The stage in Linsly-Chittenden Hall was crowded Saturday afternoon when the five men vying to become New Haven’s next mayor squared off in the first public debate of the election season.

Among the officially announced candidates, one issue emerged as clearly dividing the rapidly crystallizing field — campaign finance. Over the last few weeks, the men have already made different choices about how to finance their campaigns, with Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, Connecticut state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield and plumber Sundiata Keitazulu having signed onto the Democracy Fund, the city’s public campaign finance system that limits individual donations to $370 in return for a $19,000 grant and matching funds of up to $125,000.

Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, who is the current CEO of the consulting group Fernandez Advisors and the former New Haven economic development administrator, has said he will not participate in the Democracy fund. And Matthew Nemerson, the president and CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council and former president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce who entered the race last Wednesday, said he would only opt into public financing if all candidates do so.

In defending their decisions, Fernandez and Nemerson said their leadership capacities override fundraising decisions, downplaying public concern over their abstention from the Fund.

“It really doesn’t matter how we collect money,” Nemerson said to audible disapproval from the crowd. The lecture hall was filled to near capacity, with an audience of over 120 that included Yale students as well as a sprinkling of city residents.

Elicker and Holder-Winfield had strongly worded responses, with Elicker insisting on money’s corrupting power in politics and Holder-Winfield underscoring the democratizing effect of public money, which he said ensures someone with only $10 “gets to have some say in an election.”

In answer to Nemerson’s claim that money does not influence city elections as it does federal elections, Elicker pointed to the example of what he described as cronyism in hiring practices and contract agreements under the 20-year tenure of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

Fernandez’s response was to highlight his experience as the economic development administrator under DeStefano, which he said gave him hands-on experience rooting out corruption.

“I do want to say I support [the Democracy Fund] because it does allow for a lot more people to run,” Fernandez said, acknowledging flack he has received for eschewing public money. “But I’m not using taxpayers’ dollars to pay for my campaign. I’m able to raise funds without doing so.”

Meanwhile, Nemerson attempted to assuage concerns about the power of large private donors by explaining his decision to hire an independent “finance ombudsman” — former Beaver Hills Alderman Edwin Van Selden — tasked with overseeing the campaign’s finances to ensure transparency. Nemerson also promised to publicize donor lists on his campaign website every 48 hours.

Elicker dismissed those measures as piecemeal and already mandated by election law. Keitazulu made an emotional appeal for the Democracy Fund, saying his campaign is “strapped” and depends on public financing.

A sixth likely candidate for mayor, Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina, attended the debate but did not participate because he is still in the “exploratory phase” of his campaign. Carolina, who has already announced he would use the Democracy Fund should he run, said after the debate that he will decide about a candidacy by the end of the month.

The candidates were asked a total of seven other questions and rose from their seats at the beginning and end of the debate to deliver two-minute opening and closing statements. Topics ranged from economic development and job growth to education reform, both of which have emerged as core campaign issues. The candidates were light on specifics in responding to a question from the Black Student Alliance at Yale about the difficulty of financing city programs given the number of tax-exempt properties in New Haven. While all candidates emphasized growing the tax base by attracting more residents to the Elm City, Elicker mentioned the idea of “participatory budgeting” that would give greater financial control to individual neighborhoods, and Nemerson said the state needs to fully fund PILOT, a system in which the state compensates local municipalities for lost tax revenue. Keitazulu reiterated his campaign’s central promise: job growth.

In response to a question on immigration reform, Holder-Winfield, who is black, emphasized his own racial background in explaining his commitment to the issue. While Elicker used the question as an opportunity to speak Spanish, Fernandez noted that he is a board member at Junta for Progressive Action and has led rallies for immigrant rights. Aside from the exchange over public campaign financing, the tone of the debate was amiable, with candidates often reiterating one another’s ideas and lauding progress under DeStefano, particularly on downtown growth and immigration.

Notably, the candidates were not asked about crime, though most have highlighted safety measures — with a focus on community policing — as central to their campaigns. After the debate, both Holder-Winfield and Fernandez said they were “struck” crime did not come up. Nemerson de-emphasized crime, saying it was a “symptom” of larger issues of joblessness and economic stagnancy.

Though policy distinctions have yet to crystallize, Fernandez said the differences among the candidates come down to experience. He and Holder-Winfield emphasized their involvement in the city as community activists but also their broader political experience. Elicker has been adamant that his extensive neighborhood involvement best qualifies him for mayor, remarking on the “dirt under [his] fingernails” in his closing remarks.

Audience members interviewed were reticent to declare a winner. Gladys DeYoung, who works as a social worker in Beaver Hill, said she thought Holder-Winfield and Fernandez performed best. Carlton Mosley ’15 also said Fernandez was strong, and added he was leaning toward Fernandez after meeting him at a Yale Black Men’s Union event this spring. Several other students declined to comment.

The Democratic primary will be held on Sept. 10.