On Tuesday, a contentious mayoral contest ended in a decisive primary victory for challenger Justin Elicker, who is set to replace three-term incumbent Toni Harp this January. Following a divisive campaign, both candidates voiced their commitment to unity in speeches to their supporters on election night.

The race for the city’s top office, which began in January, has ramped up in the past few months. In debates, the candidates have clashed over New Haven’s financial accountability, the city’s education system and accusations of corruption in the Harp administration. Off the debate stage, campaign rhetoric grew combative. In the months leading up to the primary, Harp’s campaign accused Elicker’s wife of conspiring with U.S. President Donald Trump’s Justice Department and published attack advertisements comparing Elicker himself to the president.

“As far as this race goes, we’re pretty proud of it. There was a bit of mudslinging on either side and the campaign sometimes got heated because there was a lot of passion — on our part and for our supporters as well as with Justin’s supporters,” Harp campaign manager Ed Corey told the News. “But at the end of the day, as the mayor said, we’re all Democrats, so at this point we’re just focused on finishing out our celebrating as a team and then she’s gonna be back to work until her term is over.”

The Harp campaign’s first attack advertisement linked Elicker to Trump, accusing both men of “overconfidence and incompetence.” Released at a Democratic mayoral candidate forum in May, the advertisement features speech bubbles from Trump and Elicker, who were pictured alongside anonymous hands holding money. Trump’s speech bubble features the text “I’m going to build a wall and Mexico’s going to pay for it…,” and Elicker’s asserts, “When I become mayor, I’m going to make Yale give the City of New Haven $50 million…”

Elicker’s bubble refers to his Blue New Deal, a campaign pledge to work with Yale to more than quadruple the University’s financial contribution to the Elm City. Per the Connecticut Constitution, Yale and other nonprofits enjoy a tax-exempt status. In lieu of taxes, the University makes an annual voluntary payment of about $11.5 million — a figure much lower than what it would pay if its property were taxable.

According to the New Haven Independent, Corey said that the flyer did not intend to link Elicker to Trump’s rhetoric on race, but rather meant to point out the mayoral candidate’s “fantasy budgeting.”

The backside of the flyer depicts Trump and Elicker on either side of a New York Times article about a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found that people from elite backgrounds tend to have “unmerited confidence” and an “inflated sense of their skills.”

Throughout the campaign, Harp repeatedly criticized Elicker’s inexperience while touting her record as a three-term incumbent.

“I don’t know Justin Elicker’s body of work. I do know that he works for an organization that probably has a budget of less than a million dollars. I know that he says that there are 10 people that he supervised,” Harp said in a debate on Aug. 30. “I know it’s a part-time job. I know, in fact, that if he ran this city he would be in charge of thousands of employees … Even on the Board of Alders, I can’t point to one thing that he’s achieved.”

Elicker questioned whether or not the assertion merited a response and then went on to defend his record and nonprofit experience.

This exchange was just one of the several tense moments during debates and throughout the campaign. When Harp criticized Elicker for not employing a diverse staff as president of the New Haven Land Trust, the latter candidate denied the mayor’s claims and denounced her use of “divisive rhetoric.”

“I think it’s time that we talk about issues and the direction this city is heading instead of making up lies and inaccuracies about the other candidates,” Elicker said.

This was not the first time Elicker has accused Harp of misrepresenting his record and policy positions. Just 10 days before the debate, the Harp campaign released a television ad charging Elicker with advocating for a $1 million reduction in school funds as alder and supporting a proposal to use drones to “spy” on New Haven neighborhoods.

The first claim references Elicker’s 2010 opposition to a proposed $1.5 million increase in education funding — he and fellow East Rock Alder Roland Lemar put forward amendments to keep funding flat. As for drones, an Instagram post by the Elicker campaign expressed the candidate’s support for drones as a creative solution to surveil dirt bikes given the New Haven Police Department’s no-chase policy. According to the New Haven Independent, Elicker said that Harp’s ad “miscontrue[d] and completely misrepresent[ed]” his position on drones. He adamantly denied that he would use the technology to spy on Elm City residents.

The Harp campaign’s criticisms of Elicker went beyond the candidate himself. After the FBI subpoenaed various records from the Harp administration in June, the mayor’s campaign alleged a conspiracy involving Natalie Elicker, the candidate’s wife, who works as an assistant U.S. attorney. According to the New Haven Independent, Corey contended that New Haven’s Democratic Town Committee, the Trump administration and the Elicker campaign coordinated the FBI’s subpoena as a “political hit job.” He claimed that Elicker had inside knowledge of the FBI investigation and that the Town Committee — which, according to Corey, knew of the impending subpoena days before it became public information — worked with the campaign to leverage Natalie Elicker’s professional influence.

“Attorney Elicker clearly had her hand in manipulating the FBI into moving forward, which is reminiscent of the FBI’s sloppy meddling in the 2016 election,” Corey wrote. “It is no surprise to me that Attorney Elicker is willing to use the same tactics that got her boss [President Trump] elected to get her husband elected.”

In response, Elicker told the Independent that the Harp administration should focus on fixing internal corruption rather than initiating false accusations against his family. Both he and DTC Chair Vincent Mauro denied Harp’s claims.

On WNPR’s “Where We Live” program, Harp said that the accusation against Elicker’s wife was “ill-advised” and said that her campaign would not attack any family members in the future.

Six years ago, Harp faced criticism from primary opponents over her family’s business practices. Her late husband Wendell Harp’s development enterprise, Renaissance Management Company, owed over $1 million in back taxes, making it the top tax delinquent in the state according to the Hartford Courant. Several Democratic candidates, including Elicker, condemned Harp, who served as a state senator at the time, for claiming ignorance regarding the family business and for voting for an amnesty program that reduced individuals’ and businesses’ obligations on their back taxes. Harp denied all accusations of corruption and maintained that there was no conflict of interest.

Despite the heated and combative rhetoric that the two campaigns exchanged over the past nine months, Elicker made a call for unity at his victory party Tuesday night.

“Now is the time for everyone in this room to reach out to the other campaign,” Elicker said in his victory speech on Tuesday. “Because at the end of the day, the most important thing for this city has nothing to do with individuals in this room, but it has everything to do [with] the individuals that we all have spoken with when we’re knocking on doors … I’m excited to work with our delegation and every single person in this city that’s interested in moving forward.”

Across all of the wards, Elicker increased his relative vote share by 52 percent this year from the primary six years ago — he drew, on average, 52 percent more of total voters in a given ward.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu

Mackenzie is the editor in chief and president of the Managing Board of 2022. She previously covered City Hall for the News, including the 2019 mayoral race and New Haven's early pandemic response. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a junior in Trumbull College studying ethics, politics and economics.