Six scramble to replace Holder-Winfield

It’s a free-for-all in the race to replace Gary Holder-Winfield as state representative for Connecticut’s 94th assembly district.

When voters go to the polls this Thursday, they will find four Democrats and one Republican on the ballot. The diversity of candidates is a testament to the diversity of the district: southern Hamden, New Haven’s Newhallville and Prospect Hill neighborhoods and a slice of Yale, including Trumbull, Calhoun, Berkeley, Silliman and Timothy Dwight Colleges.

Two of the four Democratic hopefuls are from New Haven, the other two from Hamden. No candidate has been backed by the district’s Democratic committee, which declined to vote on an endorsement at a March meeting amid confusion over which delegates still lived in the district.

Still, Hamden’s Democratic establishment has rallied around Berita Rowe-Lewis, an at-large Hamden city council member representing all nine municipal districts. At the March convention, Hamden’s delegates were all poised to support her. Rowe-Lewis works as a supervisor at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She was first elected to political office in 2003, as a Hamden councilwoman representing a district abutting New Haven.

Rowe-Lewis said she is politically adept and has the experience to follow in Holder-Winfield’s footsteps, emphasizing her work bringing farmers’ markets to Hamden and helping to convert a blighted building into low-and-middle-income housing.

Reynaud Harp, brother-in-law of Mayor Toni Harp, is the other Hamden resident with his sights set on the seat. He works in New Haven for Renaissance Management, the real estate firm founded by the mayor’s late husband, Wendell Harp. The firm is now run by Mayor Harp’s son, Matthew Harp.

Because he lives in Hamden but works in New Haven, Harp said, he has ties in both halves of the district. Harp moved to New Haven from Minnesota in the late 1990s. He served as an insurance commissioner before entering private practice as an attorney. He was disbarred from the legal profession in the state in 1997. The state Supreme Court cited his failure to pay required fees and taxes, keep proper legal records, abide by the terms of his probation and cooperate with a disciplinary investigation.

“I don’t think what happened 20 years ago has an awful lot to do with this race,” Harp said, explaining that he was having medical issues that interfered with his ability to keep up with the requirements of his legal license.

Mayor Harp declined to issue an endorsement in the race but offered hearty praise for her brother-in-law, whom she called “one of the smartest people” she knows.

Fellow candidate Charles Ashe, a Newhallville barber and business owner, said Harp’s past indiscretions should matter.

“When voters make that important decision to send someone to office, they would certainly want to know about an integrity issue,” Ashe said.

Ashe, a lifelong New Haven resident, said the community is reaching a crisis point with rising taxes, blighted property and increasingly dangerous streets. As a political outsider, he said he brings a fresh perspective.

Robyn Porter, also a Newhallville resident, is the final Democratic candidate on the ballot. She works as an administrative assistant for the Communications Workers of America, the largest communications and media labor union in the country. She also sits on the Newhallville ward committee in New Haven.

Porter called herself a “single mom turned community activist,” touting her work with the Newhallville Community Resilience Team. She has been endorsed by a handful of union locals, including the local arm of the AFL-CIO, the Working Families Party and the Carpenters’ Union.

A fifth Democrat, Jerome Dunbar of New Haven, is running as a write-in candidate. There is one Republican name on the ballot: Leonard B. Caplan.

Candidates described similar commitments — more state resources for municipalities, more economic development and jobs, less violence — and agreed that those issues affect Hamden and New Haven alike. The municipal border is arbitrary, they said.

Porter said she would be interested in working with the General Assembly’s Achievement Gap Task Force to continue tackling education reform. She also said she will lobby for more funding under Payment in Lieu of Taxes, which reimburses cities for tax-exempt property.

Harp listed safety as a majority priority following the recent spate of shootings, which took the lives of three young people. Rowe-Lewis also emphasized strategies to address gun violence and increase PILOT funding, saying she supports the changes Democratic leadership has proposed to the way cities are compensated for nontaxable land.

Ashe also threw his weight behind PILOT reform but said he would take a deeper look at the state’s tax structure, sitting down with economists and business owners to devise legislation that would allow municipalities to balance their budgets without over-taxing their residents.

Holder-Winfield vacated the House seat when he ascended to the state Senate in a February special election to replace Mayor Harp, who left Hartford in January to take the city’s helm. Holder-Winfield also declined to make an endorsement in Thursday’s election.

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