Justin Elicker is six feet and two inches tall, weighs 160 pounds and has reddish hair. At the intersection of Whalley Ave. and Orchard St. in New Haven, he sticks out. He wore a pair of ill-fitting trousers that bunched up around his ankles, a button-down with light blue stripes and a pair of narrow, well-polished brown oxfords.
Whalley and Orchard meet less than half a mile from the gothic spires of Yale University, yet the intersection is far away in every sense but space.
Elicker and I met and shook hands, turned right and started up Orchard St.
On a frigid night in January a week after Elicker announced his mayoral candidacy for the Elm City, 20-year incumbent Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced his decision not to seek re-election. DeStefano’s departure opened a vacuum in the city’s politics, a vacuum that Justin Elicker believes he is best suited to fill. But DeStefano also opened the door to a host of other questions. Whether the bright parts of New Haven’s future extend to all parts of the city is uncertain. Divided along lines of race and class, the city exhibits not only diversity, but segregation, too. And so as DeStefano exits, mayoral candidates and voters alike have been forced to ask who can unify this city whose unity is itself uncertain.
In September, I asked both candidates to walk through the city with me, hoping they might speak to how they would bridge the divides that for decades have defined New Haven. From Harp I received a polite denial, from Elicker an enthusiastic acceptance.
Elicker began our walk not by talking about the arcs of the city’s history, but rather how he worked with community leaders to keep kids on dirt bikes off the streets of Dixwell. He is about small solutions that add to big results — keeping the pool open at Career High School during the summer to give kids something to do and encouraging the growth of an organization called Solar Youth were two of the first things he talked about as we walked through the streets where policies become realties.
Throughout the campaign, Elicker has sold himself as the wonk, the guy who reads and understands every line in the budget. With his campaign team, he drafted 75 proposals, all listed on his campaign website, that dive deep into how to solve the city’s problems. As we walked from block to block, he jumped from policy to policy, suggesting they are part of a holistic approach to a better New Haven. For urban violence, he suggests creating unemployment in disadvantaged communities, enhancing community policing, better organizing block watches and using technology to improve policing. For economic development, he looks to development the city’s waterfront, improving vocational training, reforming the state’s tax system and stabilizing neighborhood through home ownership. The issues go on and so do the solutions.
“Everything is related,” he said as we walked up Orchard. “How do you push everything forward?”
Elicker has painted himself as the apolitical politician. Finding smarter ways to fix sidewalks, putting property permitting online and reducing waste through information are not ideological. Elicker does not use soaring rhetoric. He is more comfortable in long discussions with one or two people — into which he can throw numbers and studies — than he is shouting a sound byte into a microphone.
Vacancies, houses where the paint chipped from jagged sideboards, lined Orchard St. Several had “No Trespassing” signs. The grass planted between the cracked sidewalk and the street was overgrown and wilted. The crevices in the street left by last winter remained.
Half a mile down the road, as we came to the intersection of Orchard and Henry St, Elicker stopped.
While we stood on the corner, Elicker talked about the importance of the Liveable City Initiative, which works to reduce urban blight throughout New Haven. While Harp wants to defund LCI, Elicker says, he wants to improve its effectiveness by inspecting properties more frequently and following up on property violations. It could even be an important source of funds for the revenue-starved city, he said.
It wasn’t until we had started walking again that Elicker turned and said, “By the way, this is one of the most dangerous intersections in the city.”
Elicker then commented that focusing cops’ attention on locations instead of individuals, recognizing that “you don’t just need a perpetrator, you need a victim” and projects like the Beulah Heights Church Home Ownership Program — which provides affordable housing a block from Orchard and Henry — can lessen the city’s needless deaths.
We kept walking up Orchard for another block until we bore left on Dixwell Ave. and entered Newhallville.
Although Dixwell is broader and more heavily trafficked than Orchard, it has a similar feel. Some of the houses are well painted, others are not. Many are enclosed with wire fencing. We walked along Dixwell for a few hundred yards before turning at West Division St.
Newhallville is among the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city. It was once home to a large gun manufacturer, Winchester, but those jobs have since disappeared, leaving little employment for the primarily blue-collar, black work force. For the better part of a century, Newhallville have been on the receiving end of the collapse of blue-collared industrialism. Both Elicker and Harp have said the transformation has left residents with the impression that they are “stepchildren” of the city.
In the not-so-distant past, violent crime was endemic in the neighborhood; drug dealers and gangs abounded. But Newhallville has also made strides forward. Community policing and residents’ efforts have helped clean up the streets.
