City celebrates inaugural ball

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Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

Mayor Toni Harp entered the glimmering aviation hangar at Tweed-New Haven Airport on Saturday night to the sound of Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire”  — the soundtrack to last fall’s victorious campaign.

Paired with the sound of shattering glass to represent breaking the glass ceiling, the song’s significance was lost on no one.

The city had gathered to celebrate its 50th mayor and its first-ever female chief executive. Harp commemorated that breakthrough alongside 1,300 of her friends, supporters and colleagues at an inaugural ball formally honoring the city’s new administration.

Just three months into her tenure as mayor, Harp took a break from leading the city to dance, dine, pose for photographs and thank those who help run New Haven beyond City Hall.

The result of all the revelry: The event raised $100,000, based on an unofficial count, for an endowment fund for the city’s youth and elderly, to be managed by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Tickets to the black-tie event went at $250 for an introductory reception and $75 for general admission to the ball. It brought together leaders from the state, city, Yale University, business people, nonprofit directors and community activists.

To kick off the gala, state and city elected officials processed down a red carpet at the center of the hanger, followed by a presentation by roughly 30 members of the Governor’s Foot Guard.

Harp made a point of shopping local. She wore a custom-made silver dress crafted by the local Jamaican designer Neville Wisdom and donned jewelry from two Chapel Street designers — Peter Indorf and Derek Simpson.

In brief but emphatic remarks, Harp predicted positive economic and social development in New Haven.

“We are on the move in New Haven, and the move is up,” she said to a cheering crowd. “We are going to have jobs here, we are going to have the best urban education here and we are going to have the safest streets here if we just all work together.”

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy introduced Harp, addressing a politically star-studded crowd one day after announcing his re-election bid. He praised Harp’s successes as a state senator, including her work to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and to create more opportunities for early childhood education.

It was the first ball for some attendees, including Maria Damiani, director of the New Haven Health Department’s maternal and child health division. She said she came to show her support for the new administration and the potential it brings to the city. Particularly significant, Damiani said, is Harp’s “new and unique perspective — a woman’s perspective.” The event’s blowout attendance was a testament to the immense political support Harp has in the state and city. Harp’s immense political support, Damiani said.

Others were longtime ball-goers. Tom Dubno, a consultant for the shipping company Gateway Terminal, said he has been going to inaugural galas for 50 years, since the tenure of Mayor Richard Lee in the 1950s and ’60s.

Harp’s colleagues in Hartford came out in droves, including not only New Haven’s delegation but legislators from across the state. State Rep. Pat Dillon, who served alongside Harp for more than two decades, said Harp has assumed executive office with vast preparation as a legislator. Dillon called her a disciplined and optimistic leader. State Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor ’93 LAW ’98 said he anticipates that Harp will keep New Haven Public Schools at the forefront of education reform.

For those close to the mayor, the event marked the culmination of a personal investment in Harp’s political career. Cheryl Henderson, a psychologist in the city, said she was “over the moon” when Harp told her she was running last spring. She remarked on the mayor’s dry sense of humor and her unassuming leadership style.

Elsie Chapman, a New Haven resident, said Harp’s mild-mannered nature masks an inner zeal.

“People think she’s so disarming and nice, which she is; but you don’t stay in politics for 20 years without being tough and grounded in what you believe in,” Chapman said. “If you cross her, you better expect trouble.”

Harp’s children were also in attendance, her daughters having flown in from Georgia for the celebration. Martyn Philpot, a New Haven attorney who got to know the mayor through her late husband Wendell Harp, called her election “the realization of a dream for her and her family.”

Toni Nixon, a supervisor at the Clifford W. Beers Guidance Clinic who has known Harp for over 11 years, said Harp’s devotion to her hometown is unique among politicians.

“[She] could have stayed [in Hartford], but she came back home and I think that’s amazing,” she said. “[Harp’s] heart has never changed.”

The event also featured entertainment from local groups, including The Bernadettes and Mikata Salsa and Latin Jazz Orchestra.

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