Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer

Incumbent mayoral candidate Justin Elicker and Republican opponent John Carlson met publicly for the first time on Tuesday for an hour-long debate at New Haven’s Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. The candidates clashed on issues ranging from climate policy to police presence in the city.

The debate questions, which were delivered by a moderating panel of representatives from local media outlets, covered topics including mask and vaccine mandates, public education reform, affordable housing and the recent rise in violent crime. Over the course of the night, Carlson accused the mayor of hypocrisy and inaction, while Elicker defended his administration’s progress over the past two years. Carlson largely focused his remarks on his background as an educator and his hopes for a more aggressive police presence in the city. 

“[Elicker] talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk,” Carlson said twice during the debate.

The debate was sponsored by the Shubert Theater, local media organizations and the New Haven Democracy Fund, the city’s public financing program that holds participating candidates to specific fundraising limits and campaign guidelines. Both Elicker and Carlson have taken part in this program. Democracy Fund rules require that the two candidates meet for at least one public debate.

The panel of reporters selected to moderate the debate read a combination of original and submitted questions directed to each candidate.

Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent and moderator of the debate, said that sponsoring these mayoral debates had always been important to his organization as a way to help residents “take the election to be an opportunity to hear different visions for how to run the city.”

Carlson is a public school teacher who was elected as chair of the local Republican party last year, receiving the GOP mayoral nomination this summer. At one point during the debate, Michelle Turner, a reporter with WSME radio and Inner-City News, asked Carlson how he plans to sway the city’s largely Democratic voters to vote for him.

“Don’t be politically prejudiced, just like you wouldn’t judge someone by the color of their skin, don’t judge them by the name of their party,” Carlson said. “What you’re voting for, you’re voting for education, you’re voting for public safety, you’re voting for accountability, all things you don’t currently have.” 

Elicker shot back at Carlson’s comparison of political party and race, which was met with applause. He then said he found it hard to believe that people would “feel proud associating themselves with [the Republican] party” after the Capitol riots in January, the Trump presidency and the conservative resistance to masks and vaccines. 

The city’s mask mandates and “vaccine or test” requirements for city employees were a brief topic of debate on Tuesday night. Carlson said that, although he believes that masks and vaccines work, he thinks that both should be optional instead of forced. 

Throughout the night, the candidates were asked a number of questions about their differing responses to the recent rise in crime in the city. While still supporting a multi-pronged policy of community uplift alongside enforcement, Elicker has recently taken a harder stance on gun violence. 

Carlson said that the city “had not done enough” to increase police presence in the city, partially blaming police accountability bills for the rise in crime. Elicker denied a past accusation by Carlson that democrats like the mayor are “handcuffing” the police, citing his plans to increase officers on walking beats and direct more resources to the police department. 

“Nobody is handcuffing the police,” Elicker said. “We have a proposal in front of the Board of Alders to dramatically increase the number of cameras, expand ShotSpotter… we’ve increased the number of street outreach workers, we’re increasing the number of youth engagement workers. We’ve also invested in the community by opening a re-entry center.” 

Another topic of debate was the structure and funding of the Board of Education, an issue that has been a cornerstone of Carlson’s campaign due to his background as a public school teacher. 

Carlson said the city needs to improve test scores in math and reading, and that more funds need to be invested into classroom resources and hiring capable teachers, suggesting that this money could be directed through “cuts at the top” of the Board of Education. Specifically, he stated that the NHPS does not need to pay for a publicist or assistant superintendents. 

Norma Rodriguez Reyes, publisher of La Voz Hispana, brought up a lack of diversity on the board. 

“Latinos are the largest group of students and then weighed in the public school system, yet they’re deeply underrepresented in the Board of Education,” she said. “Why is that? And what will you do to fix it?”

Elicker responded in Spanish that it is important to increase representation of the Latino community both on the board and across the city. He also later shared that his single appointee to the board during his term had been Latino. 

Carlson, who first said to the audience, “raise your hands if you understood what he said,” attacked Elicker for hypocrisy in his claims to value diversity. He then referenced an earlier question by the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, in which it was stated that none of the top five appointed positions at City Hall are held by a Black or Hispanic resident. 

“Again, he talks the talk but he doesn’t walk the walk,” Carlson said. “His education system… just like his administration, is not diverse. So we do need to hire more teachers of different ethnicities, of different countries. Teachers should reflect the population, just like the police department, just like City Hall.”

Another clash between the candidates was over the issue of affordable housing, which Elicker said has been central to his goals. He shared his history of advocacy for expanded housing options on both a city and state level, mentioning the recent bill passed in the Board of Alders that will make it easier for small homeowners to create Accessory Dwelling Units — affordable apartments usually built in attics or garages. 

Carlson said that he had “fought against” this new legislation in the Hill neighborhood, claiming that it will make the area unsafe and congested while also making parking more difficult. 

“We should not be allowing parking to drive whether or not people actually have housing in this city,” Elicker shot back. 

Towards the end of the debate, the focus shifted primarily to climate policy, with the candidates fielding questions on everything from gas-powered leaf blowers to bike infrastructure.

Carlson lambasted Elicker for his “ironic” claims of commitment to environmental action, claiming that he had “opened the Dollar Store in New Haven” — a reference to the $1 payments involved in the lease of Tweed Airport and sale of Kensington Park to affordable housing developers. 

Further, Carlson criticized the expansion of Tweed Airport as a future cause of air pollution and health issues among city residents. 

“The fact of the matter is that airplanes do pollute,” Elicker responded. “But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a viable airport that is dramatically going to improve the economy for all of New Haven…the city is doing a lot to address climate…we’re starting to electrify municipal buildings, a senior center and several fire stations.”

After time was formally called on the debate, local high school student Dave Cruz-Bustamante, who is a member of Citywide Youth Coalition and the founder of Socialist Neighborhood Action and Care Corps, stood up in the crowd to address the candidates on stage.

“We’re talking about the climate crisis, which is one of the most existential threats that we face in the country right now, but it sounds like the words and the sentences that we’re hearing are just a little bit of fluff to make your ticket look better,” Cruz-Bustamante said. “I need to see what change y’all would implement if elected as mayor, to make sure that our climate crisis is solved in a holistic way.”

In response to Cruz-Bustamante’s question, Carlson said that he wanted to reduce littering and increase recycling incentives, before again attacking Elicker for passing the Tweed expansion. He also claimed to be part of “several environmental organizations.”

Elicker said that there is a “much bigger picture” of his climate action plan than just the issue of Tweed, which includes “creating an office of climate and sustainability” and using American Rescue Plan funds to invest in energy efficiency programs. Meanwhile, Cruz-Bustamante’s friends and fellow Citywide Youth Coalition members sat in the crowd shaking their heads at the candidates’ responses. 

“It’s not fluff,” Elicker said to Cruz-Bustamante. “I think we care about these issues.”

The 2021 mayoral election will take place on Tuesday, Nov 2.

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.