But Newhallville is still not a safe place to walk late at night. Earlier this year, a Yale Professor Paul Brouard was assaulted while parking to work on a house designed and built by Yale School of Architecture students.
It is also not Elicker’s territory. In the primary, Harp received 530 votes in Ward 20, which covers the neighborhood. Elicker managed 14. Many of the employed in Newhallville are members of unions, which have thrown their full weight behind Harp. Most of the residents in the neighborhood are black.
But many, in particular Harp and her supporters, have criticized Elicker for being unable to understand the plight of Newhallville’s residents.
At a recent mayoral debate, New Haven Independent Editor Paul Bass ’82 asked Elicker how he could expect to govern with “no appreciable support” from blacks and Latin Americans.
Harp said her supporters reflect the diversity of the city in a way Elicker’s simply do not. Under her leadership, Harp says that everyone in the city will get their due. “New Haven’s glass is half full,” she told a crowd recently, “and in November our cup runneth over.”
While Harp speaks of equal distribution, Elicker speaks of equal opportunity. “The mayor’s job is to make sure everyone gets a fair shake,” he said as we walked on West Division. “We don’t have the money to give everyone their due.”
Although the budget is finite, Elicker says, the distribution of resources — of school funding, of snow plows in the winter, of police attention — can be improved through transparency. To Elicker, effective governance is making decisions based on data, meticulously collected and painstakingly analyzed, not emotion. Good governance, he said, is ensuring that citizens have access to that data and can participate in the process of governing.
It was not until long after we had passed out of Newhallville that Elicker acknowledged the anger, telling me, “People in Dixwell and Newhallville feel a level of desperation because of the levels of violence and poverty.” But if he could just talk to them, he said, have a real conversation with them, they would understand his message.
A hard campaigner, he has made every effort to spread that message. Elicker says he responds to every phone call and email he receives. But he’s been in the neighborhoods too. On one recent Sunday, he personally knocked doors in East Shore, Beaver Hills, East Rock and Fair Haven.
The spine of Elicker’s Ward 10, the four-lane Orange St. runs from downtown out to East Rock Park. The park is densely wooded, and at any time joggers and cyclists make their way up it, couples walk through the paths and middle-aged men run their dogs. East Rock Park, Orange St. and the neighborhood they define share little with Newhallville.
As we walked back toward downtown, he saw a lot of familiar faces. Members of the Devil’s Gear Bike Shop cycling team, enjoying post-ride coffees at a table outside of Romeo and Cesare’s Gourmet, a far cry from the corner store at Orchard and Henry, called out to Elicker. We stopped to talk. They exchanged pleasantries and chatted briefly about the previous Friday, which DeStefano had declared “Matthew J. Feiner Day” for the bike shop owner’s contributions to the city.
Not far past Elicker’s house, Elicker waved to the Sunday crowd enjoying sandwiches outside of Nicas Gourmet Market. They waved back, and we paused again to say hi.
It is not surprising that Elicker seems more at ease in East Rock. These are his constituents, the people he emails about street cleanings and for whose kids he negotiates playground building. He has given out his cell phone number here for more than three years. He only started giving it out in Newhallville in January.
After two miles, we turned onto Hillhouse Ave. Both Dickens and Twain called Hillhouse the most beautiful street in America. Its mansions, once inhabitted by industrialists, are relics of a bygone New Haven.
But the city’s future, Elicker is quick to point out, is looking up.
Initiatives like Science Park and the New Haven Grove are encouraging innovation and bringing stable, high-paying jobs. New policing strategies, investments from Yale and pro-economic development policies, among others things, have helped curb urban violence. But, Elicker admits, the improvement has not been universal, leaving a city that can feel divided between have and have-not, safe and dangerous, optimistic and desparate.
Elicker believes his emphasis on transparency is the first step to repairing this divide, and his proposals range from the simple, such as tracking snow plows with GPS systems to the complex, such as basing budget decisions on outputs rather than inputs.By committing to remind all of New Haven’s residents of their equal stake and voice in the city, he said, “government will be working more for people than for politicians.”
But why New Haven? I asked. Elicker does not need to live here — his roots in New Canaan and his lucrative consulting business ensure that he could live in the roomier suburbs.
“I opted into New Haven,” he admits. It is the “sense of place,” he says — the ability to spin a web of interactions on a block, to walk instead of drive, to speak face to face instead of phone to phone, to become a fuller person through the relationships only urban life can engender — that drew and kept him here.
