressive. “Every time someone puts out a policy proposal or statistic, we’re going to call them on it and say, ‘We don’t actually think that’s correct,’ or, ‘That’s not how you read that statistic,’” Halikias said.

Halikias also told The Politic that the campaign plans to actively reach out to freshmen in the first few weeks of the 2015 fall semester. “We’re going to come out swinging,” Eze agreed. Stark’s campaign is looking to curry favor with the incoming class, too. “We’ll plan a lot of events specifically targeted towards freshmen. We’re going to have a big presence on move-in days,” said Lopez, Stark’s campaign manager. Though the Eidelson campaign could not be reached for comment by press time, if her two last two runs for office are any indication, she will likely be present at the beginning of next year as well.

In addition to the usual bombardment of a cappella groups looking to recruit new vocalists and publications vying for talented writers, then, the Class of 2019 may be greeted to campus in the fall with an insistent knock by a canvasser at the door. But those who have lived through an alder race before know they can expect more than just a flood of campaign pamphlets and posters.

“Regardless of the outcome of the election, there will be some good that comes out of this,” Eze told The Politic. “People will think about Ward 1 differently. That much I can promise you.”

 

Editors’ Notes:

– Two members of The Politic’s editorial board, Eric Stern ’15 and Azeezat Adeleke ’17, have publicly endorsed Fish Stark. They did not contribute to the writing of this piece.

– A previous version of this article lists Julia Fisher as graduating in the class of 2012. She actually graduated in 2013.

– Previously, the antepenultimate paragraph stated that “Sarah Eidelson could not be reached for comment”; for clarity, this has been amended to “Sarah Eidelson could not be reached for comment by press time.”

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