Mayoral “Explorer” Crafts Activist Platform

Paul Bass photo

Liam Brennan at WNHH FM.

New Haven can stop making drug arrests (while still confiscating fentanyl). It can stop making gun arrests (while confiscating more illegal guns). It can build needed new housing in places it never dreamed before, or change or even override zoning barriers. It can even teach kids how to read rather than teach them how not to read.

So says Liam Brennan. He bases those conclusions on his personal and professional life experiences. And he’d like to give New Haveners the chance to elect someone who intends to lead the city into that new era.

Brennan, who is 44 and lives in Westville, has filed papers to form an exploratory” committee to seek the Democratic nomination for mayor in an already crowded campaign year. He said he expects to make the final decision about an official run in early to mid-February. He would face incumbent Mayor Justin Elicker, who is seeking a third two-year term; and fellow challengers Shafiq Abdussabur and Tom Goldenberg. If he proceeds with the campaign, he vowed to participate in the Democracy Fund public-financing program, which provides grants in return for limiting the size of campaign contributions and forgoing special-interest contributions. (Elicker is participating in the program; Goldenberg isn’t; Abdussabur said he hasn’t made a decision.)

We don’t have to accept the city government as it is,” Brennan said Thursday in a wide-ranging campaign interview on WNHH FM’s Dateline New Haven.” We have the power within us to change it. We can go out and make the changes we’d like to see in the city.”

He tied proposals in three specific areas — housing, schools, and public safety — to experiences he had growing up in Stamford and raising a family in New Haven; and working as both a prosecutor and legal aid lawyer.

Mom: Don’t Tell Anyone

Take housing. He calls for changing zoning to allow people to build many more townhouses and apartments in town — through relaxed zoning rules about density, parking, side-yard setbacks, mixed-use prohibitions, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — and to create more apartments within existing buildings.

Like in basements.

He experienced the value of an extra basement apartment when he was in first grade. His father was laid off from a state job in New York. His family needed to move for a while into a friend’s basement.

That had always been a very formative experience for me,” Brennan said. The basement apartment that we moved into was an illegal apartment. Zoning made it [illegal]. … My mother said, We’re not really supposed to talk about we’re there.’

But it was really a lifesaver for us when we needed the help. This is what we call naturally affordable housing.’ The fact that it is something accessible to families is something we should be trying to create and celebrate.”

Brennan would later advocate for more affordable housing as a New Haven Legal Assistance Association (NHLAA) attorney helping to organize the Room for All” coalition. (Read about that here.) He tackled housing issues as the executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) which offers free helps to low-income and homeless vets.

Out of my experience,” Brennan said, he concluded that our zoning is way too restrictive. Even in New Haven, it’s exclusionary. It makes the cost of housing go up. We do not have enough housing. Relaxing our zoning rules is part of the [answer]. We also need public investment in affordable housing.” He also called for relaxing parking requirements, which helps both bring down housing costs and clean the air. He’d allow more multifamily housing. 

He also called on the city to think creatively about existing municipal-owned buildings that could be converted into apartments. And to narrow wide streets like Church and the downtown stretch of George to reclaim land for new townhouses or apartment complexes, separated from existing buildings by new greenways for pedestrians and cyclists and scooter-operators.

Brennan also spoke of overriding outdated zoning restrictions on empty lots that once had multifamily buildings on them (built before new zoning rules took effect) to allow new construction. He cited a parking lot on Chapel Street where the zoning rules prevented a builder from constructing four new units. Brennan argued that the environmental crisis — as affirmed by a Board of Alders resolution — gives the city emergency powers to temporarily lift outdated zoning rules in cases like these, because of how infill” housing is the biggest step you can take to reduce emissions.”


Click on the video above to watch the full conversation with “exploratory” mayoral candidate Liam Brennan on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.”

Citing his children’s experience in the public school system over the past eight years, Brennan called in the Dateline” interview for New Haven to join the rest of the state and the country in abandoning balanced literacy,” a now-disproved method of reading instruction that urges students to use clues” like pictures or the appearance of words to figure out what they are. He called for immediate action to shift from balanced literacy’s cueing” to a structured literacy” approach that focuses instead on sounding out words (aka phonics).

Teachers are teaching phonics on the side because they know it works. And I know that’s happening,” Brennan said.

