An appreciation event for Mayor Toni Harp quickly turned into a rallying cry to reelect the incumbent on Wednesday evening as Harp supporters encouraged attendees to campaign for the mayor and criticized her primary challenger, Democratic nominee Justin Elicker SOM ’10 FES ’10.
New Haven resident Neil Richardson organized the event to honor the mayor’s decades-long record of public service and contributions to the Elm City. In September, the three-term incumbent lost the primary election for New Haven’s top office to Elicker. Two weeks later, she issued a press release officially suspending her campaign. In the release, Harp announced that she would not actively seek support in advance of the general election but would remain on voters’ November ballots as the candidate for the Working Families Parties, a progressive, pro-labor organization.
On the day of the announcement, a group of five longtime Harp supporters created a Facebook group — which now boasts over 250 members — titled “The People’s Campaign for Toni Harp.” The People’s Campaign, an independent grassroots effort urging voters to reelect Harp on Nov. 5, was present on Wednesday but did not help to organize the event. The group’s leaders did, however, give speeches encouraging attendees to organize on Harp’s behalf over the next month. In her speech, Harp reiterated that her campaign is suspended but emphasized that November’s election remains contested.
“I just want you to know that I’m still on the ballot,” Harp said on Wednesday. “If you want me to be your mayor, then you’ve got to vote for me.” She pointed attendees to Line 1C, where she will appear on November’s ballot as the Working Families Party candidate.
Echoing her suspension announcement, the mayor’s speech touted her list of accomplishments while in office: removing a fence that once separated New Haven and neighboring Hamden, starting reconstruction on the Q House — a community center in the traditionally low-income Dixwell neighborhood — and improving public education while decreasing violent crime.
On Wednesday, Harp also criticized the Elicker campaign for instigating a “non-stop barrage of negative, misleading and false campaign accusations.” This, she said, forced her to correct misrepresentations of her record while also building that record as mayor and running on it as a candidate — in contrast to Elicker’s ability to run a full-time, year-long campaign.
In an interview with the News, People’s Campaign Treasurer Alexander Taubes LAW ’15 said that the Elicker campaign’s accusations of corruption in the Harp administration were “based in racial stereotyping of urban mayors and leaders [and] worked because of [their] relentless negativity and the amount of resources — including city taxpayer dollars — poured into [them] over a prolonged period of time.”
Taubes was referring to Elicker’s participation in the Democracy Fund, the Elm City’s public financing initiative. Participation in the program caps individual donations at $390 and matches them with public money.
Elicker’s campaign ads, Taubes claimed, resulted in lower voter turnout in neighborhoods like Dixwell and Newhallville, which traditionally support Harp. In particular, Taubes pointed to an Elicker advertisement that noted an FBI investigation into the Harp campaign, telling the News that communities that tend to have negative interactions with law enforcement would be afraid to support Harp given an association with the FBI.
In an interview with the News, Elicker categorically denied these accusations and emphasized his commitment to serving all New Haven residents.
The primary campaign was one of the city’s highest-profile races in years — Elicker and Harp clashed publicly and often, and both campaigns sounded the alarm that the race would be a tight one. Elicker criticized the Harp administration for mismanagement of public funds and corruption in City Hall, while the Harp campaign issued a slew of controversial attack ads linking Elicker to President Trump and accusing his wife, an assistant U.S. attorney, of using her position to initiate an FBI probe into the Harp administration.
People’s Campaign organizers said that Harp’s decisive primary loss — 42 percent of votes to Elicker’s 58 — was not a referendum on her performance as mayor, but rather a reflection of complacency on behalf of her supporters. The campaign suggested that higher voter turnout would benefit Harp in the general election.
Going forward, the People’s Campaign aims to reinvigorate Harp support by engaging in “old-fashioned” campaigning — knocking on doors, visiting churches and community centers and focusing on people rather than money. Those grassroots efforts, according to community activist Sandra McKinnie, began when she and others noticed a lack of organization in the Harp primary campaign. McKinnie has worked many Harp campaigns spanning the mayor’s three decades in public office and plans to continue campaigning between now and the general election.
Elicker told the News that his campaign also plans to continue voter outreach efforts. “Since the day after the primary my team has been campaigning … because it’s the right thing to do and because Mayor Harp’s name is still on the ballot,” he said.
Caroll Brown, a longtime supporter and friend of the mayor’s, told attendees on Wednesday, “We need to pack the halls on November 5. You can’t afford to sit still.”
The general election will be held on Nov. 5.
Mackenzie Hawkins | firstname.lastname@example.org