Less than two weeks out from the city’s most contentious primary election in at least six years, hundreds of people filled Sudler Recital Hall on Friday evening to hear from two mayoral candidates — Mayor Toni Harp and Justin Elicker — on a slew of major issues.
During the debate, Harp, who is seeking her fourth consecutive two-year term, played up her own experience and record in the Elm City. She brushed off criticisms of her administration and its policies, as well as recent controversies over issues such as corruption and lead paint regulation. Rather, as she has for much of the election cycle, she defended and touted her time in City Hall and used it as her primary campaign platform — asking for the opportunity to extend her administration and the initiatives it has taken on.
Meanwhile, Elicker criticized Harp’s tenure and cast himself as the alternative to an inadequate administration, placing special emphasis on his grassroots campaign and his hopes to overhaul major aspects of city governance. Multiple times throughout the forum, the candidates not only clashed on positions and policy proposals, but also attacked each other’s claims, characterizing them as factually untruthful or misleading.
“I’m really glad that there was such a high turnout for the debate,” Yale College Council President Kahlil Greene ’21 told the News. “I hope that students stay excited about local politics. I, personally, was most engaged with the candidates’ ideas to improve the Yale-New Haven relationship.”
The forum’s format allowed for opening statements, prepared questions and audience-submitted questions. Candidates were also given the opportunity to respond to each other’s claims.
Harp is currently in her third consecutive term in the city’s highest elected office. She defeated Elicker — and several other candidates — in a widely contested 2013 race to replace then-Mayor John DeStefano. A veteran of Elm City politics, she represented New Haven in the Connecticut legislature for two decades and served as an alder before her time in Hartford.
Prior to jumping into the race in January, Elicker was the executive director of the New Haven Land Trust and served two terms on the Board of Alders representing Ward 10.
The event was co-hosted by the News, the Yale College Democrats, the Yale College Council and Every Vote Counts. Elicker and Harp are the highest profile candidates of the four looking to win the primary vote on Sept. 10 — Wendy Hamilton and Urn Pendragon are both city activists with self-funded candidacies.
Friday’s debate covered a variety of hot-button Elm City issues. Education came up early and often — Harp referenced her administration’s success in increasing graduation rates while Elicker criticized the Board of Education and its Harp appointees. Elicker further criticized overtesting in New Haven public schools as well as dysfunction relating to school transportation and financial mismanagement.
In a city with long-fraught town and gown relations, both candidates also provided a vision for the future of Yale and New Haven. Yale has amassed increasing wealth in the last decades, while the Elm City has struggled to stay financially afloat, taking on a controversial debt refinancing as well as an 11 percent tax hike during Harp’s tenure.
While both acknowledged Yale’s important contributions to the city and simultaneously called for increased commitment, the candidates took different approaches. Harp expressed her support for existing University-supported programs including New Haven Promise, which aims to support New Haven public school students who hope to attend institutions of higher education. She also applauded Yale students’ participation in New Haven nonprofits and service efforts through Dwight Hall.
Elicker took a more direct stance regarding the University’s financial obligation to New Haven. He criticized the University’s financial contributions to the city — Yale is tax-exempt on most of its earnings, instead paying an annual voluntary payment. That payment, which currently stands around $11.5 million annually, is significantly lower than what its tax payment would be without the exemption.
He mentioned several forms of pressure leveraging — including support for state-level bills that would challenge Yale’s tax-exempt status. Harp told the News after the forum that she has “asked Yale for more money every single year [since becoming mayor],” but that the results were “spotty.”
In response to an audience question about the April shooting of Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon, neither candidate expressed support for disarming the Yale Police Department. Harp claimed that Yale officers, when patrolling areas outside campus boundaries, often interact with armed individuals and therefore require protection. In contrast, Elicker expressed his concern that the University police are patrolling New Haven neighborhoods, particularly given the lack of city oversight over the YPD.
Attendees included students and local residents. Juma Sei ’22 told the News that in a seminar with DeStefano, who teaches a class called “Cities: Making Public Choices in New Haven,” the former mayor claimed that this race was “about change.”
“The mayor kept reverting back to current policies,” Sei said. “It just made me think, if your current policies were so good we wouldn’t really be talking about them right now.”
The Democratic primary on Sept. 10 could be the deciding factor for this race — there are no registered Republican challengers, although Seth Poole is running unaffiliated in the general election as a write-in candidate.
Elicker, as he did in 2013, has registered to run unaffiliated in the general election if he does not win the primary vote. Harp told the News that she was eligible to run as the Working Families Party candidate in the general vote if she does not win the primary, but that she has not made a decision on whether or not she will do so.
Elicker told the News that he was happy for the opportunity to engage Yale students, and that he was “very happy to see the room overflowing” and students “engaging” with the election and the city’s future.
All registered Democrats in New Haven are eligible to vote in the Sept. 10 primary.
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