Incumbent Mayor Toni Harp and challenger Marcus Paca have continued to trade allegations of fraud and intimidation weeks after Harp crushed Paca in the New Haven Democratic mayoral primary.
Despite a landslide defeat in the primary, Paca said in a Monday interview that he would continue his campaign as an unaffiliated candidate in the general election. Responding to a complaint Harp filed against his campaign with the State Elections Enforcement Commission, Paca accused Harp of using her position of power to turn voters away from his candidacy.
As a primary challenger, Paca was required to collect roughly 1,900 signatures in order to add his name to the Democratic ballot. Shortly after he reached that goal, the Harp campaign launched an investigation into the validity of those signatures, calling into question the legitimacy of Paca’s run. In the Sept. 12 election, Harp won all 30 wards, with 75 percent of the total vote.
“Mayor Harp wanted to open up a fraudulent, slanderous complaint against me three or four days before the election, and that definitely swayed some voters,” Paca said. “So now, I’ve responded in kind.”
The allegations of Priscilla Knox, a woman who collected signatures for the Paca campaign, served as a pillar of the investigation. Knox claimed that the Paca campaign had employed unethical tactics to reach the minimum signature threshold. For example, she claimed that Paca campaign staffers were instructed to convince signees to add the names of other members of their household to the petition. Paca maintains that these allegations are false, and that the staffer who reported them has a history of “lying under oath.”
Paca also placed some of the blame for his loss on organizations outside the Harp campaign. He claims the New Haven Independent fanned the flames of controversy by prematurely publishing a story detailing Harp’s allegations. He added that while the publicity given to the complaint damaged both campaigns, it was him, the newcomer, who suffered the most.
“It was a hit piece, done in a very salacious way by the New Haven Independent to muddy the waters. This is my first time running for citywide office, and I couldn’t stand to lose any votes,” Paca said.
Paul Bass, the editor of the Independent, said he waited to publish the initial story until he could confirm that some of the allegations against Paca were true, adding that the story also “exposed the Harp administration’s own questionable tactics.”
“Marcus is not the first politician to get creamed in an election, and then try to blame everybody else for his failure to win many votes,” Bass said. “He might not be the sorest loser I’ve covered in 40 years, but he comes close.”
Paca has long been clear about his intention to continue his campaign into the general election despite his heavy defeat in the primary. On Sept. 21, his team released an official response to Harp’s original complaint, which accuses Harp of fabricating the investigation in order to damage his campaign, and using unethical and potentially illegal methods to do so.
This is not the first time that the contest between the two candidates has gotten ugly. Harp’s victory came after months of fiery back and forth, during which both candidates routinely accused one another of a mixture of incompetence and corruption. However, the bad blood between the two precedes the campaign season: Paca and his wife were fired from city jobs by Harp in 2016.
As a result, Harp has, on multiple occasions, accused Paca of running his campaign as a means to enact revenge for the termination. For his part, Paca maintains that his time in city government indicated to him that Harp was not fit to continue in office, and that she didn’t have the best interests of the city at heart.
Asked for comment on the complaint, Jesse Phillips, one of Harp’s campaign managers, told the News that the Harp campaign was counting on the state to find out what the truth was and act accordingly. He stressed that the mayor was not involved in the investigation, which is the prerogative of the State Elections Enforcement Commission. Asked about Paca, Phillips was less equivocal.
“He’s basing his whole campaign on an emotional reaction. His whole response for why he lost the primary is that folks were not informed,” Philips said. “Which I think is just disrespectful to the voters; they made a decision and you just don’t like it.”
The general election is scheduled to take place on Nov. 7.
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