Karen DuBois-Walton is challenging incumbent New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker in the Democratic primary. She has focused much of her campaign on addressing a significant rise in incidents of homicide and assault with a deadly weapon after a decade of steadily declining crime in New Haven.
DuBois-Walton is executive director of New Haven’s Housing Authority, and previously served as the city’s chief of staff and chief administrative officer under Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
Connecticut Examiner spoke with DuBois-Walton about why public safety is at the core of her campaign platform, as well as how she differs from her opponent on issues of education, housing, and public-private partnerships.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve made decreasing crime a key component of your mayoral bid. Why has that been such a priority for you?
Issues of community safety were really primary in pulling me into this. Over the past year and a half, the level of all crime has risen, and the response of the administration seemed to be sort of, throwing up their hands and saying, well, it’s happening everywhere. They have really not demonstrated the kind of response that reflects the urgency of the issue. I was the chief administrative officer for the city, I know well what it takes to manage the police department. I know what things have happened in the past when crime has spiked and what’s been effective.
What things have been effective in the past?
New Haven was a model of community-based policing. This was a place in the 1990s and 2000s that other departments came to to learn what community policing looked like. It involves a partnership between people who want to talk and give information and patrol officers and detectives that do the work to follow up and prevent crime. We’ve also seen really low morale, which is different from in the past. An engaged police force is one component, and an engaged community is another. We have a really low rate of case closure, especially on violent crime and homicides. When police are not solving crimes, it creates a sense of lawlessness.
Strong partnerships with violence interrupters has been a huge part of what’s been effective in the past, and that totally fell away during the pandemic. The mayor and department leadership have been publicly saying things that let us know they weren’t following up on partnerships like Project Longevity, despite everyone predicting the pandemic was going to be a time of increased violence. It all stopped at the time when we needed it most.
The result is that we had 20 homicides last year, and we’re on track this year to exceed those numbers. The community was hurting, experiencing trauma and violence, losing lives, and the city didn’t seem to be able to do two things at once in terms of managing the health side of the pandemic and dealing with other pandemic-related challenges, like with crime.
What role does the idea of defunding the police play in your public safety platform?
This community really responded in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and other police-involved killings. State legislators responded, passing groundbreaking police accountability legislation which opened the door for local reforms. Here in New Haven, we should’ve been progressively moving forward too, engaging police differently and attempting to rebuild trust that had been lost. The mayor shied away from doing anything, and ended up cutting money from the police budget, not to invest in things around police accountability, but just to cut the budget because he was having general fund challenges.
Could it have been successful to reduce the police department budget and reinvest in other systems? Potentially. But you have to build up those other systems, start shifting things into the other systems, and then you can begin to reduce the need for gun and badge services. The more we move things out of policing, the more we can use the police resources we have more effectively in situations where you really do need a gun and a badge.
You’ve also criticized Mayor Elicker’s handling of education throughout the pandemic. What would you have done differently?
I sit on the State Board of Education, so I got real updates on what was happening in every district across the state. It was very troubling to see that while every other district was able to put together a plan that offered parents an in-person option last September, New Haven, despite the superintendent wanting that, couldn’t get that passed by the Board of Education. I felt like the sticking points were issues where mayoral involvement could have made a difference. I know it was possible to create a plan that would make educators and parents and students comfortable coming back into the building because every other district across the state did it. New Haven was out on an island by itself.
New Haven is also a district with great inequities and disparities, so while many children were fine at home through remote schooling, thousands of kids never logged in. Looking forward, I want to make sure September brings five day a week in person, and I’m excited about setting a vision for the Board of Education. New Haven is one place where the mayor has a seat on the Board of Education, which is not true in every municipality. I want to get students excited and ready to exit the district into college or career, and want to focus on preparatory pathways that will be robust to allow students to achieve that.
It’s hard to talk about New Haven without talking about Yale. How do you perceive the current status of the town and gown relationship, and would you handle it differently?
The relationship between Yale and New Haven is very strained right now. I’ve been around long enough to have seen a much stronger mutual partnership, and out of that, significant, long-term, sustainable investment in things like the New Haven Promise Program, which was a real commitment to students of the city to get them to college when they finish high school. I’ve also seen moments where the relationship was much rockier, and I think we are in one of those moments right now. You don’t get the best partnership or negotiations when the relationship is at its weakest, and I’m concerned about that. We have an amazing advocacy base in New Haven that always keeps the pressure on to hold institutional partners accountable. Elected leaders have to be folks who have the ability to get to table and negotiate, and that’s what I’ve done at the Housing Authority: using public dollars to leverage much more significant private investment. It’s a real strength that I would bring to negotiations with the university and the hospital.
What has your time at the Housing Authority taught you about the housing challenges in the city, and how would you improve the situation?
I warned Mayor Elicker about the limitations of thinking that passing an inclusionary zoning ordinance would solve problems of affordable housing in the city, and consulted on what I saw as some shortcomings. I don’t think we achieve a more integrated city by tinkering around the edges of an underlying zoning code that was explicitly designed to be exclusionary. Proposals more similar to what’s been done in Hamden and Hartford might be more likely to reverse these long standing patterns of segregation.
What is something you think Mayor Elicker has done well?
The state provided good blueprints about how to shut cities down, and Elicker followed them quite well. I would hope that I would have shut the city down in the same way, because it was necessary to ensure folks had the ability to be safe during the pandemic. My concern now, though, is that it’s time to open back up, and open up in a way that is even better than pre-pandemic New Haven.