Henry Fernandez: The Candidate Who Could Have

The potential third candidate in November's two candidate mayoral race.
The potential third candidate in November's two candidate mayoral race. // Sarah Bruley

On the night of the mayoral primary, State Sen. Toni Harp ARC ’78 held a victory party and Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 announced to a cheering crowd that he would run again in November.

But the mood at Michael’s Trattoria on Court Street, where Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 supporters gathered, was decidedly more melancholy. Fernandez for Mayor signs and a lone podium sat in a corner of the restaurant, as members of the Fernandez campaign sported disappointed gazes directed at the wall in front of them displaying election results.

As the polls began to close, it became increasingly clear that Fernandez would take third place in the race. The final votes were 49.8 percent for Harp, followed by Elicker’s 23.2 percent. Fernandez trailed behind both of them with 18.9 percent of the vote, beating only Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina, who secured 8.1 percent of the vote.

Though the election results were a disappointment to Fernandez supporters, the biggest shock of the night was yet to come.

When Fernandez took the podium, his concession speech began as most expected. After thanking his supporters and sharing one more time his vision for the city, Fernandez continued, “We live in a democracy and the people of New Haven have spoken, and so I congratulate Kermit Carolina and Justin Elicker and I congratulate Toni Harp on races that were hard fought and on the campaigns that they ran.”

But then, he dropped the line that no one expected. “I believe that the people of New Haven deserve a run-off between the top two candidates and I am not one of those two candidates.”

All of the people interviewed afterwards at the party said it came as a surprise that Fernandez was dropping out of the race. Even Fernandez’s friend, Brackston Poitier, who flew to New Haven all the way from Arizona to help him with the campaign had no idea that Fernandez was going to call it quits.

Fernandez’s third place finish paves the way for a two-way race for the mayoral seat in November, but it also raises questions about the state of the city. Those who believe he was the best candidate for the job, are not only disappointed by Fernandez’s loss, but also attribute the election results to a city culture that is not receptive to change.

 

HIDDEN PAST

Fernandez has been involved in progressive causes throughout his life. He founded LEAP, an academic and social enrichment program for youth in New Haven, while he was a law student at Yale. He served on the Obama-Biden transition team at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. He met his wife, Kica Matos, who is a prominent immigration reform activist in New Haven, at a death penalty conference in Washington DC. More recently, he served as New Haven’s economic development administrator where he helped bring Gateway Community College to downtown New Haven and IKEA to Long Wharf.

As candidates hopped in and out of early stages of the race, eager to be a part of the first election in two decades that would not involve Mayor John DeStefano Jr, Matos said the she and her husband watched with interest, but from a distance. The idea to run for mayor began, she said, when she realized that her husband was more qualified for the job than the other candidates who had thrown their hats in the ring.

But most of these qualifications had never been in the public spotlight. The projects that Fernandez brought to New Haven, like LEAP and Gateway Community College, have captured the city’s attention, but were not associated with the name, Henry Fernandez, said Kadeem Yearwood ’15, a student who worked on Fernandez’s campaign.

Fernandez agreed with this characterization the perception of his prior experience. “My goal in the work that I did was not to be the face of any of those projects,” Fernandez said. “I decided to run for Mayor a few weeks before I got into the race, so I wasn’t thinking at any point in my professional life, if I do this a certain way, it will help me be mayor.”

The public also had trouble pegging Fernandez into one cultural identity group. Though his last name is Fernandez and his wife is an immigration activist primarily for the hispanic community, Fernandez himself is not Hispanic.

In a diverse city like New Haven, this left Fernandez without a specific demographic voter base. “He sort of embodies what he talks about, the vision he has for unification,” said Emma Janger ’15, the president of Yale for Henry Fernandez, referring to Fernandez’s campaign slogan of “One City.”

But then she added, “From a political standpoint, it can sometimes make it hard to win certain votes. I think he doesn’t necessarily have a natural constituency.”

And when people were familiar with Fernandez’s past involvement in city goverment, they often negatively associated it with DeStefano’s governing tactics which were notorious for being very assertive. Those like DeStefano and Fernandez are “a group of people who know each other very well and who kind of decide the agenda for everyone else,” said David Streever, a New Haven activist. Though Streever added that neither DeStefano of Fernandez did this out of “malice,” he thought the approach was not in the best interest of the city.

By the time he entered the race in March, many of the other candidates campaigns were in full swing. Fernandez’s loss, he said, may simply be due to his late entry into the race.

 

UNIONS IN NEW HAVEN

It is unclear, whether Fernandez, or any other candidate with the perfect platform or timing, could become mayor today without the backing of the city’s unions.

Union backed candidates have become a force to be reckoned with in New Haven. In 2011 UNITE HERE, Yale’s two labor unions, nearly swept the Board of Alderman, winning victories in 14 of the 15 seats in which they fielded a candidate. Though the reason for the original union push was to give more New Haven residents representation in their government, some are concerned that the unions have now become a dangerous political machine in their own right.

“The unions have become the boa constrictor of New Haven, sucking the life out of a city that is very much in need of true leadership,” Matos said.

She explained that the unions threatened to challenge any candidate in their primary race if they were not fully supportive of the union’s agenda. Matos called this “stifling of political dissent” and said she finds it “frightening.” Fernandez agreed, saying that the unions have hindered creativity in the city.

Harp is currently the candidate supported by the unions in the mayoral race. With Fernandez and Carolina out of the race, the mayoral election will now be a true test of whether the anti-union force can prevail by throwing their weight behind one candidate.

“At the end of the day, it’s Toni Harp and the unions vs. Justin Elicker,” said community activist Gary Doyens.

He added that he thinks it is possible for Elicker to prevail. The city, Doyens said, is in need of a fundamental change after 20 years of the same leadership. While Doyens thought at the beginning of the race that Fernandez would be the candidate most likely to channel DeStefano, he now thinks that person is Harp, who he said would maintain the “status quo.”

 

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Last Wednesday, Carolina, who also dropped out of the mayoral race on the night of the democratic primary, announced his endorsement of Elicker for mayor.

The clearest way for Fernandez to make a difference in the race, now that he has forfeited, is to also endorse a candidate. His endorsement could have the power to significantly affect the outcome of the race. Carolina’s endorsement made headlines today although he secured less than half the votes that Fernandez did.

Though publically supporting a candidate may make a difference in the race, Fernandez said that he is not likely to endorse either Elicker or Harp. Both, he said, asked to meet with him after the primary. While he will meet with each candidate, Fernandez said that his substantial difference in opinion on important issues makes an endorsement difficult.

Harp’s union affiliation is a barrier to Fernandez’s support; he believes the union platform has not moved the city forward in the two years they have controlled the Board of Alderman. As for Elicker, his platform does not appeal to a wide enough range of people, Fernandez said.

“Without significant changes in those areas I don’t see endorsing a candidate,” Fernandez said.

Some speculate that his decision not to endorse a candidate may mean another run for mayor in two years.

“I don’t think it would be intelligent for Henry to endorse anyone,” Yearwood said. “I believe Henry is the right man for mayor and I believe that he will run again.”

But Fernandez denies that this is the reason he is holding out on an endorsement. He said that he has not yet decided whether his future will include another run for any political office in New Haven.

For now, he is satisfied to have created a group of people who believe in his vision for the city. He hopes that his group of supporters will start a progressive movement. For example, many the young people who worked on his campaign, he said, are now considering entering city politics.

“Even though we were disappointed with the outcome of the primary,” Matos said, “what was really uplifting and heartwarming is there are thousands of New Haven residents who have … been the beginning of a movement about making New Haven the best that it can be.”

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