Six days to primary, candidates debate Democracy Fund

A debate held on Yale’s campus provided the four mayoral candidates with one of their last public engagements.
A debate held on Yale’s campus provided the four mayoral candidates with one of their last public engagements. Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

With just under one week remaining before the Democratic primary, the four New Haven mayoral candidates had one of the last public opportunities to engage each other at a debate held on Yale’s campus.

Hosted by the Black Student Alliance at Yale, Yale Divinity Students for a Democratic Society and My Brother’s Keeper, a grass-roots New Haven organization that advocates for social justice, the debate had scheduled segments focusing on jobs, housing, youth services, police brutality and gun violence, immigration and education. Toward the end of the debate, the issue of the Democracy Fund sparked controversy and back-and-forth dialogue among the four candidates.

A Democracy Fund question was submitted by the audience and directed to State Sen. Toni Harp ARC ’78 and former city economic development director Henry Fernandez LAW ’94. The question asked the two candidates how New Haven residents could be assured the candidates were not beholden to special interest groups given that they did not participate in the Democracy Fund, New Haven’s public campaign-finance program. The question also asked the candidates why a high proportion of their donations have come from citizens not from New Haven.

“In our city budget, we spend over $200,000 on the Democracy Fund while cutting programs to our young people, so I am very concerned that when we have these conversations, we haven’t looked at the whole picture,” Harp said. “If I could get money from outside the state I would, but most of my money has come from New Haven: I’ve gotten New Haven residents who have supported me, and the reality is that the Democracy Fund itself has issues.”

According to an article published in the New Haven Independent on Wednesday, 75.46 percent of Fernandez’s donors and 60.44 percent of Harp’s donors are not from New Haven. Those numbers are significantly lower for mayoral candidates Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ‘10 SOM ‘10 and Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina at 18.71 percent and 3.38 percent, respectively.

Fernandez said that while he thinks the Democracy Fund is a good system, he opted out because he knew he would have to face a union-backed candidate who was going to forgo the Fund and raise large amounts of money. He also explained that his previous work in other parts of the nation, such as his work for the Obama administration, explains his donations from outside of New Haven.

Harp also questioned candidates who are using the Democracy Fund for the primary but plan on abandoning the Fund for the general election. However, Ward 10 Alderman and mayoral candidate Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, who is participating in the Democracy Fund along with Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina, responded by saying that both he and Carolina have committed to using the Fund for both the primary and general elections.

“Looking at the contributions, we need to look at those who are interested in doing business in the city and giving large contributions. They’re not just giving them because they’re kind people — I hope we have enough common sense to understand that they want something back,” Carolina said. “It’s a quid pro quo approach here. … I’m very proud of the fact that I have the highest percentage of New Haven voters.”

The debate also covered a range of other issues that saw more agreement among the candidates. All four candidates spoke of the need to increase the proportion of Elm City jobs held by New Haven residents and the need for Yale to make a concerted effort to employ New Haven residents.

The candidates also discussed their plans for education and safety. Harp emphasized her role in securing state funding for youth programs, while Fernandez spoke about his experience co-founding and serving as executive director at LEAP, a youth programming organization. Carolina pointed to his work at Hillhouse High School, and Elicker argued for better utilizing existing organizations to strengthen youth programming.

A question from the audience asked the candidates about their opinions on police brutality, and the candidates talked about the need to make police officers more accountable. Harp mentioned that the New Haven Civilian Review Board, a group that reviews complaints against police officers, has been included in the revision to the city’s charter earlier this year. Fernandez said that one of the police department’s top priorities should be to make sure New Haven residents see the police force as legitimate.

The candidates also debated the issue of how to improve the city’s fiscal situation, with Elicker emphasizing the need to stop borrowing money and Carolina arguing for audits of city departments and a re-evaluation of high spending on new school construction.

Wednesday’s event marked the final scheduled debate before next Tuesday’s primary election.

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