New Haven Can't Rest On DeStefano's Record

Stan Simpson
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

When New Haven Mayor John DeStefano announced his retirement in January, I knew it was just a matter of time before school Superintendent Reginald Mayo would exit, too.

The two served 20 years together in their respective influential positions, a remarkable feat in modern-day urban politics. DeStefano, Mayo and Yale President Richard Levin forged a historic coalition in the Elm City. Their leadership alliance transformed New Haven's schools — now a national model for progressive education reforms and collaboration with the unions — and revived New Haven's neighborhoods and downtown businesses.

If you assess the trials and triumphs of New Haven during the DeStefano era, his ability to collaborate and sustain highly productive relationships with his school chief and the Yale president was critical for the city's rebirth and DeStefano's re-election to 10 terms.

In an extraordinary changing of the guards this year, New Haven is losing its top three power brokers — the mayor, school superintendent and Yale president — to retirement. (Levin also served for 20 years.)

Change in leadership can be a good thing. Even the best leaders can get set in their ways, inflexible, indifferent and arrogant as they grow in stature and tenure. Change can also be disastrous if the wrong people are hired to replace previous leaders.

Great organizations and dynamic leaders develop succession plans. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch once said that he made it a practice to replace a departing company executive within days of the announced exit. It sent a message to the organization about continuity and the value of in-house leadership development.

New Haven's next two decades will be dictated not by its past success, but the successors to DeStefano, Mayo and Levin. Their shared agenda resulted in hundreds of millions invested in schools and downtown development.

"The truest measure of how effective these leaders are is how well they've groomed their successors to take on the leadership mantle from this point forward.'' said Ted Carroll, president of Leadership Greater Hartford. "If things collapse, history will have to candidly judge those [leaders] who left as not as effective as they needed to be."

Folks are lining up to run for DeStefano's seat in November. A national search will be conducted for Mayo's replacement. Yale, which obviously had a succession plan, announced in November that Provost Peter Salovey will replace Levin.

DeStefano, Levin and Mayo have had their share of critics. But their ability to sustain a collaborative relationship contributed to measurable progress.

As Carroll says, the question will be whether that spirit of collaboration is now "part of the DNA of the institutions to work together well.''

If not, their successors will struggle.

There is an unmistakable vibe when you visit New Haven with its erudite Yalies, eclectic nightlife and fine dining. The city is infused with magnet and charter schools, along with programs to identify teachers and second-career professionals as future principals. Mayo's engagement with his teacher unions on reforms and evaluations is the envy of most urban centers.

Collaboration resulted in the New Haven Promise, a scholarship program (financed by Yale and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven) that pays the college tuition of the city's top students who want to attend a state university. Hartford is implementing a similar scholarship program.

Collaboration with Yale contributed to a dramatic makeover of downtown New Haven, providing more incentives to live and patronize downtown.

The DeStefano-Levin-Mayo alliance is a case study for college public policy or political science classes. It's a primer for how leaders can assess the needs of their organization, learn from mistakes, political miscalculations, even procrastination — and make substantive changes. It is a leadership lesson on the daily attention needed for relationship-building. The DeStefano legacy must also include spikes in violent crimes and breakdowns in community policing.

New Haven, to DeStefano's credit, provides now-dwindling evidence that corruption, indictments and prison sentences don't necessarily have to come with the territory that is the mayor's office. (The citizens of Bridgeport, Waterbury, Hartford and Detroit may beg to differ.)

Ultimately, the lesson from New Haven's longest-serving mayor will be about the importance of knowing when it's time to step aside — and whether he's prepared proteges to continue the agenda.

Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' ( and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FOX CT).

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