For Many Black Women, Harp’s Win Is Theirs, Too

Melissa Bailey Photo“Auntie Doris” remembers when her mother was barred from even voting. Tuesday she led young students on a civics lesson at the polls to watch her not only cast her ballot—but do so for the city’s first black female mayor.

Doris E. Blackmon led the lesson Tuesday, as voters elected Toni Harp as the first female, and first African-American female, mayor of New Haven.

For many African-American women like Blackmon, the day held particular poignancy. They saw their own dreams realized, saw another barrier broken in history’s uneven, gradual march of progress.

Blackmon, who’s 82, hails from Greenville, S.C. She moved to New Haven at age 16 and spent her life working in factories. Now she volunteers at the Harris and Tucker school, a pre-school and after-school program in Newhallville.

On Tuesday, Blackmon led nine kids on a walk from the school at Newhall and Goodrich Streets to her polling place at the Lincoln-Bassett School. She told kids how her mother was born into a world where blacks and whites were segregated and women couldn’t vote. Her mom was born in 1898, 22 years before women gained the right to vote.

Blackmon led the kids right into the voting booth, where she cast her vote for Toni Harp. Kids, aged 5 to 9, had the day off because of the election. They took part in a scavenger hunt of sorts, counting the number of booths and the number of poll workers.

Outside, school director Kim Harris grilled them on the mayoral candidates’ names.

“Toni Harp,” blurted out student Kim Gulley.

Kids had trouble with the second candidate’s name: “Eck ... Eck ... Eck-Obama!” (The correct answer: Justin Elicker, the petitioning candidate for mayor.)

“The world have changed quite a bit,” Blackmon said while standing outside the school. In 2008, voters showed up in droves to elect the nation’s first black president. She said electing a black woman to the city’s top position represents a new frontier in a historic quest for civil rights.

“It means everything to me,” she said.

The potential to make history was top in the minds of African-American women at the Elks Club Tuesday, which Harp’s campaign converted into a neighborhood headquarters.

Gwen Newton (pictured) joined about 40 campaign workers trying to boost voter turnout by making calls for Harp. Newton is a trailblazer herself: In 1969, she became the city’s second African-American female alderman. She joined the board as part of the “Magnificent 7” of independent-minded candidates on the board.  Newton said she has known Harp for 40 years, ever since Harp came to New Haven four decades ago to attend graduate school at Yale.

Newton said that as a woman, Harp will bring a more “compassionate” style of leadership to City Hall.

“She is the epitome of all of the things that we want to accomplish,” said Jan Parker (pictured), a longtime Democratic activist. Her husband, Hank Parker, once sought to become New Haven’s first black mayor. He did serve as state treasurer.

Two decades ago, Harp became the state’s second African-American female state senator.

Parker said Harp’s career calls to mind pioneering politicians like Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to U.S. Congress, and Barbara Jordan, the first southern black woman elected to Congress.

“Toni is the Sojourner Truth of the women’s movement,” she said.

When Harp walked into the room at 2:40 p.m., fellow campaign volunteer Naomi Campbell pulled out her Galaxy 4S and snapped a photo of the candidate hugging state Department on Aging chief Edith Prague.

Campbell, who’s 61, took the day off from her job as a surgical technician at Yale-New Haven Hospital Tuesday to work for Harp’s campaign. She said she supports Harp because “I believe that Toni can get the job done.”

“This will be the first time in history that we will have a woman” leading the city, she added.

That’s a good thing, she said: “We women want to be heard. We want a voice. We want a voice!”

Campbell said that as a woman, Harp will be a “better listener.”

“Sometimes men hear us, but they don’t hear us,” she explained.

Campbell said as she said her morning prayers Tuesday, she added a plea for Harp to win. “I’m glad that I was able to be part of this, to be able to be part of history.”

Harp then stopped to receive a handmade scarf from Vivian Fripp-Elbert, who runs sewing classes with women in recovery at Church of the Rock. Fripp-Elbert said Harp has been a customer over the years of her scarves. On Election Day, she made the candidate a red, white and blue scarf.

Fripp-Elbert, who’s 65, said she has gained inspiration from Harp, who’s just a year older. Seeing that a woman her age can run for mayor has inspired Fripp-Elbert to go back to college at age 65 to earn her bachelor’s degree in social work, she said.

“If she’s running for mayor, I can get up and get my degree!” Fripp-Elbert said. “She’s making a way for other women to reach their goals.”

Harp said that has been one effect she did not think of when she launched her mayoral bid. She said she notices it most when she’s around little girls. “They get so excited when they see me. They know it opens the door for them.” She said she’s proving not only that a woman can be mayor, but that girls can “be anything they want to be.”

“It makes me realize that I’m not only doing this for specific goals,” such as safe streets and better schools. “I’m also doing it so that the perception of girls can be changed.”

