Four mayoral candidates poised for primary showdown

From left, Toni Harp, Henry Fernandez, Kermit Carolina and Justin Elicker — the four candidates for the mayor’s office.
From left, Toni Harp, Henry Fernandez, Kermit Carolina and Justin Elicker — the four candidates for the mayor’s office. Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

A months-long race that has featured eight candidates at different stages has come down to four mayoral hopefuls who will square off at the polls in today’s Democratic primary election.

State Sen. Toni Harp ARC ’78, Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, former city economic development director Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 and Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina are vying to replace retiring Mayor John DeStefano Jr. as he steps down from the seat he held for two decades. With the endorsements of the New Haven Democratic Town Committee, Gov. Dannel Malloy, Sen. Chris Murphy, a majority of the Board of Aldermen and the University’s politically powerful labor unions, Harp is largely seen as Tuesday’s frontrunner.

Before DeStefano announced he would step down in January, New Haven’s longest-serving mayor faced two opponents for his potential re-election: plumber Sundiata Keitazulu, who began his campaign in November, and Elicker, who declared a week before DeStefano’s announcement.

With DeStefano out of the race, a barrage of new campaigns emerged: Connecticut Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield entered the race in early February, Fernandez at the end of March, President and CEO of Connecticut Technology Council Matthew Nemerson in mid-April and Harp and Carolina in late April. But as the field thickened, some candidates dropped out. Holder-Winfield and Nemerson left the race at the end of June, and Keitazulu decided to do so in early August. All three threw their support behind Harp.

Over the course of almost 20 debates, the candidates have fleshed out their views on a number of issues.

The Democracy Fund, New Haven’s public campaign finance program, has emphasized the question of where candidates recieve their funding. Elicker and Carolina opted to use the Fund, which limits their maximum donations to $370 — as opposed to the $1000 limit Harp and Fernandez face — and prohibits them from accepting donations from political action committees and special interest groups.

Elicker and Carolina have accused those opting out of the Democracy Fund as participating in “pay-to-play” politics — with lobbyists receiving favors from city government — while Harp has argued that the Fund is a flawed system that misuses city resources. Though Fernandez agrees that the Fund may theoretically be a good idea, he said he knew that the city’s unions would run a candidate who could raise large amounts of money, and he had to opt out of the Fund to combat that candidate.

Campaign contributions also highlight the divide in the candidate field: While 22 percent of Harp’s donations and 23 percent of Fernandez’s donations have come from inside the Elm City, Carolina and Elicker have received 74 and 79 percent of their donations from within New Haven, respectively.

Should Elicker, Carolina or Fernandez lose the primary election, all three have collected enough signatures to run in the general election, which they have treated as a runoff election due to the city’s large number of Independent and unaffiliated voters. Harp, though, has bet her candidacy against a victory today — having not filed the necessary paperwork, Harp cannot run again in November should she lose in the primay.

All four candidates have largely agreed on a number of priorities for the city, including making New Haven more fiscally responsible, continuing school reform and maintaining the philosophy of community policing. Each politician has also spoken about the need to give more jobs to New Haven residents and to build upon the partnership between Yale and the city.

As the candidates generally agree on where the city should focus its efforts, the race has occasionally devolved into personality clashes as the candidates have attempted to set themselves apart. This past week, Harp accused Elicker of saying he would close the Morris Cove Fire Station, while Elicker responded by saying the accusation was a lie.

Harp has prided herself on her decades of service in the state legislature and consistently points to her experience as a reason to prefer her candidacy.

“I’ve been in the Senate for the past 20 years and have worked really hard to ensure that we have the resources that we need in our city to make it as successful as possible,” Harp told the News when she announced her candidacy.

Carolina often references his education and administrative work at Hillhouse High School, and he has consistently presented himself as the only candidate to have been born and grown up in New Haven. In his attempt to show his independence from special interest groups, Carolina withdrew his name from consideration by Yale’s unions during their endorsement process.

“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 at last week’s mayoral debate. “It’s a quid pro quo approach here.”

Like Carolina, Elicker has presented himself as an independent candidate who is not beholden to special interests or PAC money. Elicker has said he is willing to take controversial stances on issues such as renegotiating pension contracts and tax policies.

Fernandez, who co-founded LEAP, a youth programming organization, served in the DeStefano administration to help clean up corruption in the anti-blight Livable City Initiative.

With the return of Yale students at the end of August, the campaigns have started to focus more of their efforts on getting students behind their candidates. After reviewing the various candidates’ profiles, Fish Stark ’17 chose to back Elicker, citing Elicker’s platform of government transparency and clean energy.

“He’s … the only candidate who has taken his donations from within the city and not reached to big-name donors outside, setting him outside of pay-for-play politics,” said Stark, who spent Monday making last-minute phone calls late into the night and woke up at 5 a.m. this morning to work as a poll-checker.

Many freshmen, however, are largely uninformed about the election, having only lived in New Haven for a few weeks. Even though she is not opposed to learning more about New Haven politics, Sara Lee ’17 said she “is just trying to get settled in right now.”

Other students have expressed distaste and even frustration toward the vigor of some student campaigners. Michaela Macdonald ’17 called such campaigners “extremely annoying,” and found their work on campus “uninformative.”

Polls close at 8 p.m.

Comments