The four candidates competing in the race to replace Mayor John DeStefano Jr. squared off in a live, televised debate Wednesday night at the Long Wharf Theatre.
Broadcast by NBC Connecticut in conjunction with the New Haven Democracy Fund and The New Haven Independent, the event saw lively debate between Connecticut State Sen. Toni Harp ARC ’78, former city economic development director Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 and Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina. Candidates answered questions on economic policy, education and public safety from citizens and three reporters: Paul Bass ’82 of the Independent, Mary O’Leary of the New Haven Register and Cynthia Calderon of La Voz Hispana.
Wednesday’s event was the final of over 10 debates among the four candidates, who will square off at the polls in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.
“All the debates have been lively, and I think the candidates have spoken well and on point,” Bass said. “I think it would have been good to let them ask each other questions: When we’ve let them do that in debates, they’ve gotten more to the point.”
The issues of underfunded pensions and the city’s budget came up early on in the debate.
Elicker argued that current city expectations on investment returns, with some estimates at 8.5 percent, are unrealistic. Carolina, meanwhile, blamed the city for allowing unions to “inflate their pensions” at the expense of taxpayers, while Fernandez referenced the recent lowering of New Haven’s bond ratings by multiple agencies, calling the budget a “ticking time bomb.”
Meanwhile, Harp — who has the support of the city’s Democratic establishment, having received the endorsement of the Democratic Town Committee and Yale’s unions — argued that many city workers, such as police officers, face health issues like high blood pressure and should be compensated through stabilized pensions.
Taxes emerged as a controversial issue during the debate, and Fernandez accused Elicker and Harp of mishandling budgetary issues.
“Unfortunately, I do have to point out that Alderman Elicker has voted repeatedly for tax increases,” Fernandez said. “Harp … has not actually even read the budget. She’s admitted to that, so I’m not sure how she can fix the problem if she doesn’t know what the problem is.”
Elicker retorted that he faced a choice between two budgets that both raised taxes and voted for the budget that did so to a lesser degree. Harp pointed out that Fernandez has never lobbied Hartford for more money for the city and that she has worked at the state level to guarantee funding for New Haven.
When asked to cite one idea they liked from their opponents, both Fernandez and Elicker cited different Carolina policy suggestions.
“I think it’s interesting the way they all paid homage to Kermit Carolina,” Bass told the News after the debate. “I think it’s because they feel least threatened by him.”
Carolina, who trailed behind the other candidates in the last public campaign filings, stressed his independence from unions, special interests and big donors in the debate by emphasizing his intention to stay with the Democracy Fund, New Haven’s public campaign finance system. Elicker, the only other candidate to participate in the Fund, did the same.
By choosing to participate in the Fund, Elicker and Carolina have limited the maximum individual contribution they can receive to $370 in exchange for receiving matching funding from the city. Harp and Fernandez, who have opted out of the Democracy Fund, can receive contributions of up to $1,000.
“The Democracy Fund board appropriated $4,500 to help put [the debate] on, and their reasoning was that the debate could go directly into the houses of all New Haven residents,” Fund administrator Ken Krayeske said. “One of the goals of the Democracy Fund is to increase public participation in the election, and they thought this would be fulfilling.”
Republican Ward 1 candidate Paul Chandler ’14 also attended the debate.