A one-time lion’s den became a room of new opportunity for independent mayoral candidate Justin Elicker.
Elicker came to the living room, on Woodside Terrace in Westville, to pitch his candidacy Sunday evening to some two dozen people who formerly supported someone else against him in the mayor’s race, former candidate Henry Fernandez.
He asked their help in recruiting independent voters to help change “politics as usual” by winning the Nov. 5 general election.
“I really appreciate your support if you previously supported Henry,” Elicker said.
Instead of altering his message to tell the crowd what it wanted to hear, he kept to themes he has emphasized since hitting the trail last winter—themes that failed to win over that crowd the first time around. As the mayor’s race has entered its final phase, Elicker has a second chance to win over skeptics like this crowd; he cannot afford not to win them over.
Unlike in the primary, he no longer has to convince voters he’s the best candidate amid a pack of choices. He has to convince he’s better than the one alternative, or at least not as objectionable.
Elicker, a second-term East Rock alderman, was one of four (winnowed down from an original seven) Democrats who competed in the Sept. 10 Democratic mayor primary, seeking to succeed retiring 10-term incumbent Mayor John DeStefano. State Sen. Toni Harp won that four-way primary with about 50 percent of the vote. (See results here.) Elicker came in second and is continuing to run in the general-election as an independent; the other two candidates have dropped out of the race rather than run as independents.
The Woodside Terrace home, of former Westville Alderwoman Ina Silverman, served as Ward 25 campaign headquarters for one of Elicker’s opponents, Henry Fernandez, during the primary. Ward 25 proved Fernandez’s strongest base of support, the only precinct out of 30 in the city that he came close to winning. Harp came in third in the ward.
Since the primary Elicker has worked doggedly to bring Fernandez supporters to his side. During the primary, many Westville and East Rock voters were indeed trying to decide between Elicker and Fernandez. (Read about that here.) They received a direct-mail appeal from the Fernandez camp (signed by eight supporters, four of them living in Westville) stating that Elicker “has a fine future but he lacks the broad support necessary to win this election and the experience to be mayor.”
That was then.
Many in the room Sunday have already switched their Fernandez lawn signs to Elicker lawn signs, part of an autumnal switch from navy blue and orange to baby blue and white. Others came ready to be convinced. As one attendee put it before Elicker spoke, “I probably will support him. I want to know what I’m supporting.”
Elicker (pictured) claimed that his campaign has discovered that “the vast majority” of Fernandez supporters “are saying that they’re now going to support me in this race.”
Then he did some math for the room—to prove the theorem that he remains a “viable” candidate worthy of their volunteer efforts and financial support.
“There’s this question of how do I win, right? Toni Harp has an incredible amount of institutional support. She’s got every politician and her brother that’s endorsed her. She has a lot of money coming in,” 70 percent of it from people who live outside the city, compared to the 80 percent of (usually smaller) donations coming to Elicker from city dwellers.
Still, Elicker argued, he can win.
“I’ll go through the numbers with you,” he said. “I got 3,400 votes in the primary [3,417 to be exact]. And we’ve talked to a lot of our supporters that voted for me. There is virtually zero wavering of our support because I happen to be running [now] as an independent. Because everyone knows that I’m a Democrat. And they care who’s going to be our next mayor.”
Fernandez received 2,784 votes in the primary. Elicker expressed confidence that most of those votes will come to him in the general election.
The fourth primary candidate, Kermit Carolina, has since endorsed Elicker and campaigned with him in the black community, where Elicker, who is white, received scant support during the primary. Elicker said Carolina (who is African-American) has helped him “broaden our message” and expressed the hope he’d receive a “decent” amount of Carolina’s 1,195 primary votes against Harp (who is African-American) in the general election.
If, for the sake of argument, Elicker were to receive, say, 80 percent of all the Fernandez and Carolina votes, that would up his total to 6,600. He’d still lag behind Harp: She received 7,327 votes in the primary. She would presumably pick up at least some Carolina votes.
