Starting at 6 a.m. Tuesday, New Haven residents will go to the polls to decide the winner of the city’s Democratic primary election — Mayor Toni Harp or candidate Justin Elicker.
In a race that has spanned nearly nine months since Elicker jumped into the race in January, the candidates have framed this election cycle as a referendum on the state of New Haven and on the Harp administration, which is now in its third two-year term. Harp, who is heavily backed by the Elm City’s prominent unions and has deep roots in New Haven’s political scene, has vehemently defended her administration despite fiscal and administrative challenges that the city continues to face. Meanwhile, Elicker, who previously served as an alder and the executive director of a local nonprofit, has run his campaign as a grassroots alternative and framed himself as a pragmatic progressive to an ineffective City Hall.
The democratic primary, which is anticipated to be highly competitive, reflects aggressive campaigning by both candidates, who have combined to raise and spend roughly three-quarters of a million dollars on the race.
“We’re all proud of the mayor,” Ed Corey, Harp’s campaign manager told the News in an interview Monday night. “It’s a tough job to both run the city and campaign for reelection, but she’s worked really hard … we expect that all that hard work pays off.”
Six years ago, Harp and Elicker emerged as the frontrunners in a packed Democratic field to replace then-Mayor John DeStefano, who led City Hall for two decades. Harp, at the time, had just spent 20 years representing New Haven as a state legislator. She defeated Elicker in the primary, he ran unaffiliated in the general and, ultimately, Harp won her seat by approximately 1,800 votes, or 10 percent of the vote.
Harp enjoyed little competition in her first two reelection bids but has weathered 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. In her tenure, the city has opted for its largest debt restructuring and an 11 percent tax hike last summer.
Harp has repeatedly defended her administration’s efficacy, pointing to the poor financial conditions she inherited and the “tough decisions” that she has had to make for the overall health of the city.
Elicker, meanwhile, has run his campaign as a grassroots effort. His campaign unveiled its first television advertisement last week and spent most of its time knocking on doors. As he did in 2013, Elicker has participated in the New Haven Democracy Fund, the city’s clean elections public financing initiative. By merit of his participation, Elicker cannot accept more than $390 from any individual donor. In turn, he receives certain conditional matching funds. Harp has never participated in the Democracy Fund.
Gage Frank, Elicker’s campaign manager, told the News in an interview last night that Elicker’s experience in the last six years has been “transformative” for Elicker and that Frank senses a desire for change in the city’s leadership. He cited Elicker outraising the incumbent, the speed at which the campaign amassed the necessary signatures to make the primary ballot and the reach and diversity of the campaign’s supporters.
“This is probably one of the best-run grassroots campaigns I’ve been a part of,” Frank said.
Over the summer, the Harp campaign went on the attack, releasing a series of targeted ads that labelled Elicker as incompetent and compared him to Donald Trump. Harp has continued to criticize the Elicker campaign and its practices as being most relevant to wealthy white individuals, while emphasizing her own record of supporting groups such as the Yale unions in their fight for more jobs for New Haven residents.
Harp’s administration has also struggled with highly visible legal action surrounding the use of lead paint and poisoning. Over the summer, she received scrutiny for allegedly allowing a change in lead policy, which relaxed New Haven regulations beyond federal standards. On Thursday, in an interview with the News, mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer denied that Harp either instructed or agreed to allow the change in policy.
Harp’s campaign has also fielded nagging concerns about dysfunction on the Board of Education — on which the mayor serves and also appoints several members, including the superintendent.
Over the course of the last week, Elicker’s campaign, which lagged behind Harp’s in fundraising for the last two reporting periods but has remained buoyed by a strong first-quarter intake, has spent the remainder of its cash, totaling around $110,000, in a final push effort. Harp’s campaign spent most of its cash before the final week. In an interview with the News, Elicker said that the campaign had “surpassed our goal” with respect to budget.
In addition to Elicker’s intention to win in the primary, he has also already committed to challenging Harp in the general election as an unaffiliated candidate, should he lose. In that case, he will begin fundraising again from scratch.
Harp did not file papers to run as an unaffiliated candidate, but has been the Working Families Party’s candidate in the race, and so can opt to run on that ticket should she lose in the Democratic primary. Both Harp and Corey told the News that they will address that decision if the question arises and that the campaign has instead focused on getting out the primary vote — Corey told the News that, in the days leading up to today, the campaign has knocked on “10,000 doors.”
Over the course of the campaign season, the two candidates have faced off several times at various debates and forums hosted by schools, wards and other institutions. They shared the stage in William L. Harkness Hall on Aug. 30, and squared off for the last time at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School on Thursday. Both have made other visits to Yale — Harp spoke to the Yale Political Union last week as well.
All residential colleges at Yale fall in two wards — Ward 1 includes Old Campus as well as Trumbull, Berkeley, Branford, Saybrook, Hopper, Davenport, Pierson and Jonathan Edwards, while the remaining colleges fall in Ward 22. Ward 1 residents will vote at 133 Elm St. and Ward 22 residents will vote at 22 Foote St.
Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Angela Xiao | firstname.lastname@example.org