Mayor Toni Harp and Democratic challenger Marcus Paca faced off in one last heated debate Tuesday night ahead of the Sept. 12 Democratic mayoral primary.
Harp and Paca covered topics ranging from economic development to immigration to affordable housing before a crowd of about 300 in the auditorium of Booker T. Washington Academy, a charter school on State Street. In the packed and stuffy room, the candidates floated questions about their opponent’s character, motives and capabilities during a one-hour debate co-hosted by the Democracy Fund, a national foundation that aims to promote civic engagement, and the New Haven Independent. Unlike the first debate, which was an open forum, Tuesday’s debate was more structured, as three panelists from New Haven publications took turns asking questions to one or both of the candidates.
The two candidates wasted no time in attacking one another. Throughout the debate, Harp pointed to Paca’s political inexperience and accused him of running his campaign “on revenge.” Paca served one term as a city alder and two years as Director of Labor Relations before Harp fired him in 2016.
Despite his role in Harp’s Democratic administration, Paca told the News after the debate that he will run as an Independent in the November general election if he loses the primary.
Harp highlighted Paca’s termination in a contentious exchange between the two candidates regarding Paca’s record of public service, asking, “Isn’t it true that you haven’t held a position long enough to accomplish anything?”
“He ought to already have experience,” she said. “He shouldn’t treat the mayorship as a learn-as-you-go job.”
Paca also accused Harp of overselling her achievements and of making irresponsible decisions with city personnel and finances. He explained, in his closing remarks, that as elections within a party are not necessarily about policy differences, he would differ from the mayor on “prioritization and strategy.”
Qualifications aside, the two candidates disagreed on some points of policy. Harp and Paca suggested different ways of addressing the looming budget crisis at the city and state levels. Paca discussed limiting overtime hours for police and firefighters, which cost the city millions each year, and promoting trade between the city and foreign countries. The mayor floated the possibility of taxing Yale New Haven Hospital, but said she would only do so if the state reimbursed the hospital for its losses from taxes.
Affordable housing represented another point of divergence. Harp supported new, pricier housing developments as a positive good for the city. She pushed back on accusations from some in the city that these developments constitute “gentrification,” because they have for the most part not displaced many residents. Paca disagreed, claiming that gentrification and the lack of affordable housing are problems that the current mayoral administration has largely ignored.
As the candidates exchanged verbal blows on the stage, their supporters in the crowd made their presence felt. Supporters, clad in Harp and Paca T-shirts and wielding signs, cheered on their candidates and, in many situations, booed and heckled the other. Moderator Paul Bass ’82 of the Independent asked the crowd twice to quiet down and refrain from heckling the speakers.
The debate, which took place just hours after President Trump announced plans to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, became even hotter when the topic of sanctuary cities came up. During the first debate, Paca was criticized for equivocating on whether or not New Haven should continue in its role as a sanctuary city. He was recently accused by a member of the Harp team of viewing the question of remaining a sanctuary city as an economic matter, and the mayor hammered this point Tuesday night.
“It’s in the interest and safety of people in New Haven that our neighbors feel safe,” Harp said. “I would not sell our neighbors down the river for a few silver coins.”
Paca emphasized that the city would remain a sanctuary city if he were elected.
The mayor told the News after the debate that she and her administration will fight against Trump’s decision. She added that she will work with Connecticut’s federal representatives to make sure that they work with other Congressional Democrats and Republicans to create legislation to defend Dreamers, young adults who benefit from DACA.
New Haven resident Celestine Cordova, who wore a Harp 2017 shirt to the debate, said she was thankful of the work the mayor has done to open doors for Latinos in the city and to promote sanctuary policies.
“She doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks the walk,” Cordova said, referring to what the mayor has done to keep New Haven a sanctuary city.
Harp has been mayor since 2014.
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