“This city makes me happier because of the environment we live in,” Elicker said. “I’m excited about the person New Haven has helped me become.
If elected, the task Elicker will face is how to ensure that all residents of New Haven, whether they live in East Rock or Newhallville, can feel the same way about their city.
A meet-and-greet. A master’s tea. A roundtable. A casual Cross Campus chat.
These events share a goal: They seek to engage Yalies politically. But beyond variations in the cookies served and questions asked, they seem like nothing more than slightly different shades of schmooze.
Elicker. Fernandez. Harp. Carolina. In the all-Democratic New Haven mayoral race, the differences among the four candidates have less to do with policy than personality, so distinct campaigning styles count for a lot. And with a relatively small electorate at play in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the hundreds of votes candidates could win from Yale’s campus are nothing to sneeze at.
On Yale’s campus — where few students follow New Haven politics, let alone have strong opinions on local issues, simply because they don’t see the city as crucial for their everyday services — the candidates often find themselves expounding upon abstract “visions” for the city rather than the details of constituents’ concerns.
But those visions are not so different. Each campaign stresses the holy trinity of jobs, education and public safety, and all hope to unify a city divided by race and class.
Jason Bartlett, campaign manager for Toni Harp ARC ’78: “Toni Harp’s message to bring the city together is universal. Her emphasis on education, jobs and the economy is universal.”
Emma Janger ’15, a Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 supporter who runs her candidate’s campaign on campus: “I think from the conversations I’ve seen Henry have with students, his vision still centers on jobs and education and public safety.”
Rafi Bildner ’16, fundraising consultant for the Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 campaign: “The issues are education, safety and developing New Haven as a 21st century city.”
Kristin Horneffer ’14, volunteer for Kermit Carolina: “It’s all about ending the cycle of poverty, which by extension ends crime.”
Each campaign rep said they think their candidate can best tackle those issues.
So with the campaigns stressing skills over substance, whether a candidate chooses to talk to students at a meet-and-greet, a master’s tea, a roundtable or while hanging around on Cross Campus can tell us something about the personalities in this race — and what really separates them.
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Drew Morrison ’14, president of “Yale for Elicker,” thinks word-of-mouth is the best way to sell his candidate around campus. “We have a pretty good contingent of about 20 people in the operation. Having them ask their friends — that’s the most effective conversations.” Morrison sees the ground zero of the campaign as the few Yale students who’ve made some intimate acquaintance with the city, whether through volunteering or because they are local. Their enthusiasm infects others.
“People who have friends who are involved and who see the passion in their friends: that’s the basis of our campaign,” Morrison said.
To the skeptic, Morrison’s analysis might seem to betray a hands-off complacency in Elicker’s campaign strategy. While three of the four mayoral candidates are Yale alumni, Elicker is the most recent graduate. His five-year career as a Foreign Service Officer in the State Department is the kind of experience many Yalies would love to boast at 37. He is the only white candidate in the race. And because Elicker is the alderman for East Rock — a relatively affluent ward home to many Yale graduate students and professors — some suspect that he assumes implicit backing from the privileged institution in the center of, but in sharp contrast to, this poverty-plagued city.
Bildner puts a different spin on his candidate’s natural connection to Yalies. Like them, Bilder said, Elicker is a bit of a nerd.
“I think Yale students respond well to Justin not because of what he looks like, but because when they ask him a question, he gives them a real policy-based response based in facts and figures,” Bildner said. And responding to questions about how Elicker’s privilege may endear him to Yalies, Morrison said he thinks Yale students are the voters most willing to confront Elicker about issues of race and class. “Yale students are willing to ask him, ‘Hey, you’re a middle class white person from a wealthy neighborhood,” he said.
Elicker has the most visible undergraduate campaign operation of all the candidates. Even a likely Fernandez voter like Zunaira Arshad ’17 conceded that the people who signed her up to vote were associated with the Elicker campaign.
That’s something the campaign likes to tout. Bildner said that both at last Saturday’s meet-and-greet in Dwight Hall, and at Elicker’s appearance at Bagel Brunch at the Slifka Center, many students told him Elicker was the first candidate they had seen.
Elicker’s campus campaign strategy is a one-two punch of visibility and chatter that embodies what Bildner pegs as the alderman’s central promise: “a transparent and open style of government” epitomized by the responsiveness Elicker claims to have demonstrated as alderman and the way he delegates responsibilities on the campaign trail. Bildner, who has worked on previous Democratic campaigns including President Obama’s, said the Elicker campaign was the first time he found himself in a room of volunteers where “each one is working almost as a senior campaign staffer.”
