From pandemic recovery to growth equity: Mayor Elicker’s evolving agenda
Justin Elicker’s first term centered around the COVID-19 pandemic. The now re-elected mayor says he has bigger plans for the future.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
Just weeks after taking the mayoral office in 2019, Justin Elicker quickly found his office consumed by the harsh realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But after two years in office, Elicker’s agenda is far more ambitious than just pandemic recovery.
In 2019, Elicker, a long-time New Haven resident and former city alder, defeated incumbent Democrat Toni Harp with 69 percent of the vote. In his first term, Elicker deftly led New Haven through the pandemic and a city budget crisis. Elicker secured increased state funding for the city by working on Connecticut’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes program and expanded the leases for Tweed Airport and Union Station. In 2021, Elicker ran for reelection against John Carlson, the first Republican mayoral candidate since 2007. The two clashed on policing and public health issues, but Elicker ultimately won in a landslide victory with 84 percent of the vote. Elicker’s second-term ambitions include more equitable growth benefits, reduced gun violence and a more efficient city government.
“We crushed it,” Elicker said on the night of his reelection. “When I took office 22 months ago, the city was facing a $45 million deficit. And weeks later, we were also facing the most significant health crisis that we have faced as a city … We as a city have accomplished so much in these past 22 months, and we should be deeply proud of what we have accomplished. And we have put at the forefront equity, we put at the forefront compassion.”
The 46-year-old Democrat first moved to New Haven 14 years ago to attend graduate school at Yale. He later served for four years as alder from East Rock’s Ward 10 before unsuccessfully running for mayor in 2013. Elicker had previously worked as a foreign service officer for the State Department and taught at elementary and high schools.
After Elicker defeated Harp in 2019, he had just over two months in office before the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Haven. Looking back, however, Elicker emphasized pride not only of the city’s response to COVID-19, but also of the other projects that he steered forward amid the crisis.
In his first term, Elicker advocated for a statewide expansion of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, program. The PILOT program disburses state funds to local governments to offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable state-owned land. Passed last summer, the new plan granted New Haven $90 million of state funding for 2021, more than double the $41 million it received in 2020. Elicker cited the PILOT expansion as one of his proudest accomplishments during his first term — alongside the expanded leases for Union Station and Tweed Airport.
Accordingly, Elicker centered his reelection campaign on the achievements of his first term. Elicker touted successful responses to the pandemic and the city budget crisis. The increase in state funding accompanying the PILOT expansion also meant that the city could pass Elicker’s “Forward Together” budget plan without tax hikes or cuts to city services.
Two months after Elicker announced his reelection bid, Karen DuBois-Walton, president of Elm City Communities, launched an exploratory committee and eventually a bona fide campaign for the Democratic Party nomination. DuBois-Walton raised an unprecedented sum of donations in her first month of fundraising and appeared to be a serious contender for the nomination.
But during pre-election polling, DuBois-Walton won only four of 25 Democratic Town Ward Committee straw polls. After months of campaigning, she abruptly dropped out of the race in late July.
“I wanted to run a campaign for equity and justice — a campaign that works to transform what’s possible in New Haven in a way that our forebears here have done so many times,” DuBois-Walton said. “It has become evident that the city is not ready for that kind of leadership.”
Though Elicker swiftly received the Democratic Party nomination, he was not alone on the ballot — for the first time since 2007, a Republican was running in the mayoral election.
New Haven Republican Town Committee Chair John Carlson accepted a last-minute nomination in late July 2021. Carlson, a 53-year-old public school teacher, has been the party chair since 2020. Like Elicker, Carlson partnered with New Haven Democracy Fund, a voluntary public financing program that distributes funding to New Haven mayoral candidates that meet the program’s campaign financing requirements. Carlson was the first Republican to receive financial support from the fund.
“I feel it’s important to bring two parties — two working parties — back to the city so that we have a true democracy,” Carlson said. “A one-party rule is not good for the city. Almost all of the seats go completely unchallenged, and I want to change that.”
This competition, Carlson said, shed light on important issues that he believes were previously going unaddressed by Elicker. Carlson’s campaign advocated for an increased police presence to address high city crime rates.
“I would hire more officers, increase patrols, make officers more visible on their patrols and install dash cameras in all NHPD vehicles,” Carlson said. “It’s better for the officers and better for the public if everything the police do will be recorded … the good police, the solid majority of police, can be relieved knowing they don’t have to worry about false accusations.”
Managing crime and gun violence was also at the top of Elicker’s platform. However, he objected to increased policing as a solution to the problem. He told the News that his team would take a “multi-pronged approach” that includes investing in outreach workers, youth programming, reentry centers and mental health services.
Carlson and Elicker also clashed on public health measures — particularly mask mandates — and education funding priorities.
On Nov. 2, Elicker won the mayoral election in a landslide victory, securing 84 percent of the vote and winning 9,936 votes to Carlson’s 1,638.
Soon after his reelection, Elicker facilitated a significant increase in Yale’s annual voluntary contribution to the city. But his ambitions don’t end there. Affordable housing and infrastructure bills, as well as the allocation of $53 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding, are high on Elicker’s agenda, though he received blowback for failing to solicit community input on proposed funding allocations.
Elicker said that he hopes to foster the same kind of economic growth that accompanied his first term, and he intends to distribute growth benefits more equitably than before; Elicker has made addressing the city’s racial wealth gap a priority. According to his campaign website, Elicker’s primary goal now is “to create a city where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, no matter which neighborhood you live in.”
Elicker lives with his wife Natalie, their two daughters and their dog Captain.