Over the summer, John Halle, at that time one of two Greens on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen, announced that he would not seek another term and wrote, rightly, in the New Haven Advocate that more on the left should recognize that
…getting something accomplished in government–getting a stop sign put in at a dangerous intersection, getting a loud bar closed down, keeping a power plant out of the city–means moving from spectator to participant in government.
Becoming a participant means talking to people, sometimes people very different from yourself, and getting to know them, not treating them as theoretical terms in a complex behavioristic model, but as human beings…
That piece, unfortunately, went downhill from there, concluding cynically and wrongly based on his few years on the board that
Most of the time when someone wants a virtually unpaid job in local government with the Democratic machine [like alderman or commission member], it means they’re up to no good. They probably have some scheme that will allow them or some friend favorable consideration before the city. Or they will exchange their vote and their independence for a patronage job on the Board of Ed, a marshal [contract], a community development block grant to the non-profit they manage. If they’re an Ivy Leaguer, local politics means a brief experience on the ground giving them street cred before they move into high-paying appointed positions in the permanent government.
So if someone comes knocking at your door telling you how much they want the job, that may be the strongest indication that they shouldn’t have it.
This Yale Professor’s broad-brush condemnation of everyone else involved in city government, and the self-serving justification behind it for his failure to transform the city for his Aldermanic perch, received a good deal of deserved criticism, from this letter from David Adams Murphy
But of course, you didn’t go into local politics for such a mundane motive as money or prestige. No, you did it to help people, as a gesture of your boundless magnanimity. … And when you discovered that your effectiveness against seasoned politicos would be minimal at best; that these corrupt, ignorant polyester-clad slobs wouldn’t welcome you as their Ivy League messiah, cast aside their nets full of graft and follow you into the wilderness; that whatever you might accomplish would come at the cost of drudging through minutiae, you felt bad about yourself . Which kinda defeats the whole point of becoming a Yalie, huh?
to this one from Alderman Ben Healey:
The cynicism underlying [Halle’s] statement undercuts all that we progressives should work for in this city. How can we build grassroots political structures if our first reaction to those who take the risk of getting involved is one of suspicion? We will never empower ourselves to fight for social change if we do not each, instead of rejecting that door-knocker, engage him or her and join the fight for social justice (either with that person or an opposing candidate)…
Halle made the (unfortunately common) mistake of mixing strident critique of entrenched local government power structures – which inspired important work during his time on the Board – with an air of condescension towards the working people such government should represent, and who are the first victims of its failures.
Halle has now written a longer retrospective on his time on the Board, which is similarly a mixed bag. He repeats his blanket condemnation of New Haven Aldermen (as if, simply by nature of being elected, there must be something wrong with them). His critique certainly applies to some of the Aldermen; it is an undeserved and misguided slur, however, against several others. The Connecticut Center for a New Economy deserves credit for its work in getting many of the latter group elected, and for modeling a strategy of finding and supporting candidates with strong ties within their communities and helping them organize to win elections based not on their identification as Democrats or Greens, or as allies or opponents of Mayor DeStefano’s machine, but on their articulation of an agenda for substantive progressive change in their communities and in New Haven.
Halle articulates, quite well, the compelling need for organized political movements to the left of local Democratic parties and, kal v’chomer (all the more so) the sicker national Democratic party:
the prospect of politics escaping from elite control and the fear that it induces among elites is what forces substantive, as opposed to merely superficial, political concessions from the actors in the two corporate parties who serve elite interests.
The historical precedents for this view are well known. Bismarck’s acceptance of national health insurance is generally understood to be a concession in the face of the revolutions of 1848. The success of West German labor unions in the Cold War period is understood to have resulted from the silent presence of a third negotiator at the table-the eastern bloc. The threat posed by organized leftist politics, both domestic and foreign, is what created the climate for the passage of New Deal legislation…
And conversely, the waning of serious, organized oppositional politics is certain to result in the dismantling of the gains which have been achieved in period of progressive ferment – in increasing concentration of wealth, assaults on civil and human rights, inferior working conditions etc.
But running on the Green ticket is not enough. CCNE and the Democratic Machine worked together in November to defeat the challenge to incumbebt Democrat Alfreda Edwards,
a Black working mother who’d filed more complaints on behalf of her constituents than anyone else on the Board, from Green Charles Pillsbury (yeah, those Pillsburys), who made news denouncing Yale’s unions and Yale’s administration as equally stubborn and unwilling to compromise and then tried to insinuate himself on an 1199 podium long enough to make it into the photograph.
The Green Yale’s unions – in a deeply unfortunate move – did support, Joyce Chen, was most clearly distinguished from her Democratic challenger, Andre Baker, by Chen’s opposition to one of the major progressive reforms on the table in New Haven: Domestic Partnership.
The DeStefano machine, as was most recently and dramatically demonstrated by DeStefano’s shameful pact with the New Haven Savings Bank, needs critical opposition, and critical opposition movements, from the left. On some issues, as Paul Bass argued in October, New Haven’s Greens have done so admirably. On others, they’ve dropped the ball. Halle’s latest piece exemplifies both the potential for third party politics in cities like New Haven and – inadvertently – the traps they face.