In Newhallville, Auntie Doris said she didn’t know what kind of leadership a woman will bring because “we’ve never seen it.”

Harp named two qualities she shares with women: They “are more collaborative,” and “believe in building consensus.”

If a woman runs a household with a husband and kids, as Harp did, “your whole life is around building consensus and getting a group of people to move in a direction,” she said.

In Morris Cove, A Different View On History

Over in the Morris Cove, where Elicker crushed Harp Tuesday, voters weren’t sold on the historic opportunity presented by Harp’s candidacy.

In the neighborhood, which is mostly white, voters said they were looking for change. But they weren’t talking about electing the first ever Affrican-American female mayor.

“Elicker all the way,” said Beth Rockmill as she left Nathan Hale School, Ward 18’s polling place. She said she had just cast her vote for Elicker.

“I’d love to have a black woman mayor,” she said. But Elicker is “smart and good” and a “great guy.”

Thomas MacMillan PhotoKyle Craven, who’s 23, said he voted for Elicker. He was one of several East Shore voters who stumbled over the candidate’s name. He also didn’t realize that Elicker hadn’t grown up in New Haven.

“He knows the community,” Craven said of Elicker. Of Harp: “I don’t like her. She doesn’t see the whole picture.”

Craven predicted Harp would “get the popular vote by race,” that people would vote for her because she is black. Craven, who is white, said his vote for Elicker wasn’t based on race.  “I saw what he can do for the community.”

Maurice Evans, who’s black, said his vote for Harp also wasn’t based on race. Her being the first black female mayor is “not really a big deal,” he said.

Evans, a 44-year-old employee of the state Department of Social Services, said he voted for Harp because of her experience at the state level. She understands the “inner workings” of the government.

Other Morris Cove voters spoke about their choice for mayor only on condition of anonymity. An anonymous couple said they voted for Elicker to “give him a chance.”

“He’s more informed about government,” the man said. “He’s been in Washington.”

He said Harp is “devious” and he doubts if she even lives in New Haven. “If someone is devious, why would you want them in government?”

As for Harp being the first black female mayor, the man said, “Does that still mean something today? When are they going to stop this nonsense?”

A candidate’s race and gender don’t matter “in this day and age,” said Chris Dowling a 42-year old Republican. Dowling said he voted for Elicker because there were no Republicans in the race.

Mark Cowell used the same phrase to dismiss the race question: “In this day and age, especially up in the Northeast, it’s really not that significant.”

Women have “come a long way,” and the country has a mixed-race president, Cowell said.

Thomas MacMillan contributed reporting.

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posted by: plannerman on November 6, 2013  10:39am

Congratulations to Mayor-elect Harp.

Throughout this campaign, I supported Justin Elicker, but now that the votes are in, let’s not have any sour grapes. It was a hard fought election; there were significant differences of style and substance between the two candidates. And it is historic that New Haven has elected its first woman mayor—that is something to be celebrated.

I hope that Mayor Harp will surprise me by taking a forward-looking, innovative approach to governing. That her stable of decades-long insiders will be able to accelerate New Haven’s present upward arc.

My consolations to Justin and his core team. They worked their butts off, against an uphill climb of endorsements, union organization, and money. I’m proud of what they accomplished, if disappointed in the result.

I still think Justin would have made a better mayor—he really is a different kind of leader than the old-school politico that Harp seems to be. He reminded me of how we can be inspired by self-government at the local scale. I image that Harps supporters felt the same kind of inspiration.

I’ve come to be a strong supporter of unions, and left-political activism in general—so the union support for Harp was particularly difficult to process. I’ve had to wrestle with my own thinking, and that has been good. I think they backed the wrong horse for the city in the long run. It will be interesting to see how things go…

As heated as the boards have become, I hope that we can work together in the future to make New Haven a better place.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 6, 2013  12:13pm

For the Kool-Aid drinkers.In the end, we return to the question, just how much do you love truth? Do you really love truth or are you just curious? Do you love it enough to rebuild your understanding to conform to a reality that doesn’t fit your current beliefs, and doesn’t feel 120% happy? Do you love truth enough to continue seeking even when it hurts, when it reveals aspects of yourself (or human society, or the universe) that are shocking, complex and disturbing, or humbling, glorious and amazing – or even, when truth is far beyond human mind itself? Just how much do we love truth? It’s a good question to ask ourselves, I think.”
- Scott Mandelker

The truth is the money machine was elected.

posted by: Carrington on November 6, 2013  12:17pm

Sadly, it’s a rare election where my spouse and I ‘cancel each other out’ when we go to the polls. 

This was one of them, and—I have to say—it was fun walking to the polls.

posted by: Citizen X on November 6, 2013  12:31pm

So the guy in this story attributes black people as voting for a black candidate being based solely on race, but doesn’t want his vote for a white guy to be attributed to race.

