The New Mayor: A Popularity Contest?

Not one, not two, not three, but FOUR horses in this race. Place your bets.
Not one, not two, not three, but FOUR horses in this race. Place your bets. // Kathryn Crandall

A meet-and-greet. A master’s tea. A roundtable.  A casual Cross Campus chat.

These events share a goal: They seek to engage Yalies politically. But beyond variations in the cookies served and questions asked, they seem like nothing more than slightly different shades of schmooze.

Elicker. Fernandez. Harp. Carolina. In the all-Democratic New Haven mayoral race, the differences among the four candidates have less to do with policy than personality, so distinct campaigning styles count for a lot. And with a relatively small electorate at play in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the hundreds of votes candidates could win from Yale’s campus are nothing to sneeze at.

On Yale’s campus — where few students follow New Haven politics, let alone have strong opinions on local issues, simply because they don’t see the city as crucial for their everyday services — the candidates often find themselves expounding upon abstract “visions” for the city rather than the details of constituents’ concerns.

But those visions are not so different. Each campaign stresses the holy trinity of jobs, education and public safety, and all hope to unify a city divided by race and class.

Jason Bartlett, campaign manager for Toni Harp ARC ’78: “Toni Harp’s message to bring the city together is universal. Her emphasis on education, jobs and the economy is universal.”

Emma Janger ’15, a Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 supporter who runs her candidate’s campaign on campus: “I think from the conversations I’ve seen Henry have with students, his vision still centers on jobs and education and public safety.”

Rafi Bildner ’16, fundraising consultant for the Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 campaign: “The issues are education, safety and developing New Haven as a 21st century city.”

Kristin Horneffer ’14, volunteer for Kermit Carolina: “It’s all about ending the cycle of poverty, which by extension ends crime.”

Each campaign rep said they think their candidate can best tackle those issues.

So with the campaigns stressing skills over substance, whether a candidate chooses to talk to students at a meet-and-greet, a master’s tea, a roundtable or while hanging around on Cross Campus can tell us something about the personalities in this race — and what really separates them.

* * *

Drew Morrison ’14, president of “Yale for Elicker,” thinks word-of-mouth is the best way to sell his candidate around campus. “We have a pretty good contingent of about 20 people in the operation. Having them ask their friends — that’s the most effective conversations.” Morrison sees the ground zero of the campaign as the few Yale students who’ve made some intimate acquaintance with the city, whether through volunteering or because they are local. Their enthusiasm infects others.

“People who have friends who are involved and who see the passion in their friends: that’s the basis of our campaign,” Morrison said.

To the skeptic, Morrison’s analysis might seem to betray a hands-off complacency in Elicker’s campaign strategy. While three of the four mayoral candidates are Yale alumni, Elicker is the most recent graduate. His five-year career as a Foreign Service Officer in the State Department is the kind of experience many Yalies would love to boast at 37. He is the only white candidate in the race. And because Elicker is the alderman for East Rock — a relatively affluent ward home to many Yale graduate students and professors — some suspect that he assumes implicit backing from the privileged institution in the center of, but in sharp contrast to, this poverty-plagued city.

Bildner puts a different spin on his candidate’s natural connection to Yalies. Like them, Bilder said, Elicker is a bit of a nerd.

“I think Yale students respond well to Justin not because of what he looks like, but because when they ask him a question, he gives them a real policy-based response based in facts and figures,” Bildner said. And responding to questions about how Elicker’s privilege may endear him to Yalies, Morrison said he thinks Yale students are the voters most willing to confront Elicker about issues of race and class. “Yale students are willing to ask him, ‘Hey, you’re a middle class white person from a wealthy neighborhood,” he said.

Elicker has the most visible undergraduate campaign operation of all the candidates. Even a likely Fernandez voter like Zunaira Arshad ’17 conceded that the people who signed her up to vote were associated with the Elicker campaign.

That’s something the campaign likes to tout. Bildner said that both at last Saturday’s meet-and-greet in Dwight Hall, and at Elicker’s appearance at Bagel Brunch at the Slifka Center, many students told him Elicker was the first candidate they had seen.

Elicker’s campus campaign strategy is a one-two punch of visibility and chatter that embodies what Bildner pegs as the alderman’s central promise: “a transparent and open style of government” epitomized by the responsiveness Elicker claims to have demonstrated as alderman and the way he delegates responsibilities on the campaign trail. Bildner, who has worked on previous Democratic campaigns including President Obama’s, said the Elicker campaign was the first time he found himself in a room of volunteers where “each one is working almost as a senior campaign staffer.”

But it looks like there is an inverse formula in this race between political experience in the city and grassroots campaigning. Elicker is young compared to his chief rivals; he has spent fewer years as an elected official. So folksy as it might seem, his being accessible to students exposes Elicker’s limited political currency on the New Haven scene.

* * *

But if Elicker is the new kid on the block and acts that way, his tactics are very different from those of the establishment candidate: Harp. Experience is her catchword — and campus engagement far from a priority.

A 20-year veteran of the Connecticut state legislature who spent 10 years as chairman of the state senate appropriations committee, Harp has won powerful endorsements (like that of Democratic Senator Chris Murphy) and leads the pack in fundraising. Arguing that her work at the state level has qualified her to manage the crumbling city budget, Harp presents herself to Democratic voters as a major-league player. But coupled with her unmatched union support, that state-level experience has painted Harp as a classic machine politician.

At Yale, that’s how Harp is understood. Her marginal contact with university students — largely limited to work with Students Unite Now, an undergraduate ally of the Unite Here unions — is defined by a high-priestly manner students may not find relatable. Though Harp leads Elicker and Fernandez in almost every other institutional aspect, her campaign has no official student presence.