But that does put Elicker within striking distance. Meanwhile, he continued, the real prize lies in the voters who didn’t get to cast ballots in the primary: some 2,500 Republicans, but more importantly, the 18,000-odd registered unaffiliated voters. (“Wow,” a member of the audience remarked when Elicker cited that figure.) He argued that his message of a “new politics” will appeal to that group more than Harp’s establishment-backed campaign.
“The percentage of votes that Toni got overall in New Haven is 16 percent of all New Haven voters. Eighteen thousand voters have not voiced their opinion in this election,” Elicker argued. “So our challenge as a campaign is reaching as many people as possible and encouraging people to vote, particularly people that have previously not voted because they said, ‘This is politics as usual.’”
“New” Vs. “Old”
Therein lay a challenge for Elicker Sunday night: The room was full of people who loyally supported the campaigns of incumbent Mayor John DeStefano. Elicker launched his campaign before DeStefano announced he will retire. He defined his campaign as a means of changing the way city government works. He defined the DeStefano administration as the epitome of politics as usual. He overtly criticized the mayor for overseeing a government with a “pay-to-play” reputation for development, a government closed to different viewpoints and public input, a government that has failed the city in many ways. In the primary, Fernandez had the loyal support of Democrats who approved of DeStefano’s stewardship of the city and wanted to see a similar experienced government manager continue in the same vein.
Sunday night, Elicker made a point of portraying Harp—an 11th term state senator, backed by incumbent politicians, municipal labor unions, donors who do business with the city—as the politics as usual candidate. (Harp presents herself as the more experienced candidate who can bring together diverse groups of New Haveners.)
But Elicker didn’t change his portrayal of the DeStefano years in order to pander to his hoped-for newfound friends.
As he has throughout the campaign, he referred to the “perception”—real or not—that developers and other business people must donate to mayoral campaigns to obtain city contracts or property; he promised to “eliminate the idea that you have to pay to play in New Haven.” He said he decided to run for mayor because “I was frustrated by some of the policies I saw happening at the municipal level. There were a lot of people around the city feeling their voice was not being heard.” He criticized DeStefano’s school system for lacking transparency.
And Elicker emphasized the importance of public financing of campaigns. In the primary, Elicker participated in the city’s optional public-financing system, the Democracy Fund, under which mayoral candidates receive matching money in return for limiting individual contributions to $370 (rather than $1,000) and forswearing donations from outside committees. Elicker has agreed to abide by those rules in the general election even though he can no longer qualify for matching dollars. Fernandez did not participate in the program; nor has Harp participated. Nor did DeStefano in the 2011 election.
He didn’t dump on DeStefano. He didn’t dump on Fernandez. But neither did he ignore or walk back from his previous criticisms.
One former Fernandez supporter, Max Stern (at center rear in photo), asked Elicker to elaborate on his point about school transparency. Elicker cited complaints over the years about lotteries for spots in sought-after schools like Hooker. “There were people who were able to jump the line” because of a lack of popular understanding of arcane rules; as an alderman he succeeded in pushing for changes to that system, as well as to basic enrollment procedures. He also spoke of how holding Board of Ed meetings at central school system headquarters shut out the public, since most people find it hard to park there or even locate the room. (He didn’t mention that the new schools superintendent, Garth Harries, has moved Board of Ed meetings to Career High School for that reason.”
Silverman asked Elicker how he plans to work with the Board of Aldermen, most of whose members support Harp.
Elicker claimed that he already collaborates with other board members.
“Every single person on the board now is a Democrat, and we vote pretty much unanimously on every decision that comes before us,” he said. He said he sometimes “pushes back” when he feels the board hasn’t conducted business in the open, such as in its selection of charter revision members. He has had occasional policy differences, such as when he supported a plan, shot down by the majority, to explore bringing a trolley downtown.
But he said that overall he shares the labor-backed board majority’s three central goals: safer streets, more youth programs, and more jobs for New Haveners.
“We will together. If I get elected mayor, I know I need the Board of Aldermen,” Elicker said. “If I want to get anything done, and they want to get anything done, we have to work together.”