I hear my kids coming home and singing songs like, How do you find what’s going on in a sentence? You look at the clues …’ It makes my head want to explode. Because the science of reading and phonics is a real thing.

Why we’ve taken so long to catch up with the rest of the country on balanced literacy and structured literacy is infuriating. It shows a lack of vision at the leadership level. We have teachers who are out there fighting for this! We have teachers showing up at Board of Ed hearings, at Board of Alders hearings, saying we need to move to structured phonics science-of-reading types of literacy. That is something that is coming up from our own teaching system. And the whole administrative apparatus of the city government is immovable.”

Asked for a response, Mayor Elicker acknowledged that until recently there hasn’t been the embrace of structured literacy.” He said that has begun to change this year. His daughter comes home from public school with homework that is very focused on phonics,” the mayor said. Structured-literacy advocates like the New Haven Reads organization influenced him to craft a pending $3 million plan for after-school and summer tutoring programs for city school kids emphasizing phonics. And he said the city is currently deciding between two state-approved structured-literacy reading programs to begin introducing in the classroom next year.

We will have some work to do on professional development and growing pains,” Elicker said. But we’re in.”

War On Drugs

Brennan’s views on criminal justice lie to the left of his opponents’. He developed them from multiple perspectives in the criminal justice system.

He came to New Haven in 2004 to attend Yale Law School, his tuition fully covered by scholarships and financial aid.

It was incredible. [But] I felt so …weird and out of place. I thought I knew wealthy people growing up; this was like a whole nother world. I didn’t feel like I belonged or deserved to be there. At the same time New Haven opened up its arms.” Brennan volunteered at Junta for Progressive Action, got involved in the community, fell in love with the city, he said.

He did leave town after graduation for three years in D.C. prosecuting fraud cases for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), including against Enron officials and T‑Mobile execs accused of bribing foreign officials. Then he jumped at the chance to return home to New Haven to continue working for the DOJ as a prosecutor in the New Haven office, and he has remained here ever since. Among his cases in his seven years in the New Haven DOJ office: Sending former Gov. John Rowland to prison for the second time on corruption charges.

After the DOJ, Brennan did his legal-aid stints at NHLAA and CVLC. Now he’s working as the first inspector general” for the city of Hartford. That means he’s in charge of the team issuing subpoenas and conducting investigations for the city’s civilian review board (CRB).

The experience has convinced him that New Haven should create a similar position and strengthen the CRB with greater subpoena power and the ability to initiate its own investigations.

His experience on both sides of the courtroom has also convinced him that New Haven should stop prosecuting drug crimes, he said.

He noted that in 2020 only 7 percent of arrests police made statewide were drug arrests. In New Haven, the figure was 40 percent.

We are over-prosecuting our own residents,” he argued.

We need to end the war on drugs. Completely. It’s over. Nothing obligates us as a city to engage in the federal government’s or the state’s war on drugs. That has failed for the last 50 years.”

He argued that while the city doesn’t write state and federal laws, it is not obligated to devote its resources to enforcing them. He argued that drug abuse is a health problem, not a criminal problem, best addressed through public health measures and tobacco-style government regulation.

Does that mean he’d let people freely deal drugs?

Not at all, he responded: Police have the right to confiscate, say, cocaine or fentanyl. That doesn’t mean they have to lock the person up as well.

Similarly, he argued that New Haven has more legal ability than it realizes to address gun violence through gun control. It can actively track all guns in town, for instance, through a municipal registration program and the investigation of leads on unregistered guns before they’re used to shoot someone. And it can encourage more people to report others who have illegal weapons by — as with illegal drugs — agreeing not to make arrests for possession, but proceeding with confiscation. 

I believe the city does not need as much enabling legislation’ as it often thinks,” Brennan said in a followup email comment. It surrenders too easily in the face of big problems because of that belief. My more expansive view of a stronger city government is based on my own personal experience in trying to pass the Elm City Resident ID card and the Connecticut Supreme Court cases Greater New Haven Property Owners Association v City of New Haven and Modern Cigarette v. Town of Orange. There’s lots to work with there!”

Click here to subscribe to Dateline New Haven” and here to subscribe to other WNHH FM podcasts.

Click on the below videos to watch Dateline New Haven” campaign interviews with Democratic mayoral challengers Shafiq Abdussabur and Tom Goldenberg, and here and here to read about their campaigns. 

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