Emerging from a two-year hiatus, New Haven’s beleaguered Republican Party nominated a candidate for mayor—local businessman H. Richter Elser. He wasn’t planning on it.
The surprise announcement came at the end of a sleepy GOP convention at the Hall of Records Thursday night. A 14-member quorum of the Republican Town Committee urged Elser (pictured) to consider accepting the nomination. He declined at first—only to announce later that he would, in fact, compete in the race.
The committee also nominated Delores Knight for the position of town clerk.
Elser, who has owned two local restaurants, previously ran for U.S. Congress against Democrat Rosa DeLauro.
The party hasn’t won a mayoral election since 1951. It has only one member on the 30-member Board of Aldermen. The member, Morris Cove’s Arlene DePino, was re-endorsed Thursday night. And the party found someone to run in Westville’s Ward 25: newcomer Tom Malone (pictured).
After his announcement, Richter said his decision to run for mayor was more than just a matter of pride for the city’s small Republican Party. Voters on both sides of the political spectrum are frustrated with the DeStefano administration and want a change from old thinking patterns, he said.
“A lot of Republicans are frustrated that we haven’t been filling the top of the ticket,” he said. “But I wouldn’t call [his nomination] a pride thing.”
“It’s been 50 years since there’s been a Republican mayor in New Haven,” he continued before adding: “There’s a confluence of circumstances that makes this the right time.”
Elser faces tough historical odds in the upcoming election: New Haven’s last Republican mayor, William Celentano, finished his last term on Jan. 1, 1953. New Haven has largely been a one-party (Democratic) city ever since. Last year, the GOP failed to field any candidates in the citywide election.
Still, many partisans at Thursday’s convention said they are confident that widespread dissatisfaction with Mayor DeStefano’s record on crime and frustration over the city’s new $443 million budget will create a groundswell effect for the Republican candidates.
Former Westville Alderwoman Nancy Ahern said there are two main reasons Republicans could be hopeful in upcoming elections: The Democracy Fund, a new statute which equalizes campaign spending between mayoral candidates, will level the playing field in favor of under-funded Republicans; while ongoing community debates on crime, high taxes and other issues could lead voters to press for a change of guard in City Hall.
“Candidates could have a chance,” she said,” partly because of available funds, partly because of the dissatisfaction with city politics now.”
“We Are Up To Date On Dead People”
For Republican Registrar of Voters Rae Tramontano, the fact that New Haven counts only 3.000 registered Republicans—versus 36.000 Democrats—is not to be taken for granted. The city’s overwhelmingly Democratic political scene, she said, conceals a population of “closet Republicans” who wouldn’t dare identify themselves as such in public.
Earlier in the two-hour convention, however, Republican Party members struggled to come up with a list of names for registered Republicans who live in New Haven—and are still alive.
“Are we up to date on dead people?” asked a committee member.
“We are right up to date up to date on dead people,” said Tramontano, who maintains a list of registered Republicans in New Haven.
The committee discussed ways of registering new voters, including plans to canvass incoming Yale freshmen in September. Members were enthusiastic about the nomination of Tom Malone, a native of Atlanta, Georgia. And they applauded Arlene DePino for her long-term commitment to the party.
The mood really brightened up when Elser, dressed in a pin-stripe shirt and navy tie, reneged on a remark that he “couldn’t do it [run for mayor]” and delivered an impromptu acceptance speech to the committee.
“If there ever was a time when the mayor was completely off-course and divorced from the needs of the community—it’s now,” he said. “I would be happy to accept your nomination.”
Elser said he had been thinking about becoming a candidate for the last six months. He had been hesitant to join for professional reasons, but is now confident of his ability to lead an aggressive mayoral campaign.
“I’ve been telling Republicans and the town committee that its important to know I can run a good campaign,” he said, “although the mechanics of how that fits into what I’m doing now” aren’t clear.
During an interview in the basement of the Hall of Records, Elser criticized the current administration for discouraging different viewpoints—both Republican and Democratic—during policy debates. He also said the mayor is known for stifling internal dissent at City Hall.
“I happen to think there are a lot of city employees and department heads who are afraid to cross paths with the mayor,” he said. “Rightly or wrongly, DeStefano has a reputation of being a strong-willed and autocratic politician.”
Although he had yet to establish a firm electoral platform, Elser said that he plans to focus on taxes, education, crime and the development of the downtown district.
“The city’s budget is close to half a billion dollars,” he said. “Yet we’re more dependent on outside funding than we’ve ever been.”
“I think the city’s on the verge of achieving critical mass,” he went on, referring to the recent development efforts. “We’ve got about 10 percent to go. The sign [that critical mass has been achieved] will be when developers come to town independently.”
Asked if he felt there was any futility to his undertaking, Elser said:
“The Republican Party of New Haven might be small, but it’s scrappy,” he said. “I’m happy to share the top of the ticket” with Delores Knight.