(News analysis) Some believe in publicly financed elections, bike lanes, and backyard chicken coops and are suspicious of established institutions. Some believe unions and broad political coalitions make society better. Some believe strong mayors with executive experience get the most done. Some believe the city’s future rests on convincing the most disenfranchised citizens to vote and become involved in legal activity.
All those people live in New Haven. They all care about making New Haven better. Their varying outlooks explain why voters have four separate choices as they go to the polls Tuesday to begin selecting New Haven’s next mayor.
The occasion: A long-awaited Democratic Party primary to select a candidate to succeed Mayor John DeStefano, who will retire at the end of the year after two decades in office. Two candidates for the city/town clerk’s position, Michael Smart and Sergio Rodriguez, are on the citywide primary ballot, too. Democratic voters in 10 of the city’s 30 wards will also have the chance to vote for a candidate for alderman. (Click here to read about those races.)
It seemed like half of New Haven considered running for mayor after DeStefano announced his retirement, paving the way for the the first major transfer of power at City Hall since 1994. A version of New Haven Campaign Survivor has ensued. Seven months later four Democratic mayoral candidates—Kermit Carolina, Justin Elicker, Henry Fernandez, and Toni Harp—remain standing on the island; Tuesday’s election marks the semifinal round of the competition. Most likely two or perhaps three candidates will remain on the island for the final round, the Nov. 5 general election.
“There’s no excuse not to vote. There’s somebody for everybody to vote for,” noted Deputy City Clerk Sally Brown. “We have four very different candidates this year. This is an opportunity for everybody to get involved in voting this year.”
Polls open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at 33 polling stations around town. If you’re not sure which polling place is yours, or whether you’re a registered Democrat, click here to find out.
Still unsure about how to vote? Here are some questions people have been asking, and some humbly offered answers and links to background stories.
Why have so many people wanted the job in a city with high poverty, crime, and educational challenges? The mayor’s job has always been the big prize in New Haven politics. Rightly or wrongly, many observers believe the mayor has the most impact on how the city runs. (Yale’s unions pursued a different strategy two years ago when they backed a majority slate of candidates running for the Board of Aldermen instead.) New Haven has a “strong” mayor form of government, with broad appointment and day-to-day decision-making powers. Mayors who make use of that power—Dick Lee in the 1950s and ‘60s, Biagio DiLieto in the 1980s, DeStefano for the past two decades—set the agenda for developing neighborhoods, cleaning and plowing and policing the streets, running the schools, determining the tax rate. A deep current of ambition and idealism underlies New Haven civic life. From immigration to urban renewal, from school reform to needle-exchanges, New Haveners pursue big dreams. For 20 years DeStefano has had a lock on the mayor’s office; his decision to step down released decades of pent-up personal ambition.
Why bother voting Tuesday since we’ll be voting all over again on Nov. 5? Several reasons. For one, the outcome Tuesday will determine who remains in the contest. Toni Harp is favored to win the most votes Tuesday. If she comes in second place, she is out; she has not reserved a space on the general-election ballot. Three of the candidates—Carolina, Elicker and Fernandez—did obtain spots as independents on the Nov. 5 ballot. But that doesn’t mean they’ll all stay in the race. Simple math dictates that if Harp wins the primary, the other three would all split the vote if they remain in the race. Chances are the second-place winner, and perhaps one other, will remain. Tuesday’s election is really two elections: One to see whether Harp will get 50 percent or more of the vote and emerges the clear frontrunner; and one to see who emerges as her top challenger. If she gets under 50 percent, she’ll be seen as vulnerable in the general election.
Why is that?
Two reasons. One is that many (though not all) of the anti-Harp Democratic primary votes may well go to the second-place finisher in the general election. The other reason is that of late Monday New Haven now has 18,316 unaffiliated registered voters, not to mention 2,553 Republicans and 242 registrees of minor parties. (It has 50,246 Democrats.) In 2011, a basically unfunded, unknown independent challenger managