Lukas Flippo

On Tuesday, New Haven residents signaled loud and clear that they were looking for change at the polls.

In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, three-term incumbent Toni Harp — a longtime New Haven political star who has spent three decades representing the Elm City in various capacities — fell resoundingly to challenger Justin Elicker, former Ward 10 alder. Elicker built a grassroots campaign calling for reform on almost all major issues, including education, finances and the city’s relationship with Yale.

Harp, who defeated Elicker in their first mayoral head-to-head in 2013, enjoyed popularity and a number of landmark wins early in her tenure. But over the past year, her administration and campaign have struggled to rise above a record that voters thought was not good enough. On the trail, Elicker repeatedly called for new blood, and voters agreed with him, dealing Harp a wide-margin loss and her first-ever electoral defeat. Across the city, Elicker supporters rejoiced at the new possibilities in city government.

“People were not asking for just any change,” Elicker told the News in an interview after his victory. “They wanted a City Hall that was accessible, that listens to what people’s concerns are and acts on those concerns.”

Voters cited increased engagement from both campaigns — through avenues such as texts, phone calls and canvassing — as a notable difference this cycle. Both teams employed aggressive, get-out-the-vote campaigns. On the day of the primary, volunteers stood outside polling places hoping to sway the last undecided voters.

Brittany Trnka, a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University, remarked on the distinctive nature of the race. She said that the 2016 presidential election and engagement efforts from both Harp and Elicker motivated her to vote.

“In the last couple years I’ve become a lot more aware of what’s going on in my own city and not just on the national level,” Trnka told the News. “The mayoral New Haven race has never been a big race, and this year, I’ve gotten so many phone calls and texts from both campaigns.”

Combined, 12,348 voters cast ballots for Elicker and Harp.

Both Elicker campaign staffers and voters pointed to the organization and scope of his campaign as key determinants in his success in the election. Tanya Wiedeking, a voter, told the News that she was impressed by how “methodical and systematic” the Elicker campaign had been.

“No vote is taken for granted, even in neighborhoods where you’d predict Elicker would win,” Wiedeking said. “There’s a lot of care going into getting out the vote.”

Voters expressed frustrations even at one of the issues that Harp’s campaign billed as an accomplishment: recent steps toward the re-opening of a revamped Q House, a local community center in Ward 22 that has been closed for many years. Several voters told the News they were frustrated with the time delay and excuses the Harp administration gave for it. The week before, Elicker called out Harp for celebrating the Q House’s construction just days before the contentious election, deeming her actions politically motivated. Before the primary, Ed Corey, Harp’s campaign manager, called Elicker’s criticism a “petty attack,” adding that it showed a basic lack of understanding of municipal projects. 

Voters also told the News that, in the six years since Elicker and Harp last faced off, Elicker has demonstrated his commitment to the city. He served as the executive director of the New Haven Land Trust, a local nonprofit, and remained active in local politics. In 2013, Elicker struggled to connect with low-income and minority neighborhoods.

This time around, his campaign increased its visibility, improving its margins in each of the 30 wards. Mary Ann Moran, a voter in Ward 15, told the News that Elicker had been “very visible with the Land Trust” and demonstrated that he was “committed to the neighborhoods.”

Harp has not yet confirmed whether she will continue her bid for a fourth term as the Working Families Party candidate in the general election. Elicker told the News that — should she bow out — he will focus on preparing a team to lead the city in transition. There are no Republican challengers in the race.

The general election is on Nov. 5.

Mackenzie Hawkins, 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.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu

Neha Middela | neha.middela@yale.edu