Devin Avshalom-Smith, a 32-year-old state legislative aide and Newhallville community organizer, defeated a party-endorsed candidate to win New Haven’s only Democratic primary Tuesday night.
Avshalom-Smith defeated Shirley Lawrence, a union activist who was endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee, 260-173, in a primary for the Ward 20 Board of Alders seat held for the past 10 years by Delphine Clyburn, who has retired.
Avshalom-Smith received 192 votes at the ballot box at the Lincoln Bassett School polling station, and another 68 absentee ballots. All but 19 of Lawrence’s votes came at the polls.
A third candidate, Addie Kimbrough, picked up 10 votes, two of them through absentee ballots.
“I am extremely grateful and thankful,” Avshalom-Smith said after the polls closed. “I walked like 50 hours per week to meet my neighbors. There is so much more that unifies us than divides us.”
“I feel like I still need to go door-knocking,” he added. “Actually, I do.”
As he canvassed the ward, he said, he was surprised to learn how high a priority blight-related issues like trash clean-up and lighting were, right up there with gun violence.
Kimbrough has successfully petitioned for an unaffiliated ballot line on the Nov. 2 general election ballot. The Republicans do not have a candidate in the race.
Avshalom-Smith said his priorities, if elected as expected in November, include creating a host of classes for Newhallville residents, including ones on parenting, anger management, credit repair, and first-time homeownership. He hopes to advocate for zoning changes that would allow existing buildings to be repurposed for a youth and elderly community center, which would include emotional support services like counseling.
Avshalom-Smith was supported by neighborhood leaders like Community Management Team Chair Kim Harris, who knocked on doors to help him attract votes.
“He’s the one who’s for all the people,” Harris said with tears in her eyes, because, she said, she could feel that a positive change was coming.
Rhonda Nelson-Sheffield said she decided to support Avshalom-Smith after meeting him six weeks ago:“Just reading his bio was enough for me. And then talking to him — if he didn’t know the answer to something, he would call someone up to get it.”
Shirley Lawrence said one of the main goals of her campaign was to revive the former State Building at 188 Bassett St, creating a mental health center and community gathering space for the ward. The building would house mental health counseling services, as well as a computer lab, video game center, and arts and crafts spot for young people. “When you get 14-year-old kids that don’t want to go outside, that’s not normal,” she said. “This neighborhood is traumatized.”
Kimbrough said she enjoyed the experience of running for office.
As she spoke outside the polls, a young kid ran up to her and gave her a hug. “Are the plants growing?” he asked — referring to a community garden that Kimbrough runs in the neighborhood, where he had helped plant some food.
“You’ll have to come see them and get some vegetables,” Kimbrough told him.