Politically Positioned: An Interview with Eli Sabin

This past June, Eli Sabin, GH ’22, declared his candidacy for Ward 1 Alder for the New Haven Board of Alders. The position, which represents eight of the 14 residential colleges as well as Old Campus, is often held by a Yale student. If elected, Sabin will succeed Hacibey Catalbasoglu, DC ’19, who has held the position since 2017 — and become the fifth Yale student to serve as Ward 1 Alder since 2007. Sabin, who majors in Political Science, is a native of New Haven, son of History Professor Paul Sabin and journalist Emily Bazelon. This week, Sabin sat down with the Herald to discuss his political aspirations, the difference between politics and public service, his connection to New Haven, and the ways his campaign have affected his life at Yale.

Yale Herald:  You declared your candidacy on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. What was the immediate reaction, and why did you choose social media as the way to publicize?

Eli Sabin:  The immediate reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Before I announced my campaign, I talked to a lot of people in the New Haven community — political leaders, activists, people I’ve worked with in the past — and I talked to a bunch of folks on campus, especially people who grew up in New Haven, who I felt had a stake in this race. And then, when I announced, there was a lot of support that I received, and I was really appreciative. A lot of people shared my announcement on social media, which I think was really a strong signal that my campaign was based in grassroots support from people I knew on campus and in the New Haven community, [people] who knew about all the work I’ve done in the city and how much I care about my community.

YH:  You grew up in New Haven and have a lot of connections to the New Haven community; but you are also a Yale student with connections to Yale faculty and the Yale community. Do you feel your position as Ward 1 Alder will be from the perspective of a Yale student or a New Haven resident?

ES:  A New Haven resident, I think. I was a New Haven resident a long time before I was a Yale student, and I hope to be and plan to be a New Haven resident a long time after I’m a Yale student. I’m really invested in this community, and the reason I’m running for the Board of Alders is because I want to work with and fight for the people I grew up with.

YH:  How did you get into politics? Is it something you’ve always been passionate about, or when did you start feeling politically-minded?

ES:  I have always wanted to do public service. That’s what I feel is the most important thing. My family talks about politics all the time, so I was aware of what was going on, but my first exposure to politics was in 2016: I knocked on doors for former state representative James Albis, who was running for re-election in East Haven, Connecticut — which is like ten minutes from here — and I spent a lot of time with him, knocking on doors in a really interesting community that actually, from 2012 to 2016, flipped like 17 percent from Obama to Trump. And Albis won his race by, I think, nine votes, after I spent a ton of time knocking doors for him. That was a super gratifying experience, knowing that I could make a difference in local government and in my community by showing up and talking to people. And that’s what I love about local politics. You see all these things going on in DC — and Trump is obviously terrible — but it’s hard for us to feel we are making an impact on the things that happen in DC, whereas my experience in New Haven and on the state level has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’ve had a ton of opportunity to do things that I feel have made an impact and have been super rewarding and really incredible experiences.

YH:  Has your background working on political campaigns, as well as Yale Dems, affected the way you run your campaign?

ES:  Yeah, I think that having worked on campaigns gives you an advantage. You understand how to do it, what the strategy is, how to register voters, how to canvas, how to make [campaign literature], and run social media — which are all things I’ve done in the past, so obviously that puts me in a good position to do the nuts and bolts of running for office.

YH:  How do manage your time, being a full-time student while managing a political campaign?

ES:  It’s not really any different from what I was doing last year, because last fall I was the campaign manager for state representative Roland Lemar, so I was spending a lot of time working with him. And then in the spring, I was the director of the Progressive Caucus in the state legislature, so I spent around 15 hours a week going up to Hartford and helping organize the state legislators there. And really, for the last couple years, I’ve tried to devote as much free time as I can to organizing in progressive activism, because that’s what I’m passionate about, and whenever I have time outside of school, I want to be involved in that work, which feels really important.

YH:  Do you feel the way you behave on campus has changed since you’ve run for office? Do you feel the way you are seen on campus has changed?

ES:  It’s been interesting. I have tried not to change how I act on campus. I think I’m naturally respectful and friendly to everybody, so that has not changed. Obviously, when you’re a politician, you’re supposed to be those things all the time, but I feel I’m naturally those things so I haven’t had to really change that. But it’s definitely a little bit different to be on campus as somebody running for office because you know people through your social circles, and then you’re also sort of interacting with them in a political way, which can make things a little challenging. There are definitely more people on campus who know who I am or recognize me, which is a little weird. I’m not generally an attention seeker, so I’m not always so thrilled about that, but it is what it is.

YH:  Sort of shifting gears here, you’ve mentioned the Jewish principle of tikkun olam before in some of your materials. How does that affect your policy, and how does perhaps other Jewish thought affect the way you look at the world?

ES:  I’m glad you asked that question. I think that tikkun olam is the idea of repairing the world. It’s sort of a call to service — that’s how I see it — and I was brought up in a social justice tradition. There’s this question that I’ve talked about a little bit in my campaign, which is, if I’m only for myself, who am I? So, [tikkun olam is] about serving others. In the work that I have done, and in my general life, I ask myself, am I doing enough to lift other people up and serve the community? Because I think that that’s what I want to do with my life.

YH:  You talked a lot about public service over politics. Where do you think this position will lead you in life? Where do you want to go from here?

ES:  I don’t know. I’m focused on this race, and I’m trying to figure out whether I want to be someone who runs for office. Obviously, I’m 19, so I have a lot of time to figure that out. I definitely know that I want to be involved in government, activism — I want to be in the fight. The question for me is whether…being a legislator or an elected official in some capacity is the best way for me to make a difference, or whether maybe being a policy advisor or working on campaigns is the best avenue for me to affect change. I’m still trying to figure that out.

YH:  You’ve done work in the state legislature. What was that like, and how does it affect you and your campaign today?

ES:  Last January, I was hired to be the director of the Progressive Caucus in the General Assembly. So the Progressive Caucus is a newer organization that the progressive legislators in the General Assembly set up…to try to organize around progressive policy goals. So, last year, I went up to Hartford every Wednesday during the spring semester [for] the legislative session which ran from June to May last year. [I] talked to lots of activists and advocates and legislators and tried to work with them to push a progressive agenda. So we organized press conferences about criminal justice reform and an equitable taxation system. Ultimately, we were pretty successful in helping push the legislature to pass a $15 minimum wage and paid family medical leave, as well as a bunch of other things: a prosecutorial transparency bill and some other great legislation. So it was a really exciting, successful legislative session last year, and I think the Progressive Caucus, which I worked with, had a big impact on that. I’m looking forward to continuing that role this spring as we have another legislative session starting in February.

YH:  You’re the only current Yale student who is currently running for office. What do you think separates you from other politically-minded students on campus?

ES:  I think, mostly, opportunity. I know that there are many people on campus who are interested in running for office and are equally passionate about public service and government. I think that having grown up in New Haven, and having done a lot of political work and community activism in high school, just put me in a good position to continue that work by running for office and throwing my hat in the political ring. But I’m sure that I will see many more Yalies in the future running for office.

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