David Steiner ’16, who attended a Labor Day lunch at Timothy Dwight college with Harp and aldermanic candidates Ella Wood ’15, Jeannette Morrison and Sarah Eidelson ’12, said Harp’s appearance with those three aldermanic candidates — along with their four-way endorsement at the event — underscored her SUN and union associations. Steiner said he found Harp detached.

“While her lengthy resume is worth highlighting, she didn’t relate that experience to the audience members’ interests,” he said. Steiner, an undecided voter, said that instead of discussing Yale-related matters, Harp focused on youth issues, including the closure of the Q House in Dixwell.

Just as the candidate did at the Timothy Dwight luncheon, Harp’s campaign tries to win Yalies over by linking her to aldermanic candidates who do — or seek to — represent Yalies. That tactic reeks of chummy establishment politics — something the other three candidates say Harp is guilty of. Renita Heng ’16, a Silliman resident, recalled canvassers coming to her room to first talk up alderwoman Morrison and then Harp. “Experience kept on coming up,” Heng said.

It may be that Harp simply finds Yale’s institutional hulk less intimidating than the other candidates do. She is not as worried about causing offense. While Steiner recalled Harp talking about working with Yale’s president to secure funds for the city, her campaign manager, Bartlett, does not mince his words when speaking about the University. On balancing union concerns with Yale’s, a key issue given Harp’s union backing and what she could gain from Yale votes, Bartlett said, “I don’t know what kind of balancing act Yale expects. Harp’s been pretty clear that Yale has to do more, that we support New Haven Works and we expect Yale to participate in that program. We think that more New Haven residents should get jobs at Yale, both at the university and the hospital.”

* * *

Henry Fernandez has some good friends at Yale. The former economic development administrator for the city and Law School grad was once an associate fellow at Ezra Stiles college. As of Wednesday, he has been hosted at two Master’s teas there. Janger, who founded “Yale for Fernandez” earlier this semester, explained that Ezra Stiles master Stephen Pitti ’91 and his wife, American studies and ethnicity, race and migration professor Alicia Camacho, are good friends with Fernandez and his wife, Kica Matos. Janger said the two couples have worked together at Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven organization that focuses on immigrant rights where Matos was formerly the executive director.

Pitti said that Ezra Stiles footed the bill for the most recent Fernandez event, which he estimated to be $70. This raises questions about whether that financial cost was an implicit endorsement of Fernandez and then whether Yale and its administrators must remain impartial in New Haven elections. When Elicker hosted his meet-and-greet in Dwight Hall, his supporters distributed flyers noting that the campaign had rented out the space. But in an email to the News, Pitti argued that “as one of the strong candidates for mayor, [Fernandez] deserves the attention of students and others.”

Fernandez has said that the master’s tea was Pitti’s initiative. Regardless of whose plan it was, Fernandez gained a chance to address scores of students.

Fernandez is also rumored to draw support from his alma mater: the law school.

Perhaps those institutional ties explain why Fernandez’s effort on campus has less to do with student-led grassroots organizing than Elicker’s. Instead, Fernandez has made a number of formal appearances on campus, including the two master’s teas and an event last week with actor Danny Glover at the Afro-American Cultural House.

Fernandez’s decision to host that event is a testament to what Danielle Filson, a senior at the University of Connecticut who serves as Fernandez’s communications director, sees as her candidate’s greatest strength: his diversity. The son of an African-American father and white mother, husband to a Puerto Rican woman and father to a Spanish-speaker, Fernandez is a mosaic of the city’s many communities, his supporters believe. “He embodies New Haven,” Filson said.

While Elicker has gone to some lengths to emphasize his independence from Yale — he recently opposed the sale of portions of High and Wall streets to the University — Fernandez and his staff are more secure in balancing their candidate’s University links with his New Haven identity. One proposal Filson was quick to tout was a plan to open a school principal training program at the Yale School of Management.

* * *

There is one more candidate. Kermit Carolina will not win this election. But Kristin Horneffer ’14, who works for his campaign and said she is the only Yalie she knows to be doing so, does not think victory is the point. Carolina is the champion of those who do not vote, she said. “He’s trying,” Horneffer explained, “to mobilize a group that’s known not to have a voice in New Haven politics — the poorer residents of the city, residents of the inner city, including the blocks surrounding Yale.”

That group, Horneffer admitted, “is socially, economically and emotionally really separate from Yale students.”

Yale students are the inverse: New Haven residents who could have a voice but often choose not to. Each campaign must be innovative to win Yale voters who could be valuable to them come Tuesday. “Getting any college student interested in politics on a local level is a challenge,” Harp’s Bartlett said. “I think they’re focused on national politics. To transition to local politics — unless they’re New Haven residents — that takes some work.”

And while Bartlett conceded that some issues, like gun violence, lay at the intersection of national and local politics, the challenge in attracting student voters lies primarily in the fact that this election is circumscribed to Democrats in a very specific geographic area. The national range of opinions does not translate well to city politics. The extreme partisan rhetoric that dominates national politics will have no bearing on this election. If something national will affect the race, Janger said, it will be immigration reform, an issue where Fernandez stands far to the left of other candidates.

And while Janger noted that presidential politics do play a role in one way — many students are already registered to vote from last year’s presidential election — there were many during that season of disillusion who did not register for a party, or who do not remember if they registered as Democrats or independents. That means many student will be ineligible to vote in the decisive Democratic primary.

But Bildner remains optimistic. “Yes,” he admitted, “there’s a small group of students who are really knowledgeable about the issues and are involved in the campaigns, but it’s a very easy pitch in this election because of how important it is … everyone seems to be willing to listen — everyone to whom we say, ‘Listen, this election is huge,’ is willing to at least register.”

The hard part comes next.

Comments