John Daniels, New Haven’s first black mayor, passes

John C. Daniels

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John C. Daniels

John C. Daniels, who served as New Haven’s first black mayor and brought community policing to the city, died Saturday after a long illness. He was 78.

Daniels grew up in the old Elm Haven projects and rose through the ranks of New Haven politics, from alderman to state senator (for 10 years) to, beginning Jan. 1, 1990, mayor.

He served two two-year terms before retiring.

“I loved John Daniels. He’s the last of the real good guys in politics. He was a gentleman,” said Deputy City Clerk Sally Brown, who ran for city clerk on Daniels’ mayoral ticket. “He didn’t try to hurt anybody. He was fair and honest. He was always for people — it was never about himself.”

“Had he not had the courage to run for mayor when he did, I certainly would likely not be mayor today,” Toni Harp told the Independent Sunday. “Many in our community owe a great debt to him and his courage to lead.” Harp, who became the city’s first female mayor in 2013, chaired one of the committees of Daniels’ 1989 election campaign.

Liberal and black politicos had urged Daniels to run for mayor on and off for more than a decade before he formally took the plunge in 1989. A 10-year incumbent, Biagio DiLieto, was retiring; a coalition of reformers and newly engaged young activists, aiming to depose a political machine that had run the city, lifted Daniels to victory over the party-nominated candidate, John DeStefano, in a hard-fought 1989 Democratic primary (which in those days was the de facto general election in one-party New Haven). An all-state halfback at Hillhouse High School, Daniels kept a hand in football, refereeing college games, and had a competitive streak as a campaigner for public office.

“My great memory of that crazy 1989 campaign, I think 60 percent of the city voted,” DeStefano recalled Sunday. “It was a great campaign. It was a moment of change. The city was really engaged in it. He had a great win in that campaign.”

“It was a tough time to be governing in the city,” DeStefano added. “That’s for sure.”

Daniels arrived in the mayor’s office amid high hopes for change, similar to the optimism and demands that greeted Barack Obama’s election as the first black U.S. president. He promised to shift New Haven’s focus from building up downtown to caring for the poor and homeless.

“He stepped up to be mayor at a very hard time in the city’s history. He was as decent a man as I’ve ever known,” said Yale professor Douglas Rae, who took a two-year leave to serve as Daniels’ chief administrative officer.

As with Obama, Daniels found himself besieged by conflicting constituencies, internal squabbles, and disappointment that a single man would not revolutionize government. He also failed to gain control over the political apparatus of his party. Meanwhile, the economy tanked, presenting City Hall with limited resources. A powerful schools superintendent, John Dow, went to war with him over school funding after having helped elect him. A tax revolt broke out in town, featuring a campaign for secession by the East Shore. The office he had spent a lifetime preparing for turned out to be less fun than promised.

As his two terms progressed, Daniels grew bitter at times at criticism and often ducked out of City Hall, then in temporary quarters on Chapel Street, through a back door.

Around children, though, he always lit up.

He retired from public life after retiring as mayor at the end of 1993.

History has been kinder to Daniels: He fulfilled a campaign promise in his first term by hiring a new chief, Nick Pastore, to institute community policing. That program eventually led to a dramatic drop in violent crime in New Haven that lasted until the end of the century. It also disbanded a notorious “beat-down posse” that the department operated to harass young men on the streets. Community policing fell out of favor here in the mid-aughts until three and a half years ago, when a new chief brought it back and violent crime dropped again.

Daniels implemented a needle exchange program when the idea was politically radioactive in the U.S. In fact, he overcame previous opposition to the idea himself. After a Yale study proved that the program was saving the lives of people with AIDS in New Haven, New York Mayor David Dinkins — who also was elected his city’s first black chief executive in 1989 — adopted it, as well, as did other communities. New Haven’s program continues to save lives today.

Daniels also oversaw improvements in the public works department under the supervision of his appointed director, Vanessa Burns. (“John gave an opportunity to people like myself to prove that we could do the job,” Burns, who’s now public-works director in Louisville, said Sunday. “When he first appointed me, a lot of people said, ‘She’s not capable. They’re going to eat her alive.’ He had confidence in me.”) As mayor, Daniels brought to town a respected human services administrator, Audrey Rowe, who was subsequently picked up by Connecticut’s Weicker administration, and eventually the Obama administration.

Daniels was succeeded by the man he defeated for the office, John DeStefano. Under DeStefano, the city named a street at the rebuilt former Elm Haven development, and then a school in the Hill, after Daniels.

Daniels spent the final period of his life bedridden at a convalescent home, where DeStefano visited him in January.

“John wanted to talk politics, what was going on in the city,” DeStefano recalled. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m going to be walking by year-end.’ He was optimistic and focused and great.”

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