New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, a former gubernatorial candidate and outspoken political survivor with a statewide profile, will not be seeking reelection this year after a 20-year tenure that led to a strong resurgence in the city’s downtown area.
As mayor of a prominent city for 20 years, DeStefano is currently the best-known local official in Connecticut. He acknowledges that his ability to gain media attention has been helped through the years because the Channel 8 television station is based in the Elm City. In that vein, Channel 8 devoted the first 8 minutes of its newcast Tuesday night to DeStefano’s retirement, saying it was the end of an era.
DeStefano, 57, has outlived all of his fellow big-city mayors through the years, including many colleagues who ran into criminal trouble like Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, and Waterbury mayors Joseph Santopietro and Phil Giordano. All four of those mayors have been convicted in court, and Perez is currently appealing his five felony convictions.
While DeStefano is a liberal policy wonk who rarely backs away from a challenge, insiders said that he ”saw the handwriting on the wall” as he faced a potentially difficult primary this year against state Rep. Gary A. Holder-Winfield. The state representative first won a seat in the legislature in 2008 and is expected to announce his candidacy soon. Another challenger, Alderman Justin Elicker of the city’s East Rock section, has already announced his candidacy.
Some New Haven Democrats sensed a political weakness in DeStefano this year, after two decades, because he won a closer-than-expected reelection two years ago against an underfunded, independent candidate with relatively little name recognition. It was DeStefano’s closest race since becoming mayor, and some local politicos were surprised it was so tight against a no-name candidate.
DeStefano survived many elections through the years, winning numerous primaries in Democratic-dominated New Haven.
On September 11, 2001 – the day of the terrorist attacks – DeStefano defeated longtime state legislator Martin Looney after a bitter primary battle with about 60 percent of the vote. Looney is now the state Senate majority leader – one of the most powerful posts at the state Capitol.
On Tuesday night, DeStefano returned to The Russian Lady – a nightclub where he had held election night parties in the past. Numerous supporters attended, including former House Speaker Chris Donovan, Yale University president Richard Levin, former U.S. Senate candidate Ned Lamont, and former Republican legislators Chris DePino and Sid Holbrook.
Quinnipiac University professor Scott McLean, who has followed DeStefano’s tenure closely, said that the nuances of DeStefano’s record are multi-faceted over a period of two decades.
“Like most urban mayors, John DeStefano’s achievements were mixed with controversy,” McLean said Tuesday in a statement. “In the 90’s, he made use of federal grants and a partnership with Yale to make New Haven into a cultural, technological and academic center in Connecticut. He led a huge effort to rebuild schools and to create New Haven Promise, giving more hope to working-class kids in the city.”
McLean, a New Haven resident, added, “He pushed for better police protection and city services for undocumented immigrants, provoking outrage from anti-immigration groups nationally. Yet New Haven is still dependent on federal and state grants and continually on the brink of fiscal crisis. Insider deals continue to be the norm. He allowed community policing to wither until the murder wave of 2011, and even after reviving community policing, a few neighborhoods still suffer an epidemic of violent crime.”
Near the height of his popularity as New Haven mayor, DeStefano stepped forward to run for governor in the 2006 cycle. In a hard-fought primary, he defeated Stamford Mayor Dannel P. Malloy, who later went on to become governor.
When he was running for governor, DeStefano told The Courant in an interview that it was time to seek the state’s top posst.
“Not everybody gets to get up in the morning and love their job,” DeStefano said at the time in an interview in his spacious office. “But I think there comes a time, both personally and for the community, that you need to move on. No matter how well you do a job, you’re going to leave it someday and there’s going to be plenty left for someone else to do.”
Even at the peak of his popularity, DeStefano was seen by some as prickly and sometimes arrogant. He made his share of political enemies among fellow Democrats and unions that sometimes had endorsed his primary opponents. But DeStefano said in 2006 that he had cultivated enough political support to make the leap to the state’s highest position – and that enabled him to win the Democratic primary.
As a policy wonk, DeStefano was heavily involved in issues like “smart growth.”
As chairman of a statewide commission looking at the problems of rising property taxes and suburban sprawl, DeStefano had a ready-made issue to build his campaign around. Local reliance on property taxes, he said at the time, was threatening the quality of life in Connecticut as revenue-starved municipal officials ceded hundreds of acres of open space to developers.
DeStefano’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Property Tax Burdens and Smart Growth Incentives proposed a massive overhaul of the state’s tax and land-use policies to combat sprawl. The changes, he said, would allow communities to preserve their characters while steering development to areas where roads and other infrastructure already exist — a win for everyone.
But in a state where home rule is an article of faith for most politicians, not everyone agreed with DeStefano.