In a race known for unexpected surprises, another one came Friday – New Haven mayoral frontrunner Toni Harp was endorsed by a cocaine-selling convicted felon who has turned his life around.
Sundiata Keitazulu, a plumber who spent 10 years in prison for selling cocaine under the name of John Denby before deciding to run for mayor, stepped forward at a news conference to say he was dropping out of the race and endorsing Harp.
First-time political candidates often have varied backgrounds, but Keitazulu openly admitted that he received a 19-year sentence that was sliced when he was paroled in 2005 after a decade behind bars. During candidate debates recently, Keitazulu sat at the table on an even playing field with the other Democrats. He was largely treated with respect, and he could sit through an entire debate with his background never being mentioned at all.
Like the other candidates, Keitazulu and his team of volunteers had been scrambling to collect 2,406 signatures to place his name on the Democratic primary ballot for September 10. He told Capitol Watch in an interview that he had already gathered more than the necessary 155 signatures that are needed to qualify as an independent candidate for the November ballot. The total represents 1 percent of the turnout in the most recent city election.
But he suddenly changed his mind Thursday night, dropped out of the race, and endorsed Harp during a news conference early Friday afternoon in New Haven.
An outspoken Democrat, Keitazulu is a plumber who learned his trade while behind bars. He has turned his life around at the age of 56 and says he wants young New Haven residents to get jobs in order to avoid the difficult path that he took. When he was in prison, he was known as John Anthony Denby, but his fellow candidates addressed him simply as Sundiata.
His race for mayor was a long way from prison.
“I didn’t have no skills,’’ Keitazulu said. “I didn’t have a job. I wasn’t trying to rob, steal or kill nobody for no money.’’
He added, “When I was in prison, I got my GED. I studied business management and accounting. I learned how to do minor plumbing work and minor electrical work. I tried to change a negative thing into a positive thing.’’
With his experience behind bars, Keitazulu said the state needs to take more steps for the prisoners who will finish their incarceration and end up back on the streets of New Haven and other communities.
“We’re paying $40,000 a year to keep somebody in prison when we could spend $12,000 on job training,’’ he said. “Prison makes a lot of people hate. It’s not nice in there. It’s a tough place. Tough. The toughest place I’ve ever been.’’
“They’re not reforming nobody,’’ he said. “You’ve got to put them in a program that will work – job-training programs. Teach them auto mechanics. Teach them to repair crashed cars. You could put them on a bracelet, and the taxpayer don’t pay for their room and board.’’
Like many inmates, Keitazulu feels that he was in prison for longer than he should have.
“I received a 19-year sentence for 19 dimes of cocaine,’’ he said. “I was in prison with guys who committed manslaughter and did less time. … The guy on the parole board said they saw guys with kilos of cocaine who had not gotten this type of sentence.’’