More than 60 years since Bridgeport ousted its last socialist administration, the state’s first slate of candidates running on a democratic socialist platform is taking office in Hamden.
The three candidates — Justin Farmer, Abdul-Razak Osmanu, and Mariam Khan (dubbed “JAM” based on their initials) — will be sworn into office on Nov. 28.
They bring myriad firsts to Hamden’s government:
• The three Democrats were elected to local office while endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and campaigning as a DSA slate: Farmer to a third term on the Legislative Council, Osmanu to a first term on the Council; Kahn to a first term as a full voting member on the Board of Education. (She previously served as a nonvoting student member while at Hamden High.) This is the first DSA-backed team (as opposed to individual candidates) to run and win as a group in a Connecticut municipal election.
• At 19, Hamden homegrowns and Osmanu and Khan are the two youngest leaders to serve on Hamden’s Council and Board of Education (Osmanu is a junior at Southern and Khan a sophomore at Yale).
• They’re also the first Muslim officials to serve in local elected office.
“It’s not just that they’re young, it’s not even just that they’re Democratic Socialists,” Central Connecticut DSA Co-Chair Alex Kolokotronis said of JAM. “What they’re communicating and what their campaign has shown and what our operation in endorsing them has shown is that we have a theory of change that works, that excites people and that brings people together.”
Thinking globally, acting locally
That’s also how the trio of “activist elected officials” define the meaning of democratic socialism: Like other candidates, they operate from a broader political philosophy, but their primary focus at the local level is to promote a form of governance closer to pure democracy, in which the public assumes more direct ownership of and engagement in town politics.
Like the generation of mid-20th century municipal “sewer socialists” that ended with the end of the administration of Bridgeport Mayor Jasper McLevy (famously turned out of office in 1957 for allegedly stating that “God put the snow there. Let Him take it away!” after a 24-year mayoral run), the new DSA members put local issues at the top of their agenda, including calls for fiscal accountability.
The trio said they aim most of all to bring the voices of more people in a town that has grown more diverse, including racially diverse, to the crafting of decisions that impact their lives.
Farmer and Osmanu represent Hamden’s two southernmost and most diverse districts: the fifth and the third, respectively.
Osmanu’s district includes the Keefe Community Center. He said he intends to help obtain funding to make important improvements that will not only deliver space in which the public to congregate for civic events, but also create room for other activities, like a full kitchen to facilitate the distribution of fresh, free food to a community marked by food insecurity. (Right now, he said, the Keefe’s center’s got “two rooms,” and one is a “gymnasium that leaks.”)
In his district, Farmer is focusing on turning Olin Powder Farm, a privately owned piece of land, into a regional, cultural park in order to establish accessible open space for southern Hamden.
At 27 years old, Farmer will actually become the longest-serving Democrat on the council in his next term, his third. He promises to advocate for deeper, structural changes across town, such as changing zoning regulations to allow for the construction of more affordable housing in wealthier, closed-off neighborhoods.
Khan is returning to the Board of Ed in her elected capacity after serving in the nonvoting student capacity. During her time on the board in 2020, she succeeded in pushing high school administration to construct a more compassionate grading policy (lessening the weight of students’ grades obtained in the later quarters of the pandemic year) while remaining critical of the obfuscated systems of power she navigated to effect that change. Read more about that here.
Khan also attempted to make Eid a school holiday, though her strong efforts ultimately fell short of swaying Hamden Public Schools to cancel classes. Khan was more often able to successfully impact her peers through independent organizing initiatives than she was as a student BOE member (read more about her high school activist efforts in a Yale Daily News profile here). She said that’s part of why she’s returning — not only to continue her efforts to increase equity and visibility for Hamden’s diverse student populations, but to bring students into the school governing process.
She said she hopes to invest in mental health supports and address disproportionate discipline of Black and brown students, implement a participatory budgeting among a small cohort of older students, enable student members of the BOE to actually vote, and pursue redistricting of the town to combat racial segregation and economic disparities (and reject the use of Hamden’s most diverse schools, like Church Street and Shepherd Glen, as “political pawns.”)
The group also sees their titles as better positioning them to push for changes at the state level that directly impact their local community. They helped organize a win on a right to counsel bill across the state. They plan to push for Hamden to follow in New Haven’s steps and pass a nonbinding resolution calling for Congress to pass a Medicare for All bill, which they believe will help prod U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro to start supporting single-payer healthcare.
JAM now joins a handful of Democratic Socialists of America members who have served individually in town positions around Connecticut, like New Haven Alder Charles Decker, Hartford State Rep. Edwin Vargas; Greenwich Town Meeting member Hale McSharry; Middletown Common Council member Dannell Ford; and Wallingford Town Council member Gina Morgenstein.
All three of JAM’s members grew up in Hamden and are pursuing higher education within their communities. Osmanu, a junior at Southern Connecticut University, is studying political science. Khan is still on the pre-med track during her second year at Yale; she has lived of campus with her family in Hamden throughout the pandemic.
Meanwhile, from his early days in Hamden High’s reptile club, Farmer has always wanted to be a marine biologist. Now he’s finishing his SCSU degree after taking years to focus on crafting environmental initiatives on the council, like establishing the state’s most comprehensive plastic bag ban within Hamden.
Farmer got involved in local politics after designing his own campaign as a college course requirement. As high schoolers, Khan and Osmanu (who was inspired by democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign) volunteered on his first council campaign, also through an opportunity granted to them by Hamden High.
When Farmer first made it on the council, he was the only Black man serving. Four years later, JAM was part of a broader, racially balanced Democratic slate.
The three-member JAM are among 19 Democrats who were elected to town offices this year as a progressive slate that crushed centrist Democrats in a Sept. 14 primary.
Paul Bass contributed to this report.
For a longer version of this story, visit The New Haven Independent where it was originally published on Nov. 17, 2021.