Ethan Wolin, Contributing Photographer

Early in his first term in 2020, Mayor Justin Elicker fulfilled a campaign promise by dismissing New Haven’s youth services director, who was already on leave while under scrutiny for his handling of contracts for a proposed youth center and homeless shelter.

Now, the fired official, Jason Bartlett, is leading an initiative to challenge the city’s political leadership by replacing Democratic Town Committee ward co-chairs. Even as discrimination complaints Bartlett leveled against the city in a federal lawsuit remain unresolved, he maintains that the insurgent co-chair slate, New Haven Agenda, does not stem from personal grievance.

“It’s not really about Elicker,” Bartlett, a veteran of Connecticut politics and a candidate for Ward 6 co-chair in the Hill, told the News. “I’m a change agent, so it’s always been about change.”

Democrats in eight of the city’s 30 wards will head to the polls on Tuesday to each elect two ward co-chairs, organizers who mobilize voters and participate in party nominations.

New Haven Agenda is the first co-chair slate to take on the dominant role Yale’s UNITE HERE unions play in city government since union-backed Democrats took over the party in 2011.

The new challenger slate’s treasurer is Tom Goldenberg, the 2023 Republican and Independent mayoral candidate whom Elicker handily defeated.

“I’m really not clear what the purpose is of running a number of people against other ward co-chairs, many of whom have a strong history of engaging in New Haven in a very positive way,” Elicker said in an interview. Pointing to the involvement of Bartlett and Goldenberg, Elicker added, “People can make their own judgment about their motivations.”

Bartlett served in the state House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011, representing a district in western Connecticut. He came out as gay in 2008, making him among the country’s first openly gay Black state legislators, if not the very first. Former Mayor Toni Harp appointed Bartlett to the role of youth services director after he had managed her 2013 campaign.

From that post, he launched Youth Stat, a cross-department program to support vulnerable children and teenagers, and other initiatives such as summertime three-on-three basketball tournaments. But Bartlett also faced accusations of favoring personal associates for city contracts, particularly for a long-stalled, never-built Escape Teen Center. Bartlett has strongly denied the allegations of wrongdoing.

“Jason is extremely passionate about the children of the city and is unwilling to accept the status quo,” Kermit Carolina, a city education official who worked with Bartlett on Youth Stat, said. “As a result of him challenging the status quo, sometimes he has people who may not like his particular direct approach.”

According to the New Haven Independent, Bartlett’s work on the Escape project became a target of a 2019 FBI investigation into the Harp administration. In June 2019, Bartlett stepped down from his role as Harp’s reelection campaign chair, and Harp put Bartlett on paid administrative leave. A spokesperson for the Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this article.

Challenging Harp for the Democratic nomination, Elicker pounced on the controversy as an example of mismanagement and corruption in City Hall. One Elicker online advertisement from the race focused squarely on Bartlett, claiming that his paid leave amounted to a loss for the city of $30,530 to date.

Courtesy of Gage Frank

Bartlett said the attacks on him, which he saw as a deliberate smear campaign, became a “huge part” of Elicker’s case against Harp, with lingering repercussions for his life.

“He drove Democrats throughout the state away from me,” Bartlett said. “I was a recognized political strategist, African American, gay guy in the state, and by saying the things he said about me — people are afraid, with the mayor of a major municipality.”

Elicker disputed Bartlett’s characterization of his centrality to the Elicker campaign message. He declined to comment on its effects on Bartlett’s political career.

Elicker’s 2019 campaign manager, Gage Frank, said that the election-season criticism of Bartlett fell within normal campaigning and that public officials should expect their actions to be examined closely.

“He gets things done for some people, but the method in which he achieves those goals is sometimes questionable,” Frank, who served as City Hall communications director at the start of Elicker’s term and later worked for a 2023 mayoral challenger, said. “That was what people brought to light to me when I was working on this campaign.”

Bartlett filed a complaint in November 2019 with Connecticut’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, alleging a hostile work environment and discrimination by city colleagues on the basis of his race and sexual orientation. He filed a related federal lawsuit against the city, Bartlett said, for which he, Harp and Elicker gave depositions in the fall of 2022. The city has sought summary judgment, with no decision yet by a judge.

In 2020, Bartlett ran for a state senator seat in New Haven as an Independent but lost to the incumbent Democrat. In a campaign video posted to YouTube, Bartlett spent three minutes discussing his recent ouster from the New Haven government and said, “A bogus reason was given to terminate me.” Last fall, Bartlett advised Goldenberg’s mayoral campaign.

Former Mayor John DeStefano Jr. told the News that he sees the New Haven Agenda slate as an effort to lay the groundwork for another mayoral bid by Goldenberg.

“It seems a pretty straightforward prep for town committee endorsement in 2025 — nothing more, nothing less. I think it’s fine, and it’s what you do,” DeStefano said.

To Bartlett, the Democratic Town Committee ward co-chair campaign represents the latest political foray in a life of independent-minded efforts for change. Bartlett made clear in interviews with the News that his co-chair campaign has nothing to do with past tensions with Elicker, his former boss.

In a video released last week, Bartlett again took aim at the political influence of UNITE HERE, which he said caused local politicians to overlook some community issues — among them, education and supporting youth.

A union spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers, UNITE HERE Local 35’s chief steward, told the New Haven Independent in response to Bartlett’s video that she is focused on youth opportunities, among other policy issues, and on voter engagement.

In Ward 6, Bartlett and fellow challenger Stephen Rabin face incumbent co-chairs Doris Doward and Dolores Colon, a former alder.

Ethan Wolin covers City Hall and local politics. He is a first year in Silliman College from Washington, D.C.