New Haven was a tale of two bars on the night of Tuesday, September 10, 2019. The atmosphere of 50 Fitch Tavern was marked by somber, expected silence as Mayor Toni Harp announced that she had just called primary challenger Justin Elicker, FES ’10, SOM ’10, former Alderman of Ward 10, to concede the Democratic primary election for mayor of New Haven. She proceeded to thank her supporters for all their hard work canvassing and making phone calls. After speaking for less than two minutes, Mayor Harp withdrew from the scene.
Meanwhile, Justin Elicker, the Democratic mayoral nominee for New Haven, arrived at Trinity Bar on Orange Street to a roar of electrified cheers of “Justin! Justin!” to which Elicker excitedly responded, “We won! We won!”
In a speech to supporters, Elicker expressed gratitude for his team and a desire to work with everyone in the city — even those who had supported his opponent, like Superintendent Carol Birks. During his speech, Elicker said his team had now received “a clear mandate for New Haven to have a government that is ethical, that is responsive to the people, that is accessible, and one that will point this city in the direction in which every single resident will thrive.”
Tuesday night was not the first contest between Mayor Harp and Elicker. In 2013, both ran to fill the seat vacated by Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. Then a State Senator and former New Haven Alderwoman, Harp was seen as the likely successor to DeStefano, gaining the endorsements of Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, as well as New Haven Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. Elicker, a representative on the Board of Alders, was viewed as a challenger to the establishment. With support from major party leaders, Harp won the primary with a plurality of 49.8% of the Democratic vote in a field of five candidates. Elicker would then decide to run as an unaffiliated candidate in the 2013 general election in November, closing the margin between him and Harp from 25 points in the primary to less than six percentage points.
Mayor Harp would go on to be reelected both in 2015 and 2017 with little opposition, running on a platform of economic development and raising graduation rates. However, Mayor Harp’s third term would not play out as smoothly as her first two terms. Plagued by FBI investigations into embezzlement by staff at City Hall, administrative mismanagement of the Board of Education, and increasing levels of lead in the city’s water system, Harp found herself at the center of scandal after scandal. The negative press emanating from City Hall opened the doors to a possible primary challenge to Mayor Harp. Nora Heaphy, MC ’21, a concerned New Haven resident, was frustrated by the Harp administration’s carelessness regarding the Board of Education (BoE), expressing her unease at how “Harp and her appointees on the BoE have pushed for policies that move funding away from the classroom and towards Central Office consultants.” Heaphy commented, “It matters to me that Elicker has two children in the New Haven Public School system and is pushing for a more transparent, democratic, and accountable city government and BoE.”
Harp’s troubled third term culminated in Tuesday night’s upset. Little love was lost between the two candidates, who had verbally attacked one another frequently on the campaign trail. Mayor Harp often found herself on the defensive for accepting donations from developers and for her appointments to the BoE and Superintendent’s office. Sarah Miller, a longtime New Haven resident and a volunteer on Elicker’s 2013 and 2019 campaigns, argued that Harp probably would have fared better with voters if she had acknowledged her mistakes. “Issue after issue, there’s just been this denial that these issues have been happening,” Miller said. “Don’t act like everything is fine when everything is not fine.”
In the aftermath, Elicker found himself on top at the polls by almost 2,000 votes at the end of Tuesday night. When interviewed by the Herald on Wednesday, Elicker promised that as mayor he would organize and lead a staff that reflected the strength of the Elm City. “There hasn’t been effective leadership in every department to implement effective change,” Elicker said. “The most important thing for me is to get a good team in place that represents the diversity and expertise of the city.” Elicker specifically noted problems with the City’s budget and education system. He emphasized these same two points on the campaign trail, promising to appoint qualified and experienced representatives to the BoE and to keep the city fiscally afloat.
However, Elicker was careful not to count his victory as sealed just yet. “I don’t want to be presumptuous,” Elicker explained, when asked whether or not he expected Harp to run in November. While Mayor Harp did lose the Democratic primary on Tuesday night to Elicker, she still has the option to remain in the race as the candidate for the Working Families Party in the November election.
“It would certainly be difficult for [Harp] to win,” Elicker offered when asked if he thought about another challenge from Mayor Harp. Elicker is well-versed in the difficulty of third party, unaffiliated campaigns. In 2013, after losing to Harp in the primary, he attempted to run as an unaffiliated candidate — only to lose again by 1,800 votes. While unaffiliated campaigns are typically unsuccessful, they are not impossible. New Haven County is not unfamiliar with such campaigns. In 2005, Michael Jarjura won reelection as Mayor of Waterbury, a city just over 20 miles outside of New Haven.
But is Mayor Harp willing to risk a second political loss? Mayor Harp has already marred much of her legacy in her third term, and to run for another three months could serve as little more than a reminder of the scandals that have plagued her latest administration.
In order to achieve victory, Mayor Harp will need to leverage the votes of the 16,000 unaffiliated and 2,000 Republican registered voters in the City. Considering Mayor Harp’s progressive record — sanctuary city legislation, liberal taxation policies–as well as her plagued third term and Elicker’s success in 2013 with the general electorate, it is unlikely that Mayor Harp would fare well in the general election. Following her loss on Tuesday, neither Mayor Harp nor her campaign offered any definitive statement as to whether the mayor would continue her campaign following the Tuesday loss.
Even if Mayor Harp chooses not to run in the general election, Elicker will still need to defeat three unaffiliated candidates in November to become the 51st Mayor of New Haven. But Elicker’s toughest challenge will come if he wins the mayor’s race as he will be expected to solve the city’s education and financial woes. During a debate with Harp at Sudler Hall, Elicker promised major revisions to the New Haven public school systems, including bringing in more experienced and qualified mayoral appointments and even potentially replacing Superintendent Carol Birks. In respect to New Haven’s financial troubles, Elicker will need to carefully balance between raising taxes and cutting costs to right the financial ship. The moment Elicker is sworn in, the clock will start ticking towards the 2021 election, and in two years time, he may well find himself in the same precarious position as Mayor Harp.