But it looks like there is an inverse formula in this race between political experience in the city and grassroots campaigning. Elicker is young compared to his chief rivals; he has spent fewer years as an elected official. So folksy as it might seem, his being accessible to students exposes Elicker’s limited political currency on the New Haven scene.
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But if Elicker is the new kid on the block and acts that way, his tactics are very different from those of the establishment candidate: Harp. Experience is her catchword — and campus engagement far from a priority.
A 20-year veteran of the Connecticut state legislature who spent 10 years as chairman of the state senate appropriations committee, Harp has won powerful endorsements (like that of Democratic Senator Chris Murphy) and leads the pack in fundraising. Arguing that her work at the state level has qualified her to manage the crumbling city budget, Harp presents herself to Democratic voters as a major-league player. But coupled with her unmatched union support, that state-level experience has painted Harp as a classic machine politician.
At Yale, that’s how Harp is understood. Her marginal contact with university students — largely limited to work with Students Unite Now, an undergraduate ally of the Unite Here unions — is defined by a high-priestly manner students may not find relatable. Though Harp leads Elicker and Fernandez in almost every other institutional aspect, her campaign has no official student presence.
David Steiner ’16, who attended a Labor Day lunch at Timothy Dwight college with Harp and aldermanic candidates Ella Wood ’15, Jeannette Morrison and Sarah Eidelson ’12, said Harp’s appearance with those three aldermanic candidates — along with their four-way endorsement at the event — underscored her SUN and union associations. Steiner said he found Harp detached.
“While her lengthy resume is worth highlighting, she didn’t relate that experience to the audience members’ interests,” he said. Steiner, an undecided voter, said that instead of discussing Yale-related matters, Harp focused on youth issues, including the closure of the Q House in Dixwell.
Just as the candidate did at the Timothy Dwight luncheon, Harp’s campaign tries to win Yalies over by linking her to aldermanic candidates who do — or seek to — represent Yalies. That tactic reeks of chummy establishment politics — something the other three candidates say Harp is guilty of. Renita Heng ’16, a Silliman resident, recalled canvassers coming to her room to first talk up alderwoman Morrison and then Harp. “Experience kept on coming up,” Heng said.
It may be that Harp simply finds Yale’s institutional hulk less intimidating than the other candidates do. She is not as worried about causing offense. While Steiner recalled Harp talking about working with Yale’s president to secure funds for the city, her campaign manager, Bartlett, does not mince his words when speaking about the University. On balancing union concerns with Yale’s, a key issue given Harp’s union backing and what she could gain from Yale votes, Bartlett said, “I don’t know what kind of balancing act Yale expects. Harp’s been pretty clear that Yale has to do more, that we support New Haven Works and we expect Yale to participate in that program. We think that more New Haven residents should get jobs at Yale, both at the university and the hospital.”
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Henry Fernandez has some good friends at Yale. The former economic development administrator for the city and Law School grad was once an associate fellow at Ezra Stiles college. As of Wednesday, he has been hosted at two Master’s teas there. Janger, who founded “Yale for Fernandez” earlier this semester, explained that Ezra Stiles master Stephen Pitti ’91 and his wife, American studies and ethnicity, race and migration professor Alicia Camacho, are good friends with Fernandez and his wife, Kica Matos. Janger said the two couples have worked together at Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven organization that focuses on immigrant rights where Matos was formerly the executive director.
Pitti said that Ezra Stiles footed the bill for the most recent Fernandez event, which he estimated to be $70. This raises questions about whether that financial cost was an implicit endorsement of Fernandez and then whether Yale and its administrators must remain impartial in New Haven elections. When Elicker hosted his meet-and-greet in Dwight Hall, his supporters distributed flyers noting that the campaign had rented out the space. But in an email to the News, Pitti argued that “as one of the strong candidates for mayor, [Fernandez] deserves the attention of students and others.”
Fernandez has said that the master’s tea was Pitti’s initiative. Regardless of whose plan it was, Fernandez gained a chance to address scores of students.
Fernandez is also rumored to draw support from his alma mater: the law school.
Perhaps those institutional ties explain why Fernandez’s effort on campus has less to do with student-led grassroots organizing than Elicker’s. Instead, Fernandez has made a number of formal appearances on campus, including the two master’s teas and an event last week with actor Danny Glover at the Afro-American Cultural House.
