Lukas Flippo, Staff Photographer

Justin Elicker resoundingly defeated a three-term incumbent to become New Haven’s mayor in 2019. Now, he is facing his own challenger who already has significant support and robust funds.

Elicker won the Democratic primary against Toni Harp with just under 60 percent of the vote. Harp was the first Black woman to fill the position in 2013. That year, Elicker ran against her, but lost resoundingly, getting just 23 percent of the primary vote. He took a step back during her second election, but during her third election, he led the fight against her administration through a $.75 million primary election cycle that served as a referendum on Harp’s leadership. Weeks later, Harp suspended her campaign, but remained on voters’ ballots during the general election on the Working Families Party ticket. Various grassroots organizers led a People’s Campaign for Toni Harp, which included a 40-person march days before the election. 

Later in October, Harp “unsuspended” her campaign in response to the grassroots support. But Elicker was voted the Elm City’s 51st mayor November 5, 2019, by a sweeping 2-to-1 margin.

“I pledge to you tonight that I’m not going to be mayor just for the people in this room — I’m going to be mayor for every single person in this city,” Elicker said at a victory party at Next Door Restaurant following the announcement. “I’m going to be mayor for the supporters of the Elicker campaign, and I will be mayor for the supporters of the Harp campaign. I will be mayor no matter what you look like, where you came from, how much money you have, what kind of political connections you have — I will represent you and I pledge that here tonight.”

As he headed to City Hall, Elicker and his administration assembled a transition team with 25 New Haven residents to compile a report on the needs of the city and goals for Elicker’s term.

The team was headed by co-chairs State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-Hamden; Kica Matos, Vera Institute director of the Center on Immigration and Justice and former city Community Services administrator; and Sarah MIller, New Haven Public Schools Advocates founder. The report’s goals addressed a range of issues, from climate change to city libraries to police accountability.

“This report is a labor of love, and we are not only proud of the content, but also the process that we adopted,” the co-chairs said in a statement. “Working with a diverse, smart and dedicated transition team, we have produced a document that presents an exciting vision for the city that we all call home.”

Over the course of Elicker’s term, which is still less than a year and a half old, the mayor has spent much of his time facing an unprecedented budget crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic. This led him to release a split budget proposal this March with two potential budgets: a “Forward Together” budget, which would hold city services and taxes as they are now, and a “Crisis” budget, which would cut many public services and involve a hefty increase in taxes.

The decision on which budget to implement, Elicker explained, relied on how Yale University and the state would contribute to the city over the coming months. Shortly after the budget proposal was published, the state legislature passed a tiered Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program which will give the Elm City up to $50 million of additional funding. Elicker had been a fierce advocate of PILOT funding, as it favors municipalities like New Haven with large proportions of tax-exempt property. So, according to the mayor, the remaining variable is Yale. During public hearings on the budget, Yale’s contribution to the city dominated discussion.

“These kinds of choices — libraries, dealing with pollutants, or housing and jobs, they shouldn’t be choices that any of us have to make,” New Haven resident Charli Taylor said at one of the hearings in March. “It’s the funding. We can only bleed so much, and we have this institution that has an incredible amount of wealth in New Haven, constantly growing that wealth and not giving back in a way that we can all see.”

Elicker’s term so far has not gone without criticism, especially from Karen DuBois-Walton, the mayor’s sole competitor in the 2021 mayoral Democratic primary. DuBois-Walton just stepped down from her post as president of Elm City Communities, New Haven’s housing authority, where she spent the past 14 years. 

DuBois-Walton has many grievances against the mayor, and has centered her campaign so far around issues including diverting more funding to police accountability and reopening schools. She has held that Elicker has not called for enough community input on how the city spends funds from the American Rescue Plan — a federal funding package that will provide the Elm City with millions in relief aid — and she recently held a community town hall asking for ideas from New Haven residents.

“His previous actions have not shown that he is about community input,” DuBois-Walton said of Elicker. “This is an opportunity to make incredible investments in ways that are going to really improve people’s lives, and the community must be centered in making those decisions.” 

For his part, Elicker is continuing to tout his $6.3 million plan for American Rescue Plan funding to go toward summer programs. When he launched his campaign, Elicker stressed that his administration has helped the city through a historically challenging year. Now, he continues to tout New Haven’s pandemic response, particularly with regard to vaccine distribution.

“Our administration has focused on making sure every New Havener, regardless of what neighborhood they live in, has access to the amazing things our city has to offer,” Elicker wrote in an email to supporters in early May. “From making the vaccine more accessible and going door-to-door in our hardest-hit neighborhoods to educate our community on vaccine availability to providing every single New Haven public school student with a laptop and internet access for learning, we’re bridging the gaps that exist in our neighborhoods.”

The New Haven primary elections will take place on Sept. 14 this year.

Owen Tucker-Smith was managing editor of the Board of 2023. Before that, he covered the mayor as a City Hall reporter.