O n New Year’s Day, 2014, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will step down and Mayor-Elect Toni Harp will step up.
You might think that after serving a record-setting 10 two-year terms at the helm of a city that’s invigorated its downtown, overhauled its public education system, widened its economic base and experienced lingering crime and budget conundrums—and vigorously and publicly debated the mayor’s work in these areas at every turn—DeStefano would be taking a lengthy break, perhaps somewhere tropical.
But slowing down isn’t really his style. He’ll immediately report for duty as an executive at START Community Bank, which has made it easier for lower-income citizens to open and keep bank accounts and to attain the security and conveniences they afford. A longtime champion of community banking, DeStefano was instrumental in START’s emergence as Buffalo, New York-based First Niagara Bank moved to absorb the homegrown NewAlliance Bank in 2010, and has served on START’s board since that year.
In the last 20 years, he’s been a champion of many things. Some observers, including Mayor-Elect Harp, have at one time or another dubbed him the “education mayor,” referring first and foremost to the $1.5 billion-plus “Citywide School Construction Program” he’s shepherded, which has rebuilt or renovated 37 of New Haven’s 41 public school facilities since 1995. He also launched the “School Change Initiative” in 2009, setting performance goals including raising test scores to the state average or above and—where the most progress has occurred—cutting the high school dropout rate in half.
In 2007, DeStefano led the charge on a first-of-its-kind immigration reform. The city passed a plan to issue official “Elm City Resident Cards” to city dwellers regardless of their documentation status. The cards’ primary purpose was to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows,” as many news articles put it then, by allowing them to open bank accounts, file police reports and access public libraries, among other community-building activities and dignities. Coincidentally or not, within days of the measure’s approval by the Board of Aldermen, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided homes and businesses throughout Latino-heavy Fair Haven. DeStefano lambasted the ICE for “terrorizing” immigrants, and the city proceeded to implement the I.D. card plan anyway.
Improving access to quality financial, educational and civic resources for New Haveners hasn’t been undertaken in a vacuum. It interacts with a local crime problem that was at its worst and most sustained when DeStefano took office in 1994. After that year, the crime rate leveled out at a lower average clip for a long while, then increased from 2009 to 2011 before a sharp reduction in 2012, coinciding with what the mayor’s office calls a “strong focus on Community Policing.” As of the end of September, 2013 was on track for better overall results than 2012.
Like all political figures, DeStefano suffered losses and faced strong critiques. There was sweeping defeat in his gubernatorial run against the incumbent Jodi Rell in 2006, and there was a close call in the 2011 mayoral race, with the mayor winning a relatively narrow 10-point victory against hard-charging independent Jeffrey Kerekes. The challenger’s campaign was a reaction against what Kerekes saw as a rubber-stamp relationship between DeStefano and the Board of Aldermen, and against perceived shortcomings regarding school performance, budgeting and crime.
It’s said that it’s lonely at the top, but DeStefano doesn’t seem very alone. He’s quick to note that, of all the things he’ll miss about being mayor, “the interactions with people I’ve come to know so well, by working with them either inside or outside government,” rank first. In addition to continuing his legacy of community-building at START, DeStefano will be an instructor at both Yale and Southern Connecticut State Universities in 2014, where he’ll teach about public administration and policy, he says.
So you can expect to keep seeing his familiar face around town, perhaps whizzing past on a bicycle, which DeStefano indicates is one of his favorite ways to experience New Haven. “When you bike the city, you’re able to talk to people and stop and go to places where cars can’t go,” he says. “One of the reasons I’m so committed to staying in New Haven is that whether I go to Vito’s to get a salad, or to Sidney’s to get my clothes fixed, or to Stop & Shop, I just end up being lucky enough to run into people that I’ve known my whole life, and that’s a very rich experience.”
Written by Cara McDonough. Photographed by Uma Ramiah.