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Champion Debaters Helped Harp, Elicker Behind The Scenes
by Gilad Edelman | Oct 24, 2013 1:13 pm
Posted to: Higher Ed, Campaign 2013
They usually belong to the same team. Tuesday night they served as coaches for opposing sides—and watched their advice take form.
In their bids to win over New Haven voters, both the Justin Elicker and Toni Harp campaigns enlisted the efforts of Yale students who have won national collegiate debate titles. On an evening that included a discussion of whether New Haven would become the next Detroit, it was a reminder of one of the perks of running for office in a city with an Ivy League university: the abundance of talented young people willing to work for free.
(Read about the debate here.)
On team Elicker: Sam Ward-Packard, a Yale College senior, treasurer of the top-ranked Yale Debate Association, and the reigning national champion at British Parliamentary style debate.
On team Harp: the head coach of the YDA, David Vincent Kimel (at right in top photo), a history PhD student who won the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s team of the year award in 2005; and his assistant coach, Alex Taubes (at left), a second-year law student who won the APDA trifecta of team of the year, national championship winner, and speaker of the year in 2011. The Harp team brought him in to take the lead in debate preparations after learning from previous debates that it needed a “fresh perspective” in the room, according to campaign manager Jason Bartlett.
So in an election that has exposed a number of divisions—white versus black, suburbs versus city, rich versus poor—we can add coach versus team member.
Taubes and Ward-Packard (pictured) watched the debate Tuesday night at Gateway Community College, then sat down with me after the debate and give their analysis. (Disclosure: Taubes and I are friends and law school classmates.)
Both volunteers were proud of their candidates’ performance. Ward-Packard, a Wisconsin native who has been working for the Elicker campaign since March (his involvement in the debate prep, he said, was to ask the candidate potential debate questions and critique his responses), said he knew what to expect at this point.
“I’ve been to all but one of the 16 debates,” he said. “The way it played out pretty much matched my expectations.”
Perhaps because he’d seen this show before, he was blunt when asked what Elicker’s worst moment was.
“I thought his answer to the last question was pretty bad,” he said, referring to the moment when Harp asked Elicker to name the state legislative committees that would need to approve one of his proposals. Elicker responded by claiming familiarity with the state government, but didn’t name a committee. Ward-Packard said his candidate shouldn’t have dodged the question.
“I think you admit that you don’t know, and explain why that’s not something that is as important as the things that you do know,” he said. “I think he did the second part, I just think he should have been up front about not knowing. And I’ll tell him that in our post-mortem.”
Before the debate began, Taubes characterized it as a clash between style (Elicker) and substance (Harp). Asked what he thought Harp’s weakest moment was, he had trouble coming up with an answer. I asked about her notably fiery performance, which, between smiles, featured eye rolls and impassioned shouting. Taubes said that although he and Kimel had coached Harp to “have a positive response to the questions, and smile more,” her aggression had played well with the room.
“I think the reason Toni got worked up is that this campaign has been made about her family, and about her son, who was in the audience,” said Taubes, who grew up in Madison. “I think it was a positive. I think the crowd really responded to it.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ward-Packard took a different view. “Toni was very condescending and quite rude, and addressed a lot of her points directly to Justin in a pretty demeaning way, in a mocking way, rolling her eyes a lot,” he said. That kind of delivery, he argued, worked against Harp.
“Justin really has been a lot more classy in the way he’s presented himself. I think that’s important.”
Taubes hadn’t told Ward-Packard about his involvement in the Harp campaign until the afternoon of the debate. Still, the two, who described themselves as good friends, insisted there were no hard feelings.
“Sam is incredibly bright and talented,” said Taubes, before ticking off a list of Ward-Packard’s accomplishments. “I really respect him for getting so involved in New Haven politics.”
“Alex is also a national champion,” Ward-Packard pointed out in rebuttal. “He really does care a lot about this city. I’d be much happier with a Harp administration if he was a key adviser to it.”
These mutual admirers had no qualms about rehashing the issues from the debate. Though my questions were about technique rather than the content, they couldn’t help but conduct an impressively lucid mini-debate, complete with numbered points and phrases like, “Can I respond to that?” and “The last thing I want to say, in response to your point ...”
At one point, Taubes whipped out his phone to show examples of Elicker proposals that would require state approval. Not to be outdone, Ward-Packard took out his phone and began reciting language from Elicker’s website that, he said, countered Taubes’s point.
Would either of the candidates have a shot at making the Yale team?
“No, neither of them,” Ward-Packard said flatly. “We have the best debate team in the country.”
Taubes agreed. But both took pains to cast their assessment in a positive light.
“I don’t think Toni is suited to talking. She’s suited to doing,” Taubes said. “So I don’t think she’s a debater, but I do think she’s a great politician.”
Ward-Packard chuckled and said, “Justin’s not evasive enough. He’s too honest.”
Perhaps trying to soften the blow a bit more, he added, “And the Yale team is really good.”
Tags: debate, mayoral campaign, Toni Harp, Justin Elicker
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Not the kind of debate format I was looking for, the questions were loaded to create controversy and negativity, most if not all, denied the candidates the opportunity to present substance leading to solutions. The candidates were restricted to 30 second sound bites which served to prevent the candidates response from delivering her/his message to solving the city’s ills.
More was made of Renaissance management, Elickers state department job, Harps finance committee, Elickers, birth place and so on.. ..then, how does the next Mayor move the city forward and proceed in spite of a pipeline full of building projects, downtown, schools, in addition to a 2012 budget deficit reported to be 12M, but depending on what set of books one is looking into.
I was left empty and feeling that because of all the negative loops, which sell newspapers but did not provide creditable substance.
Grade “C-” for the press.
Grade “C” for Taubes and Ward-Packer for their prep of the candidates.
This was the best of the debates thus far and having a coach helped both Senator Harp and Alderman Elicker. That said, it appeared Senator Harp made the most progress from the prior debates, which took Justin off track and she won. She was more aggressive, which she needed to be.
It is interesting that Ward-Packer says Justin is not evasive enough as his “worst moment” was evading a question. With that said, yea, neither would make the Yale debate team, nor would any other politician who ran for mayor in this year’s election.
Fascinating piece: the Yale debate talent behind the New Haven mayoral debate. Extremely sharp guys. But I’m struck that the Elicker adviser takes such nasty shots at Harp. The Elicker supporters really take it to such a personal, vindictive level even while praising their candidate for being classy. It was really classy after all for Elicker to charge Harp with preying on poor people.
This is great journalism. Well done, Gilad.
Paul Bass and TNHI consistently demonstrate just what - and how valuable - high quality journalism is, and contribute substantially to a greater New Haven.
For Harp supporters truth=vindictiveness.
Sorry guys but truth hurts. Harp reaps the benefits of massive tax evasion and leads voters to believe she knows nothing about it. If she’s elected its only by the sheer bombardment of white suburban union cash and foot soldiers.