Harp pledges to break glass ceiling

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

On Wednesday Toni Harp ARC ’78 hitched her campaign for the mayor’s office to ideals of gender equality, promising to shatter the glass ceiling that has kept women from traditionally male-dominated jobs — including the Elm City’s top post.

While accepting the endorsement of a regional chapter of an international firefighters’ association, Harp praised the group’s female members who came to town from across the Northeast to back the candidate. Harp said female firefighters — in New Haven, New York City and around the region — embody ideals of courage and competence that transcend gender differences.

“I am honored and proud to accept your endorsement, and I hope to blast through that ceiling next week,” said Harp, an 11-term Connecticut state senator running in the Nov. 5 general election against petitioning Independent candidate Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10.

The victor will be the city’s first new leader in 20 years, set to replace outgoing New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. If Harp wins, she will become the first female mayor in the city’s history.

“I think we have to realize that it is a glass ceiling — not one made of cement, concrete, steel or stone,” Harp told roughly 35 supporters gathered in the main hall of the East Rock Elks Lodge. “Ladies and gentlemen, glass can be broken.”

Before the Wednesday afternoon event, Harp said she thinks city residents are by and large enthusiastic about the prospect of a female mayor. She added that she has encountered young girls on the campaign trail who profess their admiration for her even though they cannot vote.

Gary Tinney, vice president of the northeastern U.S. chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, offered the official endorsement. With over 90 chapters and 5,100 service personnel, the advocacy group will offer whatever assistance it can in the final five days of the campaign, Tinney promised.

Harp had already won the endorsement of the New Haven Firebirds — a coalition of minority firefighters in New Haven and Hamden — as well as the New Haven Fire Union, Local 825. Firebirds President Michael Neal and Local 825 President Jimmy Kottage both attended Wednesday’s event.

Female firefighters from New Haven and New York City spoke about the importance of a diverse workforce, praising Harp as an empathetic leader and an ally in the struggle for equal opportunity.

“Everything that we do in the fire service, we do it right alongside our male co-workers,” said Erika Bogan, a Woodbridge Avenue-based NHFD firefighter. “The only difference is that we are pre-judged and labeled just because of our gender.”

Because they are more “nurturing” than their male counterparts, Bogan said women are more adept at caring for children or pregnant women during fire accidents.

Bogan is one of 11 women among more than 300 service members in the New Haven Fire Department. The New York Fire Department, with a force of 10,500 firefighters, employs just 35 females, said New York firefighter Regina Wilson. Despite female firefighters’ role in relief efforts following 9/11, Wilson added, women like her are erased from narratives of the tragedy.

“No one would ever know that women were down at ground zero,” she said. “It was never portrayed that way. We were there … I smelled the smoke.”

Following the endorsement event, Harp traveled down Dixwell Avenue to join Ward 22 Alderman Jeanette Morrison for a meet-and-greet with Yale students on Cross Campus.

Roughly 15 students gathered to hear Harp pitch her vision for a more thriving New Haven.

“I believe that New Haven is going to be the ship that lifts all of Connecticut,” Harp said, describing education and jobs as the principal needs of currently underserved portions of the population.

Echoing Morrison’s call to Yale students to get involved in city politics, Harp asked the students assembled to lend their skills to the betterment of the city. Lucy Gubernick ’14 said she supports Harp because she sees her message as resonating with a broad array of New Haven residents.

Harp’s stop on campus was one of just a few she had made during the course of the campaign, while Elicker has been on campus over 10 times during the course of his campaign.

Harp clinched September’s Democratic primary with just under 50 percent of the vote, followed by Elicker with 23 percent.

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