I think that lack of awareness was what fueled the Elicker campaign and I hope that folks can reflect on that.

posted by: anonymous on November 6, 2013  12:43pm


As a strong supporter of unions, I agree with your caution in this situation.  But if New Haven’s political history since the 1980s is any indication, this coalition is likely to break apart very quickly. That could be a good thing, if only because it will represent another opportunity for people to get engaged. 

In the meantime, hopefully Mayor Harp can lead the city to some better decisions, and marginalize the leaders within her coalition whose primary strategy has involved bullying and intimidation. 

I also agree that electing more women is a noble goal—just as is electing more young people (especially young men of color), people with disabilities, immigrants, and other marginalized groups, who are as underrepresented as women are, if not more.  I hope that Mayor Harp will be a much more visible presence on the streets of our city than she has been in the past, where she can inspire other women, of all ages, with her stories.

Harp can also help inspire more women by hiring more young people - of people working in positions of authority in government right now, how many other than Rob Smuts are under the age of 40?  Most of New Haven is under 30. We wonder why our young people, men and women, are unemployed and disconnected, but then do nothing to address the root cause.

posted by: East Rocker 1986 on November 6, 2013  12:50pm

Anybody who votes for or against a candidate with a primary voting contention being that candidate’s race really isn’t mature enough to be voting.

A candidate’s character, experience, and voting history should determine your vote, not the color of the skin, their sex, or even the letter next to their name.

posted by: robn on November 6, 2013  2:06pm


I wanted to fact check you with census data and its very interesting…NH’s median age is 29 and just about 50% of the population is under 30. Its startling through that CT as a whole isn’t that far behind with about 40% of the population under 30.
But CT also ranks #12 among states for the largest percentage of people over 65.

posted by: HewNaven on November 6, 2013  2:12pm


That’s pretty right on. Young people gave away this election, just like every other. If they expect better representation they need to show up on election day. If we want them to show up on election day we have to do a better job reaching them. Bit of a Catch 22 it seems.

posted by: Razzie on November 6, 2013  3:32pm

@ Anon

Lets see: “...this coalition is likely to break apart very quickly:
        “ will represent another opportunity for people to get engaged
        “...marginalize the leaders within her coalition whose primary strategy has involved bullying and intimidation        
          “....I hope that Mayor Harp will be a much more visible presence on the streets of our city

I want to thank you for your very gracious words of congratulations. During the course of this campaign we have heard quite o bit of your views and wishes for the City, as wel as your complete and utter personal dislike of candidate Harp. My hope is that we can rise above your nastiness and include some of your ideas havng merit in our future planning. Peace.

posted by: TheMadcap on November 6, 2013  6:43pm

I didn’t vote for Harp, but still, you have to be super white to not understand how the city’s first female mayor who is also black is symbolically a big deal to a lot of people.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on November 7, 2013  12:18pm

It seems like most, if not all of the people interviewed for this article were pretty uninformed about the issues and the candidates’ stances.

In my opinion, Toni Harp being elected as the first Female African-American Mayor is much less significant than her becoming the Democratic Nominee for Mayor.

I beleive in equality of opportunity for all people regardless of race, sexuality, gender or religious beliefs. When people of backgrounds that have traditionally been discriminated against are given equal opportunity - whether it is in the private sector or in government - that is a thing to celebrate because it speaks to society’s progress.

I do not beleive in equality of outcomes based purely on a desire for diversity, however. Qualifications and character should be foremost, but we should work as hard as possible to ensure that everyone reaches their full potential regardless of their background. Therefore, if the opportunity for success exists, then that is all that is relevant - the eventual outcome is irrelevant.

This election demonstrated that opportunity is equal as evidenced by an African American Female candidate being endorsed by the political establishment and receiving her party’s nomination. That’s worth celebrating. Once equality of opportunity has been established then the outcome of the general election should be based solely on merit. I worry that too many people voted in this election who were trying to garantee a symbolic outcome based on race and gender rather than on ideas and character. If this was the case, then it is not something to celebrate or be happy about because it means we haven’t moved as far forward as a society as we originally thought.

Having said that, Harp was a qualified candidate with lots of experience, some good ideas and many supporters who genuinely felt she was the better candidate. I can’t help but wonder though if the campaign had been done in the style of “The Dating Game” if we’d have a different Mayor.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on November 7, 2013  12:25pm

@ Citizen X & TheMadcap:

Well put.

posted by: A Contrarian on November 7, 2013  1:08pm

Jonathan Hopkins:  I’m with you.  And I’d add that getting elected as a State Senator two decades ago was a genuine accomplishment.  Being anointed by one’s party to fill a much lesser job, not so much.