Gen-Zer Emerges From Political Trenches With Idealism Intact

Paul Bass Photo

Abdul Osmanu at WNHH FM.

Someone forgot to tell Abdul Razak Osmanu to turn bitter and cynical.

At the age of 21, Osmanu is finishing his initial forays into local politics and government. He served as field director for the campaign of New Haven Democratic mayoral candidate Liam Brennan. Meanwhile he is finishing up his first term as a member of the Hamden Legislative Council.

Osmanu entered both jobs with high ideals. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Osmanu saw the two positions as advancing goals of police reform, affordable housing, tenant organizing, and social justice in general.

Brennan got clobbered: He lost all 30 wards, and 70 percent of the vote, to incumbent Mayor Justin Elicker in last week’s primary.

Yet Osmanu found inspiration and hope in the campaign’s experience. He feels the same way about his first two years rolling up his sleeves for the nitty-gritty deliberative work of advancing proposals through Hamden’s local government. While working for Brennan in New Haven, he also ran a reelection campaign of his own in a primary last week for his Hamden legislative seat, which he won.

I’m optimistic as ever,” Osmanu said Thursday during a conversation about both experiences on WNHH FM’s Dateline New Haven” program.

On Hamden’s Council, he said, he and fellow progressives succeeded in updating the rules for retaining police complaint records and tightening accountability in the wake of a scandal. They passed a housing ordinance that helps tenant unions press complaints and strengthens the town’s formerly dormant Fair Rent Commission. He helped obtain $3.5 million in federal pandemic-relief money to begin remediating homeowners’ crumbled foundations in his southern Hamden district. He said he also helped direct close to $1 million in capital money not just to repave flooding-ravaged Beaver Street, but also to redesign the draining to prevent future flooding.

He said the latter nuts-and-bolts accomplishments fit into his conception of democratic socialism because of the way citizens identified a need for action, canvassed their neighborhood, organizing people to show up at public meetings.

When we’re doing this work, this hasn’t been us alone,” he said; he and his colleagues are giving people in our town power” to make change.

Thomas Breen Photo

Osmanu and Brennan submit ballot petitions to Democratic Registrar of Voters Shannel Evans.

In the New Haven mayoral race, Osmanu said, the Brennan campaign succeeded in raising important issues and gathering enough voter signatures to qualify for a primary.

The Democratic Party sets the rules to challenge town committee-endorsed candidates in citywide primaries. Challengers this year needed to collect signatures of 5 percent of registered city Democrats (which came to 1,623 this year) to qualify for the ballot. In reality, a campaign needs to collect as many as 50 percent additional signatures to qualify — because of inevitable mistakes encountered by voters who wrongly thought they were registered, say, or who leave illegible signatures or ones that don’t match precisely with city records. But the party gives the challengers only two weeks to collect all the signatures. That meant collecting 150 signatures a day, at a clip of 10 an hour.

Other challengers this year failed to make the ballot. As Brennan’s field director, Osmanu assembled a team of voluteers in advance. He trained people to ask immediately whether potential signatories are registered Democrats in New Haven. When the first day of petitioning produced lower-than-expected results, Osmanu pivoted: He discovered that dense Downtown actually has too many non-locally-registered voters to be an efficient signature-gathering spot. The team discovered that supermarkets, especially, but also busy commercial spots on Orange and State Streets worked better. They succeeded in submitting 2,500 signatures with paperwork intact in those 14 days and making the ballot with 1,850 validated signatures.

It was brutal” for those two weeks, Osmanu said. The work began during a heatwave. (“I never got sunburned on my legs” before that.) But the campaign showed that a motivated group of volunteers could meet the challenge.

The campaign also raised enough small individual contributions to qualify for the city public-financing Democracy Fund, which led to Brennan and Elicker squaring off in a Fund-sponsored debate.

Of course, that didn’t lead to many votes on primary day. And the one ward Brennan came closest to winning — 18, in the East Shore’s Morris Cove neighborhood — has the most conservative electorate, traditionally the furthest removed from his message of arresting fewer people, say, or changing zoning for denser development and more affordable housing.

The fact that Brennan didn’t take a clear stand on the expansion of Tweed New Haven Airport probably helped him against Elicker, who backs expansion.

But Osmanu also said he was inspired by the interactions he had campaigning there.

We just brought our honest unabashed platform” to the ward, including calls for higher teacher salaries, smaller classrooms, and the need for a long-term plan to fill teacher vacancies (as well as more solar canopies on parking lots). People didn’t always agree, but they listened and engaged, he said.

Plus, the East Shore Osmanu encountered didn’t fit the stereotype older New Haveners had from lawn cross-burning and Republican victories that took place in the mid-20th century.

I love the East Shore,” Osmanu said he discovered during the campaign.

One of my takeaways is that it’s not as conservative as some people think is. That’s where the theory of presenting yourself as honest as a candidate [comes into play]. And understanding that getting people to vote for you is not asking them to be your life partner. Really speaking to the issues that matter to them most. Taking time to listen to them and understand” their concerns.

We knew it was an uphill battle,” he said of the Brennan campaign’s challenge to an incumbent Democrat. We ran the campaign that we wanted to run” and succeeded in sparking debates about zoning, affordable housing, and police reform.

So Osmanu is still in the game, as enthusiastically as ever. He’s pumped for a second legislative term. He plans to continue working on elections, including his own.

I’m looking forward to going into this second term full steam ahead,” he said.

He did learn a lesson about how to do that long-term: After the crazed around-the-clock work that precedes an election, he needs to take a breather to recharge for a few weeks and to assess how the work went. So he can come back stronger for the next round.

Click on the above podcast for the full conversation with Abdul Osmanu on WNHH FM’s Dateline New Haven. Click here to subscribe or here to listen to other episodes of Dateline New Haven.

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