Fernandez’s decision to host that event is a testament to what Danielle Filson, a senior at the University of Connecticut who serves as Fernandez’s communications director, sees as her candidate’s greatest strength: his diversity. The son of an African-American father and white mother, husband to a Puerto Rican woman and father to a Spanish-speaker, Fernandez is a mosaic of the city’s many communities, his supporters believe. “He embodies New Haven,” Filson said.
While Elicker has gone to some lengths to emphasize his independence from Yale — he recently opposed the sale of portions of High and Wall streets to the University — Fernandez and his staff are more secure in balancing their candidate’s University links with his New Haven identity. One proposal Filson was quick to tout was a plan to open a school principal training program at the Yale School of Management.
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There is one more candidate. Kermit Carolina will not win this election. But Kristin Horneffer ’14, who works for his campaign and said she is the only Yalie she knows to be doing so, does not think victory is the point. Carolina is the champion of those who do not vote, she said. “He’s trying,” Horneffer explained, “to mobilize a group that’s known not to have a voice in New Haven politics — the poorer residents of the city, residents of the inner city, including the blocks surrounding Yale.”
That group, Horneffer admitted, “is socially, economically and emotionally really separate from Yale students.”
Yale students are the inverse: New Haven residents who could have a voice but often choose not to. Each campaign must be innovative to win Yale voters who could be valuable to them come Tuesday. “Getting any college student interested in politics on a local level is a challenge,” Harp’s Bartlett said. “I think they’re focused on national politics. To transition to local politics — unless they’re New Haven residents — that takes some work.”
And while Bartlett conceded that some issues, like gun violence, lay at the intersection of national and local politics, the challenge in attracting student voters lies primarily in the fact that this election is circumscribed to Democrats in a very specific geographic area. The national range of opinions does not translate well to city politics. The extreme partisan rhetoric that dominates national politics will have no bearing on this election. If something national will affect the race, Janger said, it will be immigration reform, an issue where Fernandez stands far to the left of other candidates.
And while Janger noted that presidential politics do play a role in one way — many students are already registered to vote from last year’s presidential election — there were many during that season of disillusion who did not register for a party, or who do not remember if they registered as Democrats or independents. That means many student will be ineligible to vote in the decisive Democratic primary.
But Bildner remains optimistic. “Yes,” he admitted, “there’s a small group of students who are really knowledgeable about the issues and are involved in the campaigns, but it’s a very easy pitch in this election because of how important it is … everyone seems to be willing to listen — everyone to whom we say, ‘Listen, this election is huge,’ is willing to at least register.”
The hard part comes next.
At 7 p.m. tomorrow, Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 will announce his candidacy for mayor at Manjares, a restaurant on Whalley Avenue, Elicker said in a phone call to the News today.
Elicker will give a speech explaining his reasons for running and his goals as mayor. Current Mayor John DeStefano Jr. was the first person to declare his candidacy in the 2013 race, and if he wins, will serve an 11th term. Sundiata Keitazulu, a plumber and New Haven native, was the second person to officially enter the race. State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield set up an exploratory committee in December, a step that usually leads to an official candidacy.
When Elicker first discussed the possibility of entering the mayoral race last November, he said he wanted to increase transparency in the city and improve the “lack of trust” that New Haven citizens currently have in government.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. may have another challenger in the upcoming mayoral race.
Sundiata Keitazulu, a 55-year-old plumber and Elm City native, has declared his candidacy for the top spot in New Haven, becoming the second person — after DeStefano himself— to file papers with the city clerk and officially declare his candidacy .
[DeStefano has] had 20 years to alleviate the problem,” Keitazulu told the New Haven Independent. “He hasn’t done it … I know what the people need and what they want.”
Connecticut Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield and Ward 10 alderman Justin Elicker have also expressed interest in running against DeStefano and taking the helm of the Elm City.
Keitazulu said his goal is to alleviate poverty, increase police presence in Newhallville and create vocational-technical schools. He added that he thinks President Lyndon B. Johnson was the best U.S. president because Johnson understands the fight against poverty.
“Yale can afford its own police department,” he said while explaining that New Haven should expand its policing efforts beyond downtown New Haven. “The inner cities, we’ve been left out in the cold.”
In addition, in the Independent, Keitazulu gave a shoutout to one of his heroes: his third-grade teacher at Lincoln-Bassett School, Miss Moore.