Former alder and nonprofit executive Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 won the Democratic primary race for mayor in a landslide on Tuesday, defeating three-term incumbent Toni Harp after a contentious campaign.
When polls closed across the city’s 30 wards at 8 p.m., machines at each location quickly tabulated total ballots from the day. Within minutes, the results emerged — Elicker picked up more than 6,800 votes to Harp’s fewer than 5,000, securing a little less than 60 percent of the vote. Harp conceded the election by phone by roughly 8:15 p.m. Though the city received more than 500 absentee ballots in the days leading up to the primary election and will continue to count them through the evening, given Elicker’s margin of victory, they will prove to be inconsequential.
“I’m really excited — we’ve been working toward this moment for more than nine months, knocking on doors around the city, talking with residents about what they care about and sharing the message of this campaign,” Elicker said in an interview with the News on election night. “I think tonight’s results show that people are ready for change.”
The race, which spanned nine months and close to three-quarters of $1 million between the two candidates, is all but the end for Harp’s campaign and six-year tenure. While the mayor did not say whether she would continue her bid into the general election as the Working Families Party candidate, her campaign resigned itself to closing out loose ends — effectively setting up Elicker to become the city’s 51st mayor come January.
“Sometimes elections surprise you, and they turn into change elections,” Ed Corey, Harp’s campaign manager told the News in an interview after the mayor conceded publicly. “[Harp] is going to focus on running the city and preparing a transition after the November election.”
New Haven is a Democratic stronghold in which most of the heated battles are fought within the party in primaries. This primary was widely framed as a referendum on Harp’s tenure, and Elm City residents voted for change. A favorite of the city’s organized labor unions and the party — the incumbent served as a longtime state senator representing New Haven. In 2013, Harp became the first black woman to lead City Hall.
Tuesday was not the first time Harp and Elicker duked it out for the city’s top office. Six years ago, Elicker lost to Harp in the primary and then ran against her unaffiliated in the general election — failing by approximately 1,800 votes. Had he fallen in Tuesday’s primary, Elicker’s campaign would have committed to the general as an unaffiliated candidate yet again.
Harp, who did not file the paperwork to run unaffiliated but could continue her bid to extend her administration with the Working Families Party, did not say publicly if she plans to challenge Elicker again. Late on Tuesday, Harp first addressed a select group of staffers at her campaign headquarters at 50 Fitch St. before heading next door to a local bar to speak more broadly to supporters at what would have been a victory party.
At the bar, Harp spoke briefly. She expressed her appreciation to her supporters and outlined the vision that her administration and campaign promoted. She said New Haven is a city, where, regardless of background, “Everyone has an opportunity and a chance to make something of themselves.” She left the premises immediately after her address, bypassing the onslaught of questions about whether she would extend her campaign.
Across town, on Orange Street, the Elicker camp celebrated a victory that was characterized as ushering in a new era for government in New Haven. On Tuesday, Elicker’s field director Kevin Alvarez told the News that the result demonstrated the campaign’s success in earning voters’ trust. Similarly, campaign director Gage Frank said that Elicker emerged victorious because of a dedicated grassroots campaign built on sensible policy platforms.
“I think he’s been very visible with the Land Trust and done incredible work in the neighborhoods,” Ward 15 resident Mary Ann Moran told the News on Election Day. “Many people when I was at the polls said ‘Enough with her.’”
In interviews with the News, voters highlighted issues they held with the current administration, including an increase in taxes, corruption within the upper echelons of City Hall and frustration surrounding the debt-ridden Board of Education. Several noted that they appreciated the openness of Elicker’s campaign.
Harp easily cruised to reelection bids in 2015 and 2017 before becoming bogged down by controversy in her third term. Several employees of her administration have been entangled in corruption scandals — including stealing from the city — and the mayor has faced scrutiny for five-figure trips and pay raises to her staff in the face of the city’s mounting financial crisis. The city also opted for its largest debt restructuring and an 11 percent tax hike last summer.
Despite Harp’s attempts to highlight the successes of her administration — most often significant increases in high school graduation rates and decreases in crime — as reasons for a fourth term, the city rumbled with dissatisfaction and stagnation. Debby Evans of Ward 25 told the News that she saw “a lot more discontent out there than [she] thought.”
“[Elicker] won by 500 votes [in Ward 25],” Evans said. “That was a big increase. It was time for a change, and a more energetic mayor. I wish him well, because he’s got some big problems to tackle.”
Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison stood outside her ward’s polling place all day, encouraging voters to cast a ballot for Harp, but in an interview with the News she worried that the energy felt different even hours before the polls closed.
Riding that hunger for change, Elicker billed himself as the progressive alternative — he has pointed to his participation in the city’s public financing initiative, the Democracy Fund and his accessibility to residents in New Haven.
In 2013, Elicker particularly struggled with low-income and minority communities. This time around, he won decisively and increased his presence in all wards. Six years ago, he won just seven wards in the primary. This year, as of Tuesday night, he won 16 wards and tied one with Harp — a narrow but decisive win by neighborhood. In all wards, Elicker improved the margin of the vote he won; in wards that supported him in 2013, he increased his foothold by a significant percentage. In wards he lost to Harp in 2013, he either narrowed the deficit or managed to flip the wards entirely.
On average, across all of the wards, Elicker increased his relative vote share by 52 percent this year from the 2013 primary. That is, on average, he gained 52 percent more of total voters in a given ward. For instance, in 2013, Elicker lost Ward 6 by more than 50 percent of turnout; this year, he won it by a margin of 10 percent of turnout.
This race is Harp’s first electoral loss in 32 years. She served as an alder before her time in Hartford.
Margaret Hedeman, Kelly Wei, Jack Tripp, Emiliano Tahui Gómez, Amelia Davidson, Madison Hahamy, Isabel Kirsch, Valerie Pavilonis, Katie Taylor, Serena Lin, Olivia Tucker, Noel Rockwell, Talat Aman, Christian Robles, Anna Gumberg and Thomas Birmingham contributed reporting.
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