In less than three weeks, residents will go to the polls and vote in one of New Haven’s most contentious mayoral races in decades.
In the Elm City’s Democratic primary election on Sept. 10, three-term incumbent Mayor Toni Harp will look to defend her post against three challengers: former New Haven alder Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, Elm City activist Wendy Hamilton and local activist and organizer Urn Pendragon.
Elicker and Harp first competed for the city’s top post in 2013. This summer’s campaign cycle largely fulfilled expectations of a tight rematch, with heavy fundraising efforts, inflammatory advertising and public debates over key issues such as lead regulation and education. The primary election will mark either the end of the road or the continuation of a closely contested battle — Elicker has filed the necessary paperwork to run unaffiliated in the general election if he falls short in the primary.
“I plan on winning the primary,” Elicker said in an interview with the News. “But if that doesn’t happen, I have filed to run in the general election as well. … What people are concerned about is how City Hall changes their lives day to day, and everything we’re hearing is that people feel that not enough has been done to address the issues.”
Six years ago, Harp and Elicker emerged as the frontrunners in a packed field to replace then-Mayor John DeStefano, who declined to run for reelection in 2013 after two decades in the city’s highest elected office.
Harp is a veteran of the Connecticut legislature — where she long represented the Elm City. Elicker served as executive director of the New Haven Land Trust prior to beginning his campaign this January. In 2013, Harp narrowly defeated Elicker, then a two-term Alder, in the primary. Elicker then ran unaffiliated in the general election but ultimately lost again to Harp by approximately 2,000 votes — 10 percent of the vote.
In Harp’s subsequent bids for reelection, she faced no serious competitors and cruised to her second and third two-year terms. But since Elicker became the first candidate to file paperwork to run in January, his campaign has embraced a grassroots strategy, urging voters to upend a status quo of income inequality in the city and mismanagement in City Hall.
In the year’s first fundraising quarter, from January through March, Elicker outraised Harp, who announced her bid for reelection on Valentine’s Day. Elicker raised approximately $177,000 from 727 individual donors while Harp totaled $26,000. In the second quarter — from April through June — the mayor’s camp clawed its way back, raising $98,841 to Elicker’s $65,627.
As he did in 2013, Elicker has committed to participating in the New Haven Democracy Fund, the city’s public financing initiative. Participation lowers the total amount that individuals can donate and demands a minimum number of unique donors in order to receive matching funds. Harp has never chosen to participate in the Democracy Fund.
Over the summer, Harp’s campaign has released several attacks on Elicker, even comparing Elicker to U.S. President Donald Trump, and suggesting impropriety by Elicker’s wife Natalie — an assistant U.S. Attorney out of New Haven.
Harp’s administration has also faced mounting scrutiny over lead regulations, which the city admitted to relaxing in June despite the known impact of lead paint on children’s development. Harp has weathered significant controversy since she was elected to her fifth and six years in City Hall — her administration received backlash because of a tax hike last summer, several notable incidents of staff misconduct and unreported spending in the wake of the city’s fiscal crisis.
“We’ve been knocking on doors for months and months now,” Elicker said. “People are frustrated about … issues that all go to corruption and mismanagement in City Hall.”
Several mayoral debates and forums have also taken place over the summer, and various ward committees have issued non-binding endorsements. Not all wards chose to endorse — Harp won more endorsements than Elicker in total. Elicker managed to flip several wards from their 2013 decisions, including Ward 25, which is notable for high voter turnout and as Harp’s home ward.
New Haven has long been an overwhelmingly Democratic town — the mayor’s office has been filled by Democrats for more than six straight decades. None of the 30 current members of the Board of Alders, the city’s legislative arm, are currently affiliated with the Republican Party. Traditionally, battles for key positions have overwhelmingly been fought and determined in the primary season.
Elicker told the News that his campaign is committed to winning in the primary and will continue knocking on doors as his primary strategy. However, as he did in 2013, he has filed the necessary paperwork to continue his bid unaffiliated if Harp wins the party vote, citing the city’s unaffiliated voters, who, he told the News, “should have a voice in the election as well.”
Harp, however, has not filed to run unaffiliated if she loses in the primary — if Elicker wins in September, he will earn a de facto victory in the general election.
Wendy Hamilton and Urn Pendragon — both local activists who have eschewed fundraising — are also in the primary field, while Seth Poole, who filed papers to run unaffiliated, did not meet the required number of signatures and will be a write-in candidate in November.
Given the essentially one-party nature of politics in New Haven, other organizational units — such as unions — have traditionally played important roles in electing officials to office. The majority of the members of the Board of Alders are directly affiliated with or were elected with the support of local unions.
Harp has often appeared with various union leaders at campaign events at the state and federal level campaign events.
Her endorsers include Local 34, one of the unions under UNITE HERE, an umbrella organization of Yale’s affiliated unions that includes Local 33, 34 and 35 — Yale’s graduate, technical and clerical and technical and maintenance workers, respectively. Local 34 President Laurie Kennington ’01 said, during the union’s endorsement announcement of Harp that the mayor has, “stood by us in every union fight.”
Elicker nods include one from Local 1, a union of bricklayers and craftsmen.
Hamilton, in an interview with the News, deemed Elicker the race’s current “frontrunner,” citing strong local support and fundraising.
She expressed admiration for Elicker and emphasized that she believes that it is necessary to replace Harp in order to address pressing issues, including affordable housing, education and budget balancing.
“I have a lot of confidence in Elicker and I’ve told him that,” Hamilton said. “My goal [in running] was to get someone new into City Hall and hope that we can do something useful. … I continue to beat the drum on [addressing] poverty.”
All registered Democrats in New Haven are eligible to vote in the September primary. Until the day before, registered voters can change their affiliation — and vote in the relevant primary the next day.
Elicker and Harp are both slated to participate in an on-campus forum co-hosted by the News next Friday at 7 p.m.
Angela Xiao | firstname.lastname@example.org