Mayor John DeStefano, an outspoken political survivor and the longest-serving leader in the city's history, smiled Tuesday as he reflected on his 10 terms leading the Elm City and seemed at peace with his decision against trying to make it to 11.
"You leave when they want you to stay," DeStefano said in his spacious city hall office.
In an interview with The Courant shortly before formally announcing that he would not run for re-election this November, DeStefano talked about his achievements over the past 20 years in public education and job creation, along with his regret over being unable to build a coalition over property tax reform.
"We have more jobs and more people than when I became mayor," DeStefano said. "The state can't say that."
One thing he would not talk about, however, was his plans. DeStefano twice refused to say what he would do next, including whether he would consider a position with nearby Yale University.
"Whatever I do is a story for another day," he said.
In the late afternoon, DeStefano stood on the stage at a packed downtown nightclub and received two standing ovations from supporters. The room had the feel of an election night victory party — at the exact place where those parties had been held in the past. He appeared struck by the enthusiasm of the standing-room-only crowd.
"You know, if you all really feel this way … I can change my mind,'' DeStefano told his supporters. "This isn't a goodbye. … If I have a wish for everyone in this room, it's that someday that you get a chance to walk into a room like this. You will never feel warmer, and there is no treasure — financial or otherwise — that you could have. For me to have it in my hometown is extraordinary and wonderful.''
The bipartisan crowd included Yale University President Richard Levin, longtime Democrat Ned Lamont, former state House Speaker Chris Donovan and former Republican legislators Chris DePino and Sid Holbrook. State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor was there in a nod to his past and present work with the mayor on education in New Haven, where test scores and graduation rates have increased.
"I was at school here in 1979, and this city is a lot better than it was then,'' Lamont said. "New Haven mayors didn't talk to Yale in 1979. A lot of politicians don't leave footprints, but John DeStefano leaves big shoes to fill.''
Levin and DeStefano have been credited with making a personal and professional partnership that has led to a major transformation of the downtown over the past 20 years in a city that had been known for town-and-gown clashes.
"There were only 200 or 300 people who lived downtown. Now, there are 3,000 or 4,000,'' Levin said in an interview. "It's a vibrant, small city today, and it was a dying, small city 20 years ago.''
The 57-year-old mayor has outlasted his fellow big-city mayors through the years, including colleagues who ran into criminal trouble: Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, and Waterbury Mayors Joseph Santopietro and Phil Giordano. All four were convicted, although Perez is appealing his conviction.
DeStefano raised his statewide exposure in 2006 with an unsuccessful run for governor. In a Courant interview at the time, he explained his candidacy: "Not everybody gets to get up in the morning and love their job. 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.''
He defeated then-Stamford Mayor Dannel P. Malloy in the Democratic gubernatorial primary but, having spent virtually all his money on the primary, started from far behind in the general election and lost to the popular incumbent, Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Rell did not seek re-election in 2010, and Malloy succeeded her. Although DeStefano and Malloy clashed sharply during the primary, they have appeared together at various events since then.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Malloy praised his onetime primary challenger.
"As mayor for 20 years, John DeStefano has left an indelible mark on New Haven, one that helped transform the city and reinvigorate its character," Malloy said in a statement. "His legacy of making New Haven a center of innovation and economic growth and ensuring the city's schools provide every child with an opportunity to succeed is something for which he and the entire city should be proud. I wish him the very best in his future endeavors, and hope that no matter what comes next, Connecticut will continue to benefit from his energy and expertise."
DeStefano, a liberal policy wonk who rarely backs away from a challenge, faced a potentially difficult primary this year against state Rep. Gary A. Holder-Winfield, who 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 nearly two decades, because he won a closer-than-expected re-election two years ago against an underfunded, independent candidate with relatively little name recognition. It was DeStefano's closest race since becoming mayor.
On Tuesday, however, he declined to talk about his potential opponents this year if he had stayed in the race, saying, "After 20 years, you're running against yourself."
He knew that another race would be a referendum on his two decades in office in the same way that once-popular politicians like U.S. Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman both decided to retire instead of facing one last electoral battle.
Elected 10 Times
DeStefano, who first took office in 1994, survived many elections through the years, winning numerous primaries in Democratic-dominated New Haven.
On Sept. 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.
"We've had some very good mayors, but his depth, his longevity and his constant push for new, progressive urban policies stands out in the group of great mayors we've had in this state,'' said Matthew Hennessy, the former longtime chief of staff to Hartford's Perez. "Eddie clearly was his own man with his own agenda, but at every mayor's meeting, you could rely on DeStefano's experience and expertise. He was the backbone of the urban mayors who were trying to get things done. He provided a lot of bandwidth.''
He added: "These are jobs that are tough. They're demanding. There's a shelf life to everybody. But what he has done for two decades, he's kept himself relevant at home, but also relevant on the state and national level.''
Quinnipiac University Professor Scott McLean, who has followed DeStefano's career closely, said in a statement: "Like most urban mayors, John DeStefano's achievements were mixed with controversy. In the '90s, 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."
DeStefano has been seen by some as prickly and, at times, arrogant. He made his share of political enemies among fellow Democrats and unions that sometimes endorsed his primary opponents.
As a policy specialist, DeStefano was heavily involved in issues like "smart growth'' and was chairman of a statewide commission looking at the problems of rising property taxes and suburban sprawl.
In 2006, 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.
His 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 existed — a win for everyone.
But in a state where home rule is an article of faith for most politicians, not everyone agreed with DeStefano. Rell, near the peak of her popularity, won the 2006 race by a wide margin.