With mere days to go before the Democratic primary election for mayor of New Haven, the four candidates transitioned over the weekend into the final, frenetic phase of the campaign: actually getting voters to the polls.
After a long summer spent devising platforms and canvassing neighborhoods to identify support, the four mayoral hopefuls are all bearing down on Tuesday’s primary, intent on transferring campaign energy into a ground game that could decide, if not the race itself, the margins of support that will shape November’s general election. All three candidates except for Connecticut State Sen. Toni Harp ARC ’78 said they will run again as Independents in November should they lose the primary on Sept. 10.
In a major show of force 72 hours before the polls open, Harp rallied nearly 80 supporters on Saturday outside of her campaign headquarters on Whalley Avenue. A day later, Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, former New Haven economic development administrator, took to his front porch to thank supporters and ready his campaign for Tuesday. Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 staged a rally for supporters last Thursday, and Hillhouse High School principal Kermit Carolina said he spent Sunday morning strategizing with his campaign staff for Election Day.
With music, food and volunteer sign-up sheets, Harp’s supporters crowded onto the busy Dixwell sidewalk and pledged to deliver the election to the 21-year incumbent state senator.
“There’s only a few days left to elect our next mayor, Senator Toni Harp,” Connecticut State Rep. Juan Candelaria told the crowd. He was joined by a delegation of Harp’s colleagues in Hartford, including State Sen. Martin Looney and State Rep. Toni Walker. Connecticut State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield and Sundiata Keitazulu — both erstwhile candidates for mayor — a collection of New Haven aldermen and representatives from SEIU and AFSCME locals were also there to show their support.
“Because of all of you, I smell victory in the air,” Harp said, forcefully claiming the frontrunner position she has occupied leading into the primary. After thanking her supporters, she delivered brief remarks that focused on rebuilding struggling New Haven neighborhoods, continuing the work of reforming the city’s public schools and giving ordinary citizens the power to “define the direction this city goes.”
Harp’s campaigning included a press conference last Thursday, where she said Elicker would close the Morris Cove fire station as mayor and cited an article in the New Haven Independent published last Wednesday as evidence.
Elicker, however, said he never made such a comment. While he said he encouraged people to look into ways to improve service and reduce costs, he said he explicitly told people he would not close the Morris Cove fire station and that he repeated and clarified his stance after Harp’s press conference.
“I came back pretty strongly saying that’s a lie, and we found out today that [the Harp campaign] was dropping literature on people’s doors saying that Harp was the only candidate who promised not to close the fire station. They did a robocall [Sunday afternoon] … saying I was going to close the station,” Elicker said. “We responded with a robocall that went out a little bit before 8 p.m. [on Sunday] saying this is untrue.”
On Sunday night, the Elicker campaign sent out a press release with the headline, “Harp repeats lies, plays politics with public safety,” in which Elicker again said he would not close the Morris Cove Fire Station.
As part of their get out the vote strategy, Michael Harris ’15, field director for the Harp campaign, said the campaign has identified 11,000 supporters throughout the city, all of whom need to be “reconfirmed” and reminded to vote. Harp said over 400 people have volunteered for her campaign.
Throughout the morning, volunteers circulated get out the vote sign-up sheets, asking supporters to sign up for four-hour-long shifts in between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. through Election Day.
Harp’s three opponents declined to disclose their own figures of identified supporters but all said they were confident in their chances of victory.
Flanked by supporters with signs identifying themselves as residents of every neighborhood in the city, Fernandez put a personal touch on his final campaign pitch, expressing his gratitude to his family and supporters and pledging to “fight everyday for the people of this city.”
He continued by dwelling on the theme of unity at the nub of his campaign pitch.
“For too long this city has been divided — by neighborhood, by race, by class, by whether you’ve gone to college or not gone to college” Fernandez said, standing on the front porch of his Fair Haven home, with his wife and son — and dog, in a Fernandez for mayor shirt — on the lawn before him. “This campaign for us, as a family and as a community, has been about saying we’re all in this together, we’re one city.”
Paul Wessel, an East Rock resident, said Fernandez “has the chops to do the job” amid the bureaucracy of City Hall.
Fernandez said his supporters have faced “grief from people who need a paycheck from the politically powerful,” intimating that contractors and other groups with an interest in the election have pressured residents not to support him. His remarks reiterated a common criticism of Harp, which alleges that she will be beholden as mayor to the many groups — including Yale’s Unite Here Locals 34 and 35 and a majority of city lawmakers on the Board of Aldermen — who have thrown their weight behind her.
Harp received 70 contributions from lobbyists and city and state contractors in between July 1 and September 1, according to data compiled by Ben Berkowitz, CEO and founder of SeeClickFix, a nonprofit that seeks to foster communication between local government and its constituents. Fernandez received 19 such contributions during the same time period, according to the data.
Elicker and Carolina are both participating in the Democracy Fund, the city’s public campaign finance system that disallows donations from interest groups.
Elicker held a rally for his supporters at his headquarters on Whalley Avenue last Thursday and said he is now focused on going door to door, reminding people to vote. He said his campaign has identified a certain number of supporters — and will be reaching out to them specifically — but is also still talking to undecided voters.
On Monday, he said he plans to visit every polling station in the city. His campaign will have neighborhood-based staging locations sending out volunteers throughout the day, he added.
Elicker said he is “feeling confident and excited — but at the end of the day you never know.” He said he will “come in either first or second” on Tuesday, based on polling data his campaign conducted last month.
“I would hope that the two candidates who come in third and fourth would drop out after the primary,” Elicker added, turning the general election into a two-way race less likely to splinter the electorate.
Elicker, Fernandez and Carolina have collected enough signatures to appear on the general election ballot if they lose the primary election, and Elicker and Carolina have committed to continuing their use of the Democracy Fund if they run again in the general election.
The Harp campaign, however, did not make an effort to get those signatures to appear on the general election ballot, and if Harp does not come in first on Tuesday, she will officially be out of the race to replace Mayor John DeStefano Jr.
“We did not send any petitions out, so there’s no turning back,” said Jason Bartlett, the Harp campaign manager. “If we lose, we’re done.”
Carolina said his get out the vote strategy remains privileged campaign information but said he would have poll workers, vote pullers in each of the city’s 30 wards and drivers throughout the day.
At a campaign stop at Yale’s African-American Cultural House on Friday, Carolina encouraged Yale students to vote but warned them that “Yale’s unions will pull up with vans and attempt to tell you who to vote for.”
Locals 34 and 35 are recognized as a powerful vote-pulling operation in city politics, having propelled 14 out of 15 union-backed aldermanic candidates to victory in 2011. Local 34 President Laurie Kennington ’01 said a number of the local’s members would be taking the day off to participate in get out the vote efforts on behalf of the Harp campaign. She said the union will send members to specific neighborhoods and also help staff Harp campaign headquarters.
Polls open Tuesday at 6 a.m.