Campaign transparency and grassroots campaigning: what propelled Elicker to his 2019 mayoral victory?
Justin Elicker’s grassroots campaign in the tense 2019 mayoral election centered on equitably distributing the fruits of New Haven’s growth, promoting fiscal responsibility and increasing Yale’s contribution to the city.
Former Ward 10 Alder Justin Elicker ousted three-term incumbent Toni Harp on Election Day in 2019, beating the former mayor by a 40-point margin.
Elicker’s victory in the general election came after months of fiery campaigning against Harp along his grassroots campaign trail. After an unsuccessful run against Harp for mayor in 2013, Elicker tried again. This time, he secured a 16-point win over Harp in the September Democratic primary, launching him to victory in November.
In true grassroots fashion, Elicker’s campaign released its first television advertisement in early September, months after Harp. He instead elected to spend most of his time on the campaign trail knocking on voters’ doors. In an interview with the News the night of his primary win, Elicker said this strategy paid off.
“I’m really excited — we’ve been working toward this moment for more than nine months, knocking on doors around the city, talking with residents about what they care about and sharing the message of this campaign,” Elicker said at the time. “I think tonight’s results show that people are ready for change.”
Central to Elicker’s campaign was a tale of two New Havens: a growing and prosperous downtown and the lower-income neighborhoods that have benefitted less from urban development. Promising to combat gentrification, bolster job training programs and negotiate with Yale to more than quadruple its voluntary contribution to New Haven, Elicker vowed to promote equitable progress throughout the city.
Elicker, who previously represented Ward 10 for four years and served as executive director of the environmental non-profit New Haven Land Trust, positioned himself as the progressive antidote to a bureaucratic Harp administration. Throughout Harp’s third term, her administration faced backlash for financial mismanagement and organizational issues.
Representative of what some supporters praised as campaign transparency, Elicker participated in the New Haven Democracy Fund, the city’s public financing initiative. The fund limits campaign donors to a maximum of $370 in total donations, providing grants and matching funds to the campaign in return. In the first quarter of 2019, Elicker received donations from 727 unique donors with a majority of those contributions ranging from $10 to $50. He previously participated in the fund during his first run for mayor in 2013. Harp never participated in the Democracy Fund.
Tanya Wiedeking, a voter in the primary, told the News that she was impressed by Elicker’s expansive grassroots campaign.
“No vote is taken for granted, even in neighborhoods where you’d predict Elicker would win,” Wiedeking said. “There’s a lot of care going into getting out the vote.”
A primary game
Elicker and Harp first competed for the Mayor’s Office in 2013. Harp beat Elicker in a four-way Democratic primary, earning about 49.8 percent of the vote to Elicker’s 23.2 percent. He challenged her again as an independent in the general election. In the November general election, Elicker lost to Harp by almost 1,800 votes, or about 10 percent of the vote.
After having served on the city’s Board of Alders and two decades representing Connecticut’s 10th district in the state senate, Harp was inaugurated as New Haven’s first female and second Black mayor in January 2014. While in office, Harp championed projects including the New Haven Promise scholarship program, reviving the Dixwell Q House and the creation of the New Haven Botanical Garden of Healing Dedicated to Victims of Gun Violence.
Her career in public service was recognized with praise from local officials and community members as her official mayoral portrait was unveiled in City Hall last May.
Harp faced little competition in her two following re-election campaigns in 2015 and 2017. But indications of a heated race appeared early in the 2019 election cycle. During her third term, Harp’s administration faced public scrutiny over corruption scandals, a dysfunctional Board of Education, increased property taxes, staff pay raises and undisclosed five-figure expenses amid the city’s mounting financial crisis.
In early March, Elicker filed a complaint with the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission against Harp’s 2017 campaign committee for 13 alleged violations of state campaign finance laws. This followed a report from the New Haven Register that Harp’s 2017 campaign had large gaps in its donor records, leading the campaign to settle its finances and close its accounting file over a year after the election had ended.
In defending her administration against charges of financial mismanagement, Harp pointed towards the poor financial conditions she inherited and the “tough decisions” she faced as mayor. Along the campaign trail, Harp came under fire for giving raises to the top aides in her administration. She contended that without the raises, her staff would make less than employees represented by AFSCME Local 1344, the union for the city’s professional and management employees.
