Daniel Zhao

New Haven’s incumbent Mayor Toni Harp is no stranger to public service. After serving the Elm City for over two decades in the state Senate in Hartford, Harp became the first woman at the helm of City Hall. Now, the political veteran hopes to add another two years as mayor to her list of accomplishments.

“There isn’t a city I envy, there isn’t a city I’d rather serve as mayor, and there isn’t a community of people I’d rather be with as we tackle a daunting agenda under these current, challenging circumstances,” Harp said in her annual State of the City Address in 2018.

Harp was raised in in Salt Lake City, Utah, before moving to Chicago in the 1960s to attend Roosevelt College. A few years later, she moved to New Haven to pursue a master’s degree in environmental design at the Yale School of Architecture. Soon after this point, Harp had her first foray into politics, running to represent Ward 2 on New Haven’s Board of Aldermen — as it was known at the time.

After successfully unseating an incumbent, Harp served as president pro tempore of the city’s legislative body from 1988 to 1992, when she decided to take up her next challenge: a seat on the state Senate. But while running for a seat in the state legislature, she realized the difficulties that came with being a woman in politics.

“When I first ran for the Senate seat, there were men at some of the polling places with bull horns saying ‘you don’t want to have a woman represent you; she won’t do a good job because men won’t listen to her,’” Harp said in 2014.

Still, Harp won the election, and continued to win repeatedly, representing District 10 in the state Senate for 21 years. During her tenure as a senator, she served as the assistant minority leader from 1995 to 1997, assistant majority leader from 1997 to 2004 and finally as president pro tempore of the body in 2013.

That same year, New Haven saw one of the most contested mayoral elections in decades when Harp faced challenger Justin Elicker in both the primary and the general election, ultimately beating him by just 10 percent of the vote in the latter.

On Tuesday, Harp will face off against Elicker for the second time, in her most contested election since 2013. Harp sailed to reelection in both 2015 and 2017, winning 89 percent of the vote in 2015 and 77 percent of the vote in 2017. In both election years, turnout was around 20 percent.

Under her leadership, crime in New Haven has fallen to a 50-year low and the unemployment rate has been cut in half. The achievement page of her campaign website describes this job growth as part of the Harp-led “New Haven Renaissance.”

Harp has also focused on improving the city’s school system through the School Change 2.0 program, which includes a host of measures aimed at increasing high school graduation rates — now 80 percent — expanding the number of students attending college and establishing better disciplinary measures that encourage students to stay in school.

Her list of achievements also includes generating more affordable housing options, revitalizing the popular Long Wharf food truck area and improving the infrastructure to hold events on the New Haven Green.

Still, Harp has also faced allegations about her failure to report campaign funding and high expenditure on trips and conferences. In late 2018, the New Haven Independent discovered a discrepancy in the public records of expenditure between the actual and reported costs of trips taken by Harp and her team.

While Harp’s office reported that the cost of attendance at U.S. Conference of Mayors meetings held in January and June 2018 cost $2,500 and $4,500, respectively, public records show that the actual cost was more than $7,000 and $10,000.

Earlier this year, Elicker filed a complaint against Harp’s 2017 campaign for allegedly violating campaign finance rules, such as not disclosing certain donor information. The State Elections Enforcement Commission is currently investigating the complaint.

While the general election will be held in November, Harp’s first hurdle comes Tuesday as she faces off against Elicker in the Democratic primary. While she can compete on the Working Families Party ticket if she loses, it would be Harp’s first loss in a New Haven election in 14 years.

“We have accomplished so much. Hand in hand. We are tackling problems of today, while preparing for a brighter tomorrow. We’ve seen some highs, and we’ve seen lows,” Harp wrote in her Valentine’s Day-themed reelection campaign announcement. “But together, we have navigated the troubled waters we had to cross. Because that is love.”

Aakshi Chaba | aakshi.chaba@yale.edu