Khuan-Yu Hall, Contributing Photographer

New Haven’s three mayoral candidates — incumbent mayor Justin Elicker and challengers Tom Goldenberg and Wendy Hamilton — faced off in their last debate of the election season on Tuesday night.

The Oct. 24 debate, co-hosted by the New Haven Democracy Fund and the New Haven Independent, attracted 40 attendees and covered many of the issues that have dominated this campaign cycle. Candidates discussed education, crime, housing, the economy and transparency in city campaign financing, ending the debate portion by encouraging residents to register to vote. 

“We have done so much as a community,” Elicker said in his opening remark. “Not to mention perseverance. We know what our challenges are and we have a lot of work to do in our city. But I encourage you to focus on what the potential is for a city. To embrace the positives and confront the challenges head on and we need to do this together.”

Representing the range of political parties on the ballot, Democratic and Working Families Party candidate Elicker, unaffiliated candidate Hamilton, and Republican and Independent candidate Goldenberg all took the opportunity to differentiate themselves and articulate their positions on various issues to voters.

Candidates debate city finance and governance

New Haven received $115 million in federal pandemic relief from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. Elicker said that the city used it to fund infrastructure improvements in parks, career and vocational training and the homebuyer program while only adding a few new positions to the city’s payroll.

Asked how he plans to continue funding the city once ARPA money runs out, Elicker said that his administration was “very deliberate” in using that funding without increasing the long-term costs for the city. 

Goldenberg pointed out that the city administration has not filled the controller position for three years — now, the role is temporarily filled by Michael Gormany, the city budget director. The city controller is tasked with overseeing New Haven’s financial planning, expenditures and information technology infrastructure. 

Goldenberg criticized Elicker for what Goldenberg said were Elicker’s past plans to hire a controller, among other administration officials, from outside of New Haven. 

“I believe that New Haveners are capable. I’ve hired all the New Haveners on my campaign staff unlike the mayor, who brought people in from Washington, D.C. and Chicago,” Goldenberg said. “I see no need to go outside of the city … to hire a top administrative role. And I certainly will not take three and a half years to fill that role.”

In 2022, according to the New Haven Independent, aldermanic staff circulated a memo in which Elicker submitted a request that would no longer have the city charter require department heads to live in New Haven if those department heads’ appointments do not need to be approved by the alders. The city controller role must be approved by the Board of Alders and, thus, would have to live in New Haven under Elicker’s 2022 request. But, according to the Independent, Elicker “noted that the details could change” over the course of the city’s charter revision process.

Goldenberg: “This is not a good idea”

Goldenberg, who has spoken out against the Elicker Administration’s consideration of medically-supervised injection and drug consumption sites as a strategy for harm reduction, was asked what his ideal strategy would be for dealing with this issue and aiding people struggling with addiction in New Haven.

In response, Goldenberg argued that the Elicker Administration is not considering the parties that would be potentially affected by the sites they are considering creating. Goldenberg stated that the city’s involvement with the APT Foundation, a community-based treatment program that promotes recovery for those who live with substance use disorders, has promoted the unfair treatment of Black and Brown communities in New Haven. Goldenberg cited the APT Foundation’s purchase and occupation of a building in Newhallville as an example.

“I feel that communities are not being heard on this issue,” Goldenberg said. “So this is not just about the response to the opioid crisis. It is how we deal with our communities, and especially our communities of color. They have been disrespected by this administration.”

Goldenberg referenced research he said he has done into other cities that have implemented safe injection sites, saying that he disagrees with the claim that these sites help promote safety or effectively address drug use and addiction.

Elicker rebutted Goldenberg’s statement by saying that his administration has taken public and expert opinions into account when proposing plans on how to deal with the opioid crisis. He also acknowledged the severity of the opioid crisis and substance use disorders in New Haven.

