The gloves came off last Tuesday when the two candidates vying to become New Haven’s next mayor faced off for the penultimate debate of the election season.
Exactly two weeks before voters go to the polls, Toni Harp ARC ’78 and Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 took turns pummeling one another with attacks, feeding off a negative atmosphere aided by heckling and booing from an audience of roughly 250 at Gateway Community College.
Elicker went on the offensive right off the bat, answering a question about his own experience as Ward 10 alderman by lambasting Harp’s 20-year tenure as a state senator. Harp dispensed with the play-it-safe strategy she had adopted following her victory in the Democratic primary and swung back: She said her opponent lacked governing experience and cannot build consensus, having failed to win the support of his colleagues on the Board of Aldermen, most of whom have endorsed Harp.
Questions put to the two candidates by New Haven Independent Editor Paul Bass ’82 and New Haven Register Reporter Rachel Chinapen drew on the race’s most controversial disputes and pointed to the candidates’ perceived largest weaknesses: Elicker’s lack of administrative experience and Harp’s dealings with her top campaign bundlers, as well as her family’s real estate business.
In the midst of a heated exchange over the candidates’ respective experiences and abilities to actualize policy ideals, Elicker interrupted the debate to ask, “Can we take a quick breath?”
In answer to a question about nine doctors from Connecticut Orthopaedic Specialists who gave $1,000 apiece to Harp’s campaign following fraudulent dealings that lost them a major city contract, Harp defended the medical group as one of the best in the state and said their clients should not lose out simply because one doctor had double-billed at the expense of taxpayers.
“This is the kind of politics that we’re trying to move beyond as a city,” Elicker said in response. “When big money influences politics, we get inefficient government that gives contracts to people that, in some cases, are even fraudulent.”
Bass asked Harp about “two controversial figures from the 1980s and 1990s” who have served as advisors to the Harp campaign. One was former Connecticut senator and city development commissioner Anthony Avallone, who resigned in 1992 after he was implicated in multiple zoning and tax-relief scandals. The other was Sal Brancati, a former development chief under outgoing New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr. who left city hall around the turn of the century amid corruption scandals involving officials taking advantage of their public posts to enhance their personal wealth.
“Will they have your ear?” Bass asked the candidate.
“I’m willing to hold them accountable,” Harp said. When pushed further, she added, “Frankly, as a Christian, I believe in redemption,” over calls of “guilty” and “evasive” from audience members.
Elicker, too, was heckled by the crowd, in particular by one Harp supporter who shouted “But we don’t know you,” from the back of the room as Elicker described his accomplishments during two terms on the Board of Aldermen.
While Harp’s ties to a handful of big-name supporters were scrutinized, the debate called Elicker’s ability to motivate support in general into question. Bass asked how Elicker can govern with “no appreciable support from African-Americans or Latinos.” As mayor, Elicker said he would govern free from considerations of race and class.
“I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that I didn’t do as well as I would have liked to in the African-American and Latino communities,” Elicker said. “I have worked tirelessly reaching out to everyone in this city.”
Harp used her 30 seconds allotted for a rebuttal to launch a separate attack, criticizing Elicker for flat funding education while voting for a teachers’ contract that increased salaries. She used the indictment to trumpet her experience in the state legislature, which she said makes her uniquely capable of lobbying the state for more money for the city.
“If I raise salaries, I’m going to make sure I have the money to back it up,” she said. “That comes with experience.”
Elicker said he knows the city’s budget “through and through,” arguing that this experience is more important than knowledge of the minutiae of the Connecticut General Assembly.
The candidates differed on their willingness to consider long-term borrowing to make up for short-term holes in the city’s finances. Elicker said he would not accept borrowing as a way to offset the city’s deficit, while Harp said “we might need to borrow to catch up.”
During the debate, Harp had two opportunities to counter attacks on Renaissance Management, the real estate company owned by her son and formerly by her husband, who is now deceased. Elicker pointed to the business’s tax delinquency and accused it of taking advantage of low-income residents, citing safety and sanitation problems as evidence of the landlord’s negligence. Harp addressed her son, who was in the crowd, saying she trusted him to sort out the business’ taxes.
“I’m really baffled by this question,” Harp said. “The reality is that I’m not a part of my family’s business.”
The 50-minute debate was punctuated by a few questions that drew more straightforward policy responses from the candidates. Elicker came out in favor of turning many of the city’s one-way streets into two-way streets, while Harp said a single flow of traffic might have its virtues in some neighborhoods.
The evening also reprised the race’s ongoing clash over the role of public financing in city elections. Elicker signed on to participate in the Democracy Fund during the Democratic primary, and has continued to abide by its rules. The public finance system awards participating candidates grants in return for limiting individual contributions and disavowing PAC money. During the debate, Elicker vowed to be “the most honest mayor the city has ever seen.”
Harp, who abstained from public money, said the Fund is a drain on the city’s finances and trades off with investments in youth services and neighborhood improvements.
A final debate is scheduled for the Sunday before the election, a televised dialogue in WTNH News 8 studios that will air live from 8 to 9 a.m.