The Heir to King John?

Harp on the campaign trail.
Harp on the campaign trail. // Tasnim Elboute

John DeStefano Jr. was elected as the 49th mayor of New Haven in January 1994 and has held this office for 10 consecutive terms. In January of this year, however, he announced that his time in office would be over: He would not seek re-election.

In the wake of DeStefano’s announcement, several contenders stepped up to fill his shoes, but after the results of September’s primary, two candidates have risen to the fore: Toni Harp ARC ’78 and Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10.

Of the two candidates Harp is most often seen as DeStefano’s successor, both by her critics and champions. But after 20 years under one mayor, would a Harp administration mean more of the same?

According to her campaign, Harp’s platform rests on economic development, education reform and improving public safety.

For those looking for change, Harp promises to increase coordination between the mayor’s office and the Board of Aldermen and increase community involvement in public safety — both of which were not DeStefano’s top priorities, at least according to the senator’s camp.

But even within these issues, there are similarities in the rhetoric used by Harp and the mayor. Though their proposed ways of accomplishing them differ, Harp and DeStefano advocate for the same goals, and in almost the same language.

But in response to the criticism that she and DeStefano are similar politicians, Harp pointed out that change isn’t necessarily good for its own sake.

“I hope that when I’m mayor that people feel that same sense of stability,” she said.

Harp promises to be able to continue many of the mayor’s emphases, especially in areas such as education reform and public safety. According to Harp’s campaign, Harp has a lot of support from local politicians, especially the Board of Aldermen, because she knows the city just as well as the mayor does. But while this means that Harp, if elected, would have much of the support that ensured DeStefano’s longevity, for better or for worse, it also means that the city’s priorities wouldn’t be likely to change.

 

The Early Days

Harp first became active in New Haven politics when DeStefano was in office. She came to New Haven as an architecture graduate student almost 40 years ago and was elected as Ward 2 alderwoman in 1992. In 1993, she became state senator of Connecticut’s 10th district.

But Harp was not always perceived as DeStefano’s successor, or necessarily his ally.

Harp campaign manager Patrick Scully said the two were able to collaborate on some legislative goals when she first arrived, and resisted calling the two politicians rivals during the rest of DeStefano’s term because they’ve occupied different political spheres: Harp as senator and DeStefano as city mayor.

But during New Haven’s 2011 mayoral campaign, Harp made the bold decision to endorse Clifton Graves, who ran against DeStefano. In her endorsement speech, Harp advocated for a better solution to reducing violence in the city, citing the 23 homicides that had been committed already that year.

During that same election, Harp’s popularity was compared to DeStefano’s even though she was not running for mayor. A survey commissioned by DeStefano’s reelection campaign in 2011 analyzing voter preference between DeStefano and Harp ranked the state senator over the mayor.

 

Two Thumbs Up

Still, over time Harp has found support from many of the same people as DeStefano. And the most prominent of these have been the local unions.

Local 34 and Local 35, which represent Yale’s workers, endorsed her in June of this year, but she has also received support from over 10 other unions, including the New Haven Federation of Teachers, and the New Haven Firefighters.

These endorsements have become a major selling point for Harp, earning her an endorsement from the New Haven Register, which specifically cited her connections to the Board of Aldermen and to the unions.

DeStefano has stared down union demands in the past. In February of 2011, he fired 16 New Haven firefighters, a situation that led to a union protest and eventually escalated into a prominent court case: Ricci v. DeStefano. But even in the face of legal opposition, DeStefano continued to act independently.

President of “Yale for Elicker” Drew Morrison ’14 questioned whether Harp would do the same. He explained that many view Harp as beholden to special interests, given how much she has relied on union connections during the campaign process.

“[If Harp is elected] a lot of the ideas and decisions are not going to come from the mayor,” Morrison said. He argued that Harp is running from a “bully pulpit.”

But others see Harp’s connections differently: as a way for her to work more efficiently.

Scully emphasized that Harp would not be afraid to stand up to her supporters if she disagreed with them.

“She isn’t beholden to them by any means,” he said in reference to her union connections.

And Harp doesn’t just rely on unions. She has the endorsement of most New Haven Aldermen. Members of the board are happy to see a mayoral candidate who is on the same page as them, especially since DeStefano’s policies weren’t always coordinated with theirs.