“There are many cities around the world that have safe consumption sites that will dramatically decrease the number of people dying in our community and divert people towards resources to get help,” Elicker said. “This actually reduces the amount of issues that we see out in the streets because people are coming in so that we can provide support for our community members.”

Candidates accuse each other of unclean campaign funding

Of the three candidates, only Elicker chose to participate in the New Haven Democracy Fund, a public program created to limit the impact of big money on city politics. The program provides a campaign grant and matching contributions for mayoral candidates who agree to cap individual campaign contributions at $445 instead of $1,000. 

Hamilton chose not to raise money for her campaign and said she has only spent $500 on business cards. 

“We are in the state and the country that makes it very difficult for honest, normal people to run for office,” Hamilton said, explaining her decision not to fundraise.  

Elicker said that he is “a big believer” in clean government and praised the Democracy Fund program. The incumbent mayor said his campaign raised 10 times as many individual donations as Goldenberg’s campaign; he then accused Goldenberg of lending $50,000 to his own campaign and raising thousands in donations from outside the city

Goldenberg, in turn, also accused the mayor of running an unclean campaign. He said that Elicker’s campaign received contributions from people including property developers and an attorney who contracts with the city. 

“This mayor is beholden and propped up by special interest, and he wants to attack me for believing in myself and putting in my own money when it’s my first time running for elected office?” Goldenberg said. “If you want to attack me for putting my own money when you’re grabbing money from all these developers and special interests, I don’t know what to say.”

Goldenberg also said that 35 city employees donated to Elicker’s campaign and alleged that those donors felt “intimidated” to donate to keep their jobs. 

Meanwhile, Goldenberg did not address the fact that the majority of donations his campaign received were from people not connected with New Haven. 

“You cherry-pick a handful of donors when I have had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of community members donate to my campaign, people that are working in the city and even do work for the city and believe in the direction of the city,” Elicker responded. “It is illegal to ask any employees for funding, and I have never ever done that, and I would not.”

How to turn around low voter turnout? 

Moderator and President of La Voz Hispana Norma Rodríguez Reyes posed the last question of the night.

Citing low turnout in September’s primary election, Reyes asked candidates what they think has caused poor voting rates around the city and what the city can do to incentivize voting.

“People show up for the presidential elections because there’s a lot of noise,” Elicker said. “In reality, local politics impact your life a lot more. But I don’t think all of these people make that connection. There’s just not as much advertising around local elections.”

Elicker also pointed to his successes as mayor since 2020 as a reason for low voter engagement. He claimed that people’s main incentive to vote is to make big changes and that because people, he said, are satisfied with the direction the city is moving, there is perhaps less incentive for them to vote. 

Because New Haveners participate in mayoral elections every two years, the candidates suggested there is a higher likelihood that residents will not vote due to burnout or a lack of feeling of urgency.

“Finding a registered voter is like finding a diamond on the beach,” Hamilton said.

Both Goldenberg and Hamilton pointed to a “Democratic machine,” discussing the power that the Democratic party and affiliated organizations hold in swaying politics around New Haven — which they said has made both of them feel left out.

Goldenberg also suggested that the “Democratic machine” has left those in New Haven who do not align with the Democratic Party’s political views feeling ignored during election season.

“I think that people were not very enthusiastic about the choices,” Goldenberg said. “But I think this is a broader thing. A lot of people feel left out of party politics.”

During September’s Democratic primary, 23.7 percent of New Haven Democrats cast their votes either in person or via absentee ballot —- 7,900 out of 33,377 registered Democrats, compared to 12,348 who voted in the last contested Democratic mayoral primary race in 2019. 

The mayoral election will take place on Nov. 7.

Mia Cortés Castro covers City Hall and State Politics, and previously covered Cops and Courts. Originally from Dorado, Puerto Rico, she is a sophomore in Branford College studying English.
Yurii Stasiuk is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered City Hall as a beat reporter. Originally from Kalush, Ukraine, he is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College majoring in History and Political Science.