Head of the class
Twenty-four years before he was elected mayor of New Haven, Conn., John DeStefano discovered his passion for politics. “I was 14 years old, and I worked in my first primary campaign, a Democratic campaign for mayor of New Haven,” he says. “It was a team sport. We were a group of kids, and it was fun and exciting. I can’t say I knew the candidate or I knew the issues, but I knew I enjoyed being with other people and going to different parts of the city. It was cool.”
Speaking with DeStefano today, one has to wonder whether the enthusiasm he remembers was a result of his campaign experience or simply a natural part of his character. Talking about city government, DeStefano is energetic, passionate, thoughtful and quick to laugh at himself.
Regardless of its origins, the teenager’s verve matured into a desire to govern. The future mayor — a lifelong resident of New Haven — studied political science and earned his Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He began his public career as a budget analyst for New Haven, and he eventually would serve as the city’s chief administrative officer and chief of economic development before making his first run for the mayor’s office.
“Like most bureaucrats, I knew more than the elected official, and I wanted to take a shot at being an elected official,” DeStefano says with a laugh. He campaigned for mayor in 1989, running on a platform that addressed housing and economic growth. “The city, like much of the United States, was riding on a period of strong economic growth, and folks were thinking about how to reach out to people with less,” he says. “Frankly, [my campaign] was not particularly nuanced or sophisticated.” The voters agreed.
They would rethink their position four years later, when the economy had collapsed and DeStefano launched his second bid for mayor. “The city had significant operating deficits,” DeStefano says. “At that point, the issues were stabilizing a series of tax increases, stemming the flow of jobs and population from the city and bringing some organization to city government. I think my background as a manager in government appealed to voters.”
Taking office in 1994, DeStefano has since been re-elected four times. During his tenure, New Haven has achieved a fund balance of $17.9 million and enjoys a AAA bond rating. The city has launched a literacy initiative to ensure that all students are reading at grade level by third grade, and it is one-third of the way through a $1.1 billion school construction initiative. Through its Livable Cities Initiative, New Haven has rehabilitated 500 housing units and demolished more than 400 blighted buildings. It also has created more than 3,400 jobs, building on assets in higher education (New Haven is home to four universities), the biotechnology and biomedical fields, the arts, retail and manufacturing.
Next month, DeStefano will become the 76th president of the National League of Cities (NLC), bringing to that job the same sense of engagement that he brings to his work in New Haven. He is acutely aware of a changing world, the changing role of local government and the need to prepare today’s children for the future.
You have been mayor nearly 10 years. How has New Haven changed during that time?
It’s a different city than it was when I became mayor. The city’s much stronger in defining its competitive advantages and being able to capitalize on them. For example, my largest employer — and landowner — is Yale University, and one-half of that institution’s budget [goes to] the School of Medicine. There are 25 biotech companies in Connecticut; 18 of them are in greater New Haven, and approximately 15 of them are in New Haven. We are now getting six to eight startups of biotech companies in the city each year. It is a major part of the tax and job base not only for my city but for surrounding communities, and there has been a real focus and development of skills around nurturing and growing these companies.
The city has benefited from strong partnerships, and defining places for collaboration has really worked well for us, particularly in areas like housing. For example, we have a homebuyer’s program: If you’re a Yale employee and you purchase a home in New Haven, you get $25,000 [toward the purchase]. This is whether you work in a dining hall or you’re Ernesto Zedillo (director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and former Mexico president). Five hundred people have bought homes in New Haven in the last six years under that program, and that has [positively] affected a lot of the character of the community.
How do New Haven’s current challenges compare to those of most other cities?
Ours are different. We’re an older, northeastern, industrial city. And what you see generally in [that type of city] is old infrastructure and old manufacturing plants, which are now brownfields. You will typically see the segregation of poor and racial minorities, which is largely the result, in Connecticut, of very exclusionary zoning policies. You look at Connecticut and see the highest per capita income in the nation, and then you see some cities — mine included — that have among the lowest per capita incomes among cities over 100,000.
New Haven is 20 square miles. We have no open space or unincorporated land, and we haven’t [had it] for 100 years. We’ve been fully built out since the First World War. While many cities are managing growth, we are managing rebuilding; we are constantly rebuilding because we have zero open space.
As mayor, what are the advantages and disadvantages of serving two-year terms?
The pros of frequent elections are that you get to present yourself to voters frequently; the cons are that you get to present yourself to voters frequently. You’re in a continuous cycle of fundraising, and you’re in a continuous cycle of being subjected to political pressures by groups that will seek to exert themselves during elections. There’s a question [on this month’s ballot] that proposes changing elected officials’ terms from two to four years.
How do you see the role of local government changing?
