Holder-Winfield joins mayoral race

Connecticut State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield officially declared on Friday that he will be running to replace Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
Connecticut State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield officially declared on Friday that he will be running to replace Mayor John DeStefano Jr. Photo by Chion Wolf, Connecticut House Democrats.

Two months after setting up an exploratory committee to consider a potential mayoral run, Connecticut State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield filed campaign papers with the city clerk Friday morning to formalize his bid for the mayor’s office.

His candidacy now official, Holder-Winfield joins Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 and Sundiata Keitazulu, a plumber and New Haven resident, in the race to replace Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who announced last week that he will not seek an 11th term in office. That field of candidates is expected to widen in the wake of DeStefano’s announcement, as a number of prominent Elm City residents and city officials are considering a run.

Holder-Winfield said he is running for mayor to help New Haven realize its full potential.

“I see a city that has a lot of good things in it, but also a city where, for a long time, not everyone has been able to participate because of failing schools, poverty and violence,” he said. “I want to fix the issues in New Haven so that everyone can have a chance. New Haven has the potential to be the greatest city in Connecticut.”

Education, economic revitalization and a lower crime rate will form the centerpiece of his platform, Holder-Winfield added.

In advance of his official campaign kickoff party this Saturday, Holder-Winfield said he is working to build his staff, including hiring a campaign treasurer and spokesperson. Like Elicker, Holder-Winfield said his campaign will rely on public campaign financing, limiting the total amount of money that Holder-Winfield can fundraise to run for mayor.

Holder-Winfield represents Connecticut’s 94th Assembly District, which comprises portions of New Haven and Hamden. He said his experience as a legislator and community activist has prepared him to be mayor.

“People have asked the question about me, ‘Have you ever run anything?’” he said. “The answer is yes — I was chief electrical adviser for an engineering company called Alstom from 2000 to 2003 and controlled that whole sector of the project.”

Before working for Alstom, Holder-Winfield served in the military, working as a nuclear electrician based in Virginia. In 2003, he went back to school, studying political science at Southern Connecticut State University. After starting a company called Quest Educational Initiative in 2004 and becoming involved in community activism, he ran for the state House in 2008, where he led the effort to repeal the death penalty in the state and has since worked on transgender equality and juvenile justice issues.

DEFINING A PLATFORM

Education reform — and specifically school board reform — has emerged as a significant issue in the early days of the mayoral campaign. New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo, who has worked extensively in the past two decades alongside DeStefano throughout the school reconstruction and change initiatives, is expected to retire when his contract expires on June 30, according to City Clerk Ron Smith.

Mayo’s announcement comes as the city begins considering reforms to its charter, which could lead to sweeping changes in the way members of the New Haven Board of Education are selected. Currently, the mayor has absolute discretion to appoint all board members, which some have said prevents an independent-minded board. Both Holder-Winfield and Elicker said they support a hybrid board that would be comprised of some elected and some appointed members.

“There’s a tendency just to swing to the opposite — if you think education’s going in the wrong direction and you aren’t being heard, you want the board to be elected,” Holder-Winfield said. “I’m for a hybrid version of the school board because it allows the people to have some say but still preserves the mayor’s power to make certain appointments based on expertise.”

Holder-Winfield said the superintendent’s position is likely to remain appointed, adding that Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries ’95, who has overseen much of the district’s school change process, is expected to replace Mayo.

But Holder-Winfield stressed the need for a thorough search process to identify the best superintendent, saying Harries’ appointment should not be a “done deal.”

“I’m looking to meet with Garth prior to winning the race to make sure we’re on the same page about schools,” Holder-Winfield said. “Whoever comes in as mayor, Garth is already going to be there. My intention is not to get rid of him but to make sure we get the best superintendent possible. Garth may be that person, but he may not be.”

Beyond his plans for education reform — which he said would include a renewed push on early childhood education — Holder-Winfield said he will work to strengthen community policing in the Elm City. Holder-Winfield also said he supports transparent budgeting as one way to manage the city’s ballooning deficit. He noted that safety and education tie into economic revitalization, as the perception of a safer city would help bring businesses and commerce to New Haven.

SURVEYING THE FIELD 

According to Elicker, his and Holder-Winfield’s policy platforms are alike, resulting from a “similar vision for the city’s future.”

The difference, Elicker said, comes down to experience.

“I have a lot of firsthand experience dealing with the city’s budget and operations on a day-to-day level,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for my constituents as alderman in Cedar Hill and East Rock.”

Elicker has previously touted his attendance record at a range of city meetings and community gatherings as one of his assets as a candidate, a record that he said differentiates him from Holder-Winfield.

Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04, who has endorsed Elicker, said while the two candidates’ policy platforms overlap, Elicker’s approach sets him apart.

“Justin’s vision includes bottom-up participation. He wants to get input from the entire community,” Hausladen said.

State Rep. Roland Lemar — whose district also includes part of New Haven — declined to make an official endorsement, saying he would wait until the field “crystallized.”

Still, Lemar described Holder-Winfield as a passionate community organizer and an effective legislator.

“Gary knows how to build coalitions to move an agenda,” Lemar said. “He has a strong policy mind and an incredibly work ethic. He is willing to say or do anything to get progressive change accomplished.”

Lemar said Holder-Winfield’s signature achievement in the Connecticut House was his leadership on the repeal of the death penalty. He also said the candidate has been an advocate for school reform, principally working on literacy rates among young children.

Other possible mayoral candidates — all of whom have suggested they might be interested in a run — include Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina, Probate Court Judge Jack Keyes, State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez and State Rep. Patricia Dillon.

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