Thursday, July 07, 2005

Interview With Mayor John DeStefano

The following is the entire text of an interview I conducted with Mayor John DeStefano of New Haven, currently seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Connecticut. The interview took place between 8:15pm and 9:50pm on Thursday, July 7th, 2005.

Good evening, Mayor DeStefano. Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me and the readers of this blog. We all appreciate it.

To begin with, security is very much on people’s minds, today. You’ve dealt with a lot of security issues as the mayor of a city that functions as a port and a regional transportation center. What measures would you implement as governor to make our state’s transportation network and ports of entry safer?

First, great to be here. I love the idea of talking WITH fellow citizens rather than AT them. Seems to me that we get more done when we create the opportunity to see things from each others point of view. So thanks for this opportunity and all that you and your readers do everyday to get us talking with each other.

In fact our campaign has been focused from DAY 1 at a grassroots connection (the first BLOG, the first house meetings, connections with social justive and issue groups) to promote working together. Every success that we have enjoyed in New Haven in the last decade has resulted from a team effort based on our mutual interest in each other's success.

And, it was awful and terrible what happened in London and has happened to so many families over the last several years. That said this morning our City increased police presence at our train station (one of the busiest AMTRAK stations in the nation) upon hearing of the London attack. We have generally found that risk assesment (what might be a target), good information (who's doing what where) and visible presence all compliment the efforts of our Federal partners. The biggests risks are two fold, of a different nature and at the same time related.

First, ports of entry remain largely unpoliced in America. This is a limited risk in Connecticut as the greatest threat derives from container shipping - while most of our imports are petroleum. In New Haven we have worked mightily with our 9 private port operators to secure perimeters and access of ships and their personnel to the city. This should be a principal priority for Connecticut.

The larger issue remains our ability to respond in a smart and effective fashion to a biological attack. During the anthrax incidents of several years ago we found that the State Health Department was quickly overwhelmed in their ability to test all the samples New Haven was sending them. At the same time our local and coordinated response was, simply put, not good. Since then we have worked hard at table top and field exercises with partners throughout the region and with the institutional and private sector to quickly mobilize, diagnose and fashion appropriate responses to incidents involving biological threats to large segments of the population.

This area remains the one of largest concern for the entire state.

Apart from security, what seems to be worrying people in Connecticut right now is the economy. Following the release of data last month from the FDIC that shows Connecticut leading the nation in job stagnation and ranking 37th in job growth, you said that “Connecticut has every reason to dominate the idea economy—every reason except the necessary leadership.” What specific steps would you take as governor to improve the state’s economy?

First, let's define the problem in real terms. Being last in job growth means our kids move elsewhere to get jobs (only Alaska loses more 25 to 34 year olds than Connecticut). It means that making tuition payments is incredibly hard. And economic stagnation means all of us pay higher taxes because there are fewer taxpayers. And that's the record of the Rowland Rell years as we see yet another company - Wednesday it was Exxon Mobil announcing it was going to close it's Stratford plant - take 100 jobs and one of the town's largest taxpayers out of Connecticut.

So here's my thoughts:

1. Focus state efforts on companies that export goods and services - and therefore import jobs and wealth. In Connecticut we have two principal clusters to accomplish this: manufacturing (which includes R&D) and financial and insurance services. That means tax policy, incentives and land use strategy ought to support those companies - and we need to stop doing the stadiums, convention centers and arena's that add little to the economy beyond their initial construction activity.

2. Second, transportation infrastructure. Since the beginning of time job and wealth creation have occurred along transportation infrastructure. First ports, then rail and now highway. Connecticut has 5 transportation corridors. Two run east-west (I-95 coastal and I-84 from Danbury to Waterbury to Hartford out to eastern Connecticut) while three run north south (Rt. 8 into the port of Bridgeport, I-91 into the port of New Haven and 395 into the port of New London). We need to upgrade the road system, commuter rail (much better along I-95 and introduce commuter rail along I-84 and I-91), freight rail (to get from northern New Jersey to Connecticut freight rail must go north of Albany), look at water borne passenger and freight and tie it all together. And that doesn't get done for the $1.3 billion the Governor wants us to spend over the next 10 years.

3. Third prepare our workforce. The fact is our kids are going to have to go up against a whole workforce we never had to - in eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, India, China, Asian rim nations, etc. We need our kids to get started with universal pre-k so they arrive at school ready to learn, we need to dramatically strengthen math, science and computer skill curriculum in middle and high school and tuition must never be a barrier to a state University or community college seat.

We can compete. We can create jobs and wealth. We have done it in New Haven with the bio sciences and places like Pfizer and IKEA and our port. I'm sure there are other great ideas that others might have too - and I would really like to hear their thoughts.