During the summer of 2019, the Harp administration faced allegations of quietly loosening lead paint regulations and protections, disproportionately harming low-income and under-resourced communities. The Mayor’s Office denied this allegation. Then, in June, FBI agents subpoenaed a city official and requested records involving three city projects.
Harp, a labor union favorite, particularly among Yale’s Local 34 and Local 35, launched a series of targeted attacks against Elicker during the summer of 2019. In these ads, Harp noted her support for the Yale unions while labeling Elicker as incompetent. Comparing him to Donald Trump, Harp framed Elicker’s campaign as one serving only wealthy, white New Haveners.
Nonetheless, Elicker outraised Harp by more than a 4-1 margin in the first quarter of fundraising. In interviews with the News, primary voters noted increased engagement with voters across both campaigns, referencing an aggressive get-out-the-vote charge through texts, calls and canvassing.
Prior to the primary, Elicker found devoted supporters within the Yale community. A team of Yale College students led by Jacob Malinowski ’20 assisted Elicker’s campaign by making phone calls, preparing him for debates and knocking on doors.
Gage Frank, Elicker’s campaign manager, emphasized Yale students’ importance to the campaign.
“I don’t think we would have been able to reach the student body in the way that we did [otherwise],” Frank said. “It’s hard to send a random volunteer to knock on doors on a college campus. We needed to have people who, for example, knew the layout of the campus, where to find people, and where to set up our voter registration tables. It was really a great operation.”
Student organization Yale College Democrats also endorsed Elicker as the Democratic Party nominee, citing campaign transparency and Elicker’s push to hold Yale accountable to New Haven.
On Sept. 10, 2019, New Haven Democrats voted for Elicker as their mayoral nominee, beating Harp by 16 points.
“People were not asking for just any change,” Elicker told the News in an interview after his primary victory. “They wanted a City Hall that was accessible, that listens to what people’s concerns are and acts on those concerns.”
The election was widely framed as a call for change and voters’ repudiation of the controversies that rocked Harp’s third term.
Although Harp repeatedly defended her administration’s financial efficacy and emphasized the progress made under her tenure, such as a reduction in crime rates across the city and an increase in the city’s graduation rate, many voters signaled a desire for new leadership.
“I’m grateful in my heart of hearts for the ability that I’ve had to serve the people of New Haven,” Harp said as she spoke to her supporters in her concession speech.
Primary voters told the News that Elicker demonstrated his commitment to the city through his work on the Board of Alders and the New Haven Land Trust since his initial candidacy in 2013. Mary Ann Moran, a voter in Ward 15, said that Elicker had been “very visible with the Land Trust” and showed that he was “committed to the neighborhoods.”
While Elicker struggled to connect with low-income and minority communities in 2013, he increased his vote share across all wards in 2019.
The final showdown
In a Democratic stronghold like New Haven, the outcome of a race for office is often determined by the primary. A week after her loss, Harp publicly suspended her campaign. However, later that fall, she renewed her candidacy, running under the Working Families Party, a progressive pro-labor organization.
After securing the Democratic nomination, Elicker amassed public support from those who previously supported Harp and elected officials representing New Haven in the national legislature, such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal. In late October, the New Haven Register endorsed Elicker, switching candidates after previously endorsing Harp in the primary.
Although the 2019 mayoral race was already a tense campaign, with both candidates levying heavy attacks, the weeks leading up to the general election were particularly contentious. Harp and her supporters accused Elicker and his campaign of spreading misinformation. They also criticized the Democratic Town Committee for abandoning Harp, a longtime party member, after the Committee switched endorsements. Following the primary, Elicker did not mention Harp during his public campaign.
During the general election, Elicker’s campaign employed the same political strategies as it did during the primary, including door knocking, canvassing and calling, particularly focusing on non-Democrat New Haveners. The Yale College team, led by Malinowski, grew in size in preparation for the general election.
Though Elicker appeared the likely mayor, Malinowski told the News, “the election’s still important for us to get Yale students to vote, get them engaged and keep them engaged in the city to bridge the Yale-New Haven divide.”
Elicker won the general election by 40 points on Nov. 5, 2019, winning 27 of 30 wards — 11 of which flipped between the primary and general elections.
“I pledge to you tonight that I’m not going to be mayor just for the people in this room — I’m going to be mayor for every single person in this city,” Elicker told a cheering crowd at his victory party. “I will be mayor no matter what you look like, where you came from, how much money you have, what kind of political connections you have — I will represent you and I pledge that here tonight.”