I’m very interested right now in what’s happening in Maryland, Washington and Virginia. [The mayor’s interview with American City & County occurred two days after the 11th sniper attack in metropolitan Washington, D.C.] I have been struck by the fact that the officials I see on TV are local officials.
It occurs to me that, [regardless of whether the sniper] turns out to be connected to al Qaeda or any of these other groups, a new kind of behavior has been licensed in the world. We live in a very different world where national boundaries are less relevant than they used to be; state boundaries are not at all relevant. This is very local stuff.
I think we’re passing into a time when cities are increasingly relevant. I actually think we’re going to see a period that is going to challenge our concepts of federalism.
How do you characterize the federal government’s response to local security needs?
I am quite frankly appalled at the lack of federal attention to what is happening in metro Washington right now and [the federal government’s] continued failure to recognize the new role of cities and towns in national defense. The world has changed; we’re more part of the world than ever before; and the more meaningful government players on this new playing field are going to be local officials.
The federal government’s insistence on dealing with states on this Homeland Security structure just boggles my mind. Cities and towns have been guarding airports and ports; cities and towns have been responding to anthrax attacks; cities and towns have been responding to terror. What happened on Sept. 11  was unthinkable, and what’s happening in Washington was unthinkable before it happened. We [would be] naïve to think that there are not going to be other unthinkable actions. We need a partnership with the federal government that recognizes the need to strengthen capacity of localities to deal with the unthinkable because we’re the guys who pick up the phone when it rings.
I think it is foolish for us to separate the kind of behavior we’re seeing now in metro Washington from the Sept. 11 attacks, and we would be derelict in our responsibility if we didn’t acknowledge that this is going to continue at some level. Many of the resources required to effectively combat these challenges are mired down in [debates over the Department of Homeland Security]. The one-year anniversary of the [Sept. 11] attacks came and went, and I don’t think any of us a year ago would have predicted that we would make so little progress in working with localities to get the job done.
What are some of the legislative issues that NLC faces as you prepare to take office?
Some of them are dictated by the legislative calendar: TEA-21 (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century) reauthorization, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) reauthorization. Some of them, like Homeland Security, are dictated by circumstances. And some of them are dictated by our interests — in my case, early childhood education.
I have a great passion for having kids arrive at school ready to learn. For all the discussion about why schools don’t succeed, a lot of it has to do with kids arriving at school already behind and staying behind for the rest of their public school career.
I go to my kindergarten, and I see a kid who’s behind; who’s not able to sit still; who doesn’t know their left from their right; who doesn’t know their alphabet; who’s vocabulary is extraordinarily limited; and who comes from what is clearly an unstable home environment. That’s not a failure of schools; it’s a failure of the family that schools are dealing with.
To dump on the schools the idea that they’re somehow going to remediate all these kids in 12 years and have them at proficient levels — as the No Child Left Behind Act proposes — is a real perpetration on people. I think America needs to pay better attention to kids at the time when 80 percent of their adult brain is being grown — when most of the connections in their head are being made. These kids and society at large pay an awful price when [we do not look at what is happening to them] from the time of birth to age five.
Have you developed a model program in New Haven to address early childhood education?
We think we do some real good things with early learning, and we think we need to know how to do a little bit better on that.
New Haven’s School Department is part of the city budget. The city has broadly invested in getting kids ready to learn by the time they reach kindergarten. Seventy-five percent of our kids are now in pre-K programs.
We’ve moved to full days in all our kindergartens, and we have aides in all our [kindergartens and first and second grades]. We are surrounding students with support early on.
How will NLC address early childhood education?
NLC has a wonderful institute started under (Boston Mayor) Tommy Menino about five years ago called Youth Education and Families Institutes that focuses on issues surrounding kids. We’re going to release [results of] a study in December [addressing] why this period of time — from birth to five — is important for children. What are the outcomes if we don’t pay attention to kids? What is possible when we do pay attention? Why should local elected officials, who are generally more concerned with roadways and utilities and public safety, be concerned about this?
NLC [also will] release some best practices and then challenge a number of communities to really give themselves a report card on how they do by kids. They will then be challenged to come up with a game plan to better serve kids in their communities, either directly or in partnership with other institutions of the community.
We wake up, and we say, “Hey, we’re Americans, and anyone can be president.” But let’s be honest. By the time we reach kindergarten, we know a lot of kids who are never going to be president because of the experiences they’ve had between birth and five.
My goal is to have some number of communities walk away from the next year saying, “What we do with kids between birth and five is [important]. The time we have with them can’t be replaced; we can’t remediate; and we can’t send them to summer school to fix [what is wrong]. We have a responsibility to see that all members of our community have a level playing field.”
We like to believe that we all have a chance to cross the finish line, but boy, all of us sure don’t start the race at the same place. I want us to begin thinking about our responsibility in terms of the values we hold dear as Americans — particularly fairness.