A quick follow-up: you seem to think that the building of large-scale projects like the convention center don't work. Gov. Rell in her inauguration speech indicated that she favored smaller-scale neighborhood redevelopment and revitalization. Do you agree with that? Is this the way to go to help our cities?

The best way to help cities and towns is first to make them safe and to make their schools places of choice. If we don't accomplish these basics everything else is impossible. In New Haven we first got crime down 60% and had 1,300 kids from 27 SUBURBAN towns coming to our public schools everyday (in the state's largest inter-district and magnet program - we have 9 high schools for instance) - then we saw all the people and businesses moving Downtown. And it got done because we worked together and stuck to a vision that we all shared.

What Gov. Rell says and what she does are two different things. We have the same Rowland leadership at Economic and Community Development and Transportation. Property taxes are crushing families - and the Governor offers no solution. No entry level housing is being built in the state - where are the kids in high school today going to buy a home?

Everyday we lose jobs and little bits of our kids future. Think about it. Most of us growing up in Connecticut a generation ago (Kathy and I are each 50) knew we had to work hard, but could reasonably expect to do better than our parents. Is that really true today? And if it were, wpould so many kids and jobs be leaving the State? We can do better.

Well, I'm 27, and I hope to stay forever, if I can.

Two more questions, if you have time. You recently called the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Kelo v. New London allowing private property to be taken for private development "a sound decision." Why is that? If elected, would you sign or veto a bill,currently being proposed, to change Connecticut law to prevent this use of eminent domain?

In New Haven we have taken homes for public school construction - and several folks didn't want to leave and some felt that their relocation expenses and purchase price was unfair. Those issues went to court and we're resolved. However it remains one of the things that I found difficult, though necessary to do (although I am sure that the homeowners found it more difficult). The issue is what is a public purpose and really what is a resonable exercise of eminent domain. The bill that I understand Rep. Ward is suggesting would eliminate all takings unless it were a public facility. That's just plain too far the other way. Talk to somone who has lived next to a house that had been abandoned 10 years ago and you'll know what I mean. At the same time Rep. Ward's bill would seem to permit what George Bush once did - take houses to build a baseball stadium (Arlington, Texas). Is that a better taking than a blight taking? And what about New London where 50% of the Grand List is tax exempt and local property taxes are killing local home owners?

So let's have a discussion about what is a public purpose and what isn't. As currently proposed Rep. Wards bill goes too far. And maybe what we have now goes too far. Let's find something resonable and realistic.

Last question. So far, there are three declared candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor: yourself, Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy. Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan is expected to join the race shortly. In what areas do you believe your plans, policies and philosophy are different from theirs?

I'll let them and Dick Blumenthal who I resonably expect to get in the race, to speak for themselves. Let me point to the following areas:
1. I have a record of accomplishment in bringing diverse and competing interests together to get tough things done that make life better for people. We have innovated and done things differently to make things better for families. New Haven in 2005 has undergone a dramatic turnaround because we have defined the areas where we agree (rather than where we disagree) and acted upon it.
2. I have a record of State and national leadership in getting hard things done with people who typically disagree. I can't imagine a more important quality for being an effective Governor. In 2003, I was elected President of the National League of Cities - the largest and oldest association representing over 18,000 of America's cities and towns. I worked hard to build consensus among diverse interests so we could aggressively and effectively lobby on key issues like homeland security funding. Today, we are reminded of how important that is. In 2003, I served as Chair of the Sate's Blue Ribbin Commission on Property Tax Reform and Smart Growth Incentives - unaminously adopted by a Commission of big and smal towns, businbess and labor. That took consensus-building and leadership. I'm proud of working effectively with coalitions of people who all care deeply but see things a little differently.
3. We are running a campaign that can win by putting together a truly grassroots effort--we've reached out to 4,000 contributors, we get at least 1200 hits daily on our web site, our campaign blog was the first in the state to welcome your comments and is updated regularly with thoughtful updates, and our campaign is the first in this race for Governor to use technology in the form of our campaign video to take our campaign into the homes of our supporters and help them organize their friends and neighbors through house meetings. We have raised far more dollars than any other campaign, and it's because I am serious about having the resources necessary to communicate with Connecticut's voters, it's because I am serious about winning this race and it's because I have worked to make sure we will have the resources we need to do so. We are assembling a coalition of labor (we have the first and thus far only labor endorsement from the Connecticut Building Trades - the State's 2nd largest union), activists, and those typically NOT drawn to politics. We're going to win this race and it's going to be because everyday, we are bringing people back into politics, where they belong. We are going to run the best grassroots campaign this state has ever seen. That's why we're different and that's why we're going to win.

Thank you very much for an informative and interesting interview, Mayor DeStefano. We very much appreciate your time, and we will see you tomorrow morning at 8:00am for an open question and answer session.

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