According to Alderman Frank Douglass (Ward 2) and Jeanette Morrison (Ward 22), Harp’s hopes for New Haven are in harmony with the Board of Aldermen’s Vision Statement for 2013-2014.

Douglass has known Harp for a long time, and he believes she’s ready to work with the board. “Its personal between me and her,” he joked.

Personal might be a good watchword for the Harp campaign, at least according to Scully.

“DeStefano is more of a top-down type of mayor,” he said “Toni Harp is more of a bring everybody to the table leader.”

 

Getting Schooled

After being sworn into office in 1994, John DeStefano set out on the ambitious mission to renovate or rebuild every New Haven public school. Now New Haven schools, newly renovated, boast innovative designs: white concrete and glass at Hill Regional Career High School and curved brick at Truman School, to name a few.

Like DeStefano, Harp emphasizes education reform as one of her priorities. But where DeStefano emphasized infrastructure, Harp prioritizes reform in the classroom. One of her main emphases has been on expanding curriculum improvements such as tailoring content to the needs of the kids in the class.

Harp commended DeStefano’s work on public schools, but added that “we have to make sure that inside those beautiful school buildings we have a world-class education that works.”

Harp has found support for these policies among local politicians, and Douglass specifically commended her for moving in the direction that New Haven’s students need.

“I think she’ll play a big part in actually making sure that the school systems work as opposed to just having new facilities,” he said.

Many of those within the education system also seem to agree. As an educator at Gateway Community College, Alderwoman Morrison believes that Harp’s education policy would give more students an education that would prepare them for college-level classes, something that wasn’t the case under DeStefano.

Perhaps because of this difference, Harp said that she feels a sense of urgency when it comes to education reform. DeStefano’s policies, in school reform as well as construction, have worked so far, but she believes that there is more to be done, and that it needs to come quickly.

“We can’t afford to take years to create the change that these children need,” Harp said.

 

5-O on Your Block

The New Haven of the early 90s, when DeStefano first took office, was much different, and more dangerous, than the New Haven of today. It was the site of widespread violence, much of it caused by drug wars.

And even as much of that violence has disappeared, DeStefano has kept reduction of crime at the top of his priorities list.

In 2012, there were 50% fewer homicides and 30% fewer non-fatal shootings than there were in 2011. In 2013 to date, violent crime is down 10%. This change has been due in a large part to DeStefano’s efforts.

If elected, Harp promises to continue DeStefano’s public safety policies, but to focus on community engagement, specifically through community policing. Many concerned citizens of New Haven, she argues, would like to be more involved in their own security.

This model of policing relies more on neighborhood watches and officers on walking beats in New Haven’s neighborhoods. It’s good for community involvement, according to Harp’s campaign, but not New Haven’s traditional approach. According to Harp, at the start of DeStefano’s time as mayor, he was a proponent for more community involvement in public safety, but as he moved through police chiefs, the community-policing model fell by the wayside in favor of other priorities, such as targeting violent criminals instead of on-the-block policing.

Harp was the first to make a strong push for community policing in New Haven when she was the Ward 2 alderman and, while her emphasis isn’t the same as the mayor’s, her approach has local support. Current Police Chief Dean Esserman, according to both Harp and Scully, is on board with a shift in focus.

“Community policing is the linchpin of [Harp’s] public safety policy,” said Scully.

 

Two Chefs in the Same Kitchen

Although many parallels can be drawn between DeStefano and Harp, her supporters see her possible election as one that will bring about a lot of change. Connecticut congresswoman and Harp endorser Rosa DeLauro acknowledged that DeStefano was an “outstanding” mayor who brought a lot of good to the city. But she also said that she looks forward to Harp’s “historic” election. If she wins the vote, she will be the city’s first female mayor.

“She has a vision and understanding for the city, and the skills to create a great future for New Haven,” DeLauro said.

But some of Harp’s opponents worry that if elected, her similarities to DeStefano will result in stasis for New Haven. Since they share similar goals and work with the same coalitions, they argue the opportunity for change in New Haven would be limited. They want a new mayor, not another DeStefano.

But Harp supporters argue that differences do exist — especially in her willingness to try new approaches to old issues.

Douglass emphasized that, in the end, Harp and DeStefano would work towards the good of the same New Haven, though her proposed approach has a different flavor than the current mayor’s.

“I don’t see her as anything like DeStefano,” he said. “They wear two different aprons.”

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