As crowds descended on her home to support Henry Fernandez, hostess Allie Perry welcomed visitors with her homemade guacamole—and politely stood her ground in support of a different candidate in the mayor’s race.
Perry stood by as her husband, Charlie Pillsbury, hosted a campaign event at their East Rock home for mayoral candidate Henry Fernandez. Perry is supporting Justin Elicker in the race.
Elicker and Fernandez are among four candidates—along with Toni Harp and Kermit Carolina—competing in a Sept. 10 Democratic primary to replace outgoing 20-year incumbent Mayor John DeStefano.
Perry and Pillsbury’s divided household emphasizes a phenomenon among their social circle and around town: Voters are finding themselves split between several good candidates.
As in any American election, candidates and their supporters have spent time attacking each other and presenting some voters with a lesser-of-evils choice. The debate in the Perry-Pillsbury household reflects a different dynamic at play for the many New Haveners this year who know and have worked alongside some or all the candidates: They know them. They respect them. They believe they have solid records of public service. They’re struggling to choose among the better of good choices rather than the lesser of evils.
Pillsbury, a former New Haven Green Party town chair, one-time Green U.S. Congressional candidate, and longtime peace activist, organized a meet-and-greet with Fernandez for about 30 people Thursday evening in his and Perry’s 1890s Queen Anne Victorian home on Saint Ronan Street in the Prospect Hill section of East Rock.
He walked out the front door, which is decorated with a peace-sign-shaped wooden wreath, and greeted visitors around 6 p.m. The first visitors came from the peace-themed congregation he and Perry belong to, Shalom United Church of Christ. Pillsbury said even within his small congregation of about 30 people, there are supporters of each of three candidates: Harp, Elicker and Fernandez.
He and Perry both listed those three as excellent choices.
“What a win-win-win,” Pillsbury said. “When have we had this choice?”
Pillsbury welcomed visitors Thursday evening with a choice of San Pellegrino, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Ruffino Orvieto wine.
Perry added a batch of her homemade guacamole to a table of appetizers, which included hummus, pita chips and deviled eggs.
Thursday’s event, co-hosted by Jamie Cohen and Fran DeToro, drew about 30 voters to Pillsbury’s living room. The guests, including former city parking chief Paul Wessel and former Fair Haven Community Health Clinic head Katrina Clark, gathered near arched windows in the home, which was restored after a fire gutted it in 2008.
Pillsbury introduced Fernandez to the crowd. He said he met Fernandez when Fernandez was the executive director of the youth agency LEAP. At the time, Pillsbury was the executive director of another not-for-profit in town, Community Mediation. Pillsbury announced that he supports Fernandez so strongly that after 12 years as a Green, he switched his party registration to Democrat in order to vote in the Democratic primary.
Pillsbury kept Fernandez on a tight time schedule as the candidate introduced himself and took questions from voters for an hour. Among his remarks, Fernandez (pictured) announced a proposed solution to the city’s pension problem. And he recounted how he joined city government in 1998 to take over the administration’s troubled neighborhood anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI). “I was asked to come in and clean that up and rebuild confidence in city government,” the candidate said.
Fernandez spoke of how he worked at City Hall for five and a half years, as LCI chief and then as economic development director. He left in 2004 to start his own firm that consults with progressive not-for-profit organizations.
After the hour-long appearance, Pillsbury urged the crowd to donate to Fernandez’s campaign.
The he recounted how he came to that position.
Pillsbury (at right in photo with Jared Clark) said he and Perry started out the mayoral race supporting Gary Holder-Winfield, their state representative . Holder-Winfield was the second candidate, after Elicker, to jump into the mayoral race. He has a strong track record on progressive issues, such as leading the charge to end the death penalty in Hartford and opting in to the public-financing system as a mayoral candidate.
Between Elicker and Holder-Winfield, Pillsbury said, “I thought Gary had the experience and the vision.”
Perry and Pillsbury even hosted a campaign event for Holder-Winfield at their home.
Then Pillsbury changed his support. The day Fernandez joined the race, Pillsbury called Holder-Winfield to report that he was now supporting Fernandez. (Holder-Winfield has since dropped out of the race and backed Harp.)
Pillsbury said he has known Fernandez since Fernandez was a student at Yale Law School. “The kind of experience and resume Henry has is second to none,” he said.
“I ran an organization as a small-non-profit. The city is a huge non-profit,” Pillsbury said. “If I were to hire an executive director to run a huge non-profit, I’d want someone with executive experience and management experience and experience running a city.”
He also cited Fernandez’s “commitment to social justice” and to kids.
Perry (pictured) is a therapist, Yale Divinity School grad, former pastor of United Church of Christ on the Green, and longtime peace activist. She said she agrees with Fernandez’s positions on policy and thinks he has a “great track record” in city government and at LEAP.
But Elicker swayed her support based on one major issue, campaign finance. Elicker is participating in the city’s Democracy Fund, which rewards candidates with public grants in exchange for refusing to accept money from corporations and political action committees, and holding to a lower cap on individual donations. Elicker and Carolina are participating; Harp and Fernandez are not.
“I’m really tired of money in politics,” said Perry. “I support anyone who’s willing to promote getting money out of politics.”
She said that same reason led her to refuse to support self-financed Democratic candidate Ned Lamont for governor in 2010. Pillsbury supported Lamont; Perry back Dannel P. Malloy.
Perry added that the Democracy Fund promotes participation of New Haven voters in the political process. As of early August, Elicker reported that 77 percent of his donors hailed from New Haven. A New Haven Independent analysis in July found that Elicker had far more local donors than Fernandez and Harp.
Perry said she knows Elicker from the Yale Divinity School dog park, where she walks her English shepherd, Dani. Elicker, the alderman in East Rock’s Ward 10, takes his dog, Captain (in video), there. She said she respects his work with the Friends of East Rock Park (FERP). Lately, she’s been keeping up with his 75 solutions, posted daily on his campaign website.
“As I learn more about him, I like his ideas. He seems really smart,” she said.
Pillsbury’s first experience with Elicker was working against him in an aldermanic campaign. Pillsbury supported Green East Rock Alderman Allan Brison; Elicker challenged Brison and won.
Since then, Pillsbury said, “I’ve come to respect Justin a great deal.” He said though he was never Elicker’s constituent, he and his neighbors “often heavily depended on information from Justin because our alder was not as communicative.”
Pillsbury said he respects Elicker’s work organizing neighbors to fix up East Rock Park, “a place I go every day of my life.”
“I think that he should stay on the board,” Pillsbury said.
Pillsbury said Toni Harp has been in a “critical” role for New Haven in her 20 years as a state senator. “Toni’s been very supportive of Community Mediation over the years. I have a good relationship with her. I have a lot of respect for her.” But “I think Toni should stay in the state senate, where we need her,” he added.
“I just think that Henry is the most competent and qualified,” he said. “He’s the person I’d hire, if I were on the hiring committee—and I am!” Voters are all on the hiring committee in this election, he said.
Perry said she has never met Harp nor worked with her. “While I respect the work she’s done in the Senate, in some ways she seems more like the conventional party candidate, because everybody’s lined up to support her,” she said.
“I’m ready for what I think is some new and more inventive ideas,” Perry said.
Harp “has been great in the senate. I think it would be great to have her continue there,” she added.
Perry couched her disagreement with her husband over whom to support as a good sign—a sign that there are a number of good choices this year.
“It’s been valuable for the community to have much more public discussion and airing of the issues. That’s healthy for democracy,” she said.
“In the end, whoever people choose New Haven will have a good mayor,” said Pillsbury. “They’re all good.”