Challengers weigh entering mayoral race

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will face a contested election when he runs in his 12th consecutive election next year.
Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will face a contested election when he runs in his 12th consecutive election next year. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

Less than a year before the next election, two politicians have already announced the formation of exploratory committees for next year’s mayoral race against 10-term Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 and Connecticut Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield said that they may contest what will be DeStefano’s 12th mayoral election. Elicker, an environmental consultant and two-term East Rock alderman, and Holder-Winfield, a former Newhallville ward co-chair and part of New Haven’s state delgation, are both familiar names to New Haven residents who threaten to end the nearly 20 years DeStefano has spent in office.

“I think that having competitive elections are a good thing,” said DeStefano, who has previously indicated he will run for re-election in 2013. “It helps people discuss issues and set priorities, so I’ve always welcomed them in my own races, and I think they’re important.”

Both Elicker and Holder-Winfield said that they are running in part because they think they can connect with constituents and ensure government transparency better than DeStefano.

Elicker said there is currently a “lack of trust” in city government as well as concern about the city’s long term financial sustainability. Beyond budget troubles facing the city, Holder-Winfield said the mayor is “out of touch” with residents, particularly on issues like education reform.

DeStefano described accusations of the administration’s unresponsiveness as “political tactics” that detract from his accomplishments of nearly two decades in office. As mayor, he attends weekly neighborhood meetings, knocked on doors last weekend to see progress in hurricane recovery and helped students and parents sign up for New Haven Promise last week, DeStefano said.

New Haven Promise executive director Patricia Melton said that education reform under DeStefano has been very “grassroots,” adding that they have a core group of volunteers involved with the initiative. DeStefano also said he disagreed with Holder-Winfield’s criticism about being out of touch, describing it as “disingenuous” because other public officials, like New Haven’s two state senators, have served longer than he has.

Holder-Winfield, though, said that he comes from a more grassroots background than DeStefano, and that the state legislator’s frequent interactions with his constituents have helped him be much more responsive to their concerns. Holder-Winfield’s work repealing the death penalty in Connecticut, reforming juvenile justice and passing education initiatives has demonstrated his capacity as a legislator, he said.

His record on city reentry initiatives, Holder-Winfield said, is much stronger than that of DeStefano. While Holder-Winfield said he has worked on reentry problems at the state level, he criticized the mayor for moving slowly to initiate re-enty reform in New Haven in the face of what he called a “clear problem.”

“The city’s reentry program is over five years old, which is longer than [Holder-Winfield] has been in the legislature,” DeStefano said in response to Holder-Winfield’s criticism. He added that contrary to the impression Holder-Winfield gave, New Haven has made more progress in areas like education, reentry initiatives and immigrant policy than most Connecticut cities.

In addition to connecting to constituents, community activist Gary Doyens said that the budget will be a big issue in next year’s mayoral race, adding that the next mayor must think about how to prevent lawsuits from draining the city’s funds. The Ricci v. DeStefano case cost City Hall $6 million in 2009, and city officials are currently debating how to pay for two other lawsuits — Aponte v. Gonzalez and Martone v. City of New Haven — which together cost the city $900,000.

Elicker recently called upon City Hall to find a sustainable way to pay for these cases, explaining that officials need a bigger focus on long-term fiscal decisions. He explained that the city will not be able to fund pensions and its self-insurance fund using the way the city currently handles its budget, particularly given expensive lawsuits.

“In terms of managing the city, there’s no program against these huge lawsuits and losses. Some of these things are beyond stupid,” Doyens said. “For example, the Ricci case is beyond stupid: You can’t discriminate against anybody for reasons that are not legitimate or related to firing or hiring or promoting. I learned that as a child. It’s just wrong.”

Another criticism Elicker leveled at the DeStefano administration was its lack of transparency, explaining that if he were elected mayor, he would aim to increase public discourse and input on city policy. Elicker cited CompStat — a weekly public meeting to discuss police strategy introduced by New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman last year — as a model for enabling public input.

In deciding to run for mayor, potential candidates must weigh whether to opt in to the public finance system that DeStefano helped create over a decade ago after allegations of corruption plagued his administration. The public finance option would give candidates like Elicker and Holder-Winfield around $50,000 for their campaigns. After opting out of the public finance option in 2011, DeStefano raised over $700,000, outspending 2011 challenger Jeffrey Kerekes, who chose to rely on public money, by a 14-to-1 margin. DeStefano’s decision to opt out of this system, Doyens said, was a “travesty” that demonstrated “a lack of integrity” on DeStefano’s part. Despite this, DeStefano still received the lowest percentage of the city vote in any election since he was first elected mayor.

Doyens said that although he respects Elicker, he believes DeStefano’s negative campaign strategies will complicate Elicker’s ability to win if he were to run for mayor.

“[Elicker is] an interesting candidate: He has a lot of personal integrity, and he is pretty much what he says he is,” Doyens said. “The mayor is not a nice man. I think DeStefano will eat [Elicker] for lunch: He goes for the jugular and Elicker will want to run this positive, nice-guy campaign.” Elicker said he plans on running a “clean” and “positive” campaign, explaining that even if people will think he is “naïve” for it, he wants to run a campaign he will be proud of once the election is over.

“I wouldn’t be considering [running for mayor] if I weren’t serious about it and thought I had the potential to win,” Elicker said. “I think nationally, people are tired of politics that are negative and candidates that only talk about how bad the other candidate is. If I do run, I think an energetic and optimistic campaign around issues of public engagement will win the day.”

If Elicker and Holder-Winfield both decide to run, they will first navigate the city’s Democratic Party primary election next September before a potential November general election. While winning the Democratic nomination has traditionally been tantamount to a general election victory in Democrat-heavy New Haven, Kerekes ran as an Independent after taking second to DeStefano in 2011’s Democratic primary election.

While Elicker said that Holder-Winfield has done good work as part of the city’s state delegation, he said that Holder-Winfield has often said that he is running because people have talked to him and asked him to. Instead, Elicker said, voters should focus not on whether people want candidates to run but whether they would actually serve as an effective mayor.

According to Doyens, Holder-Winfield — who is black -— may receive an advantage from his ethnicity, but Doyens added that the legislator will have to defend his state record that has included support for tax and spending increases during a budget crisis.

“One thing Holder-Winfield has going for him is his ethnicity, and he’s going to play it to the max,” Doyens said.

DeStefano has served as the mayor of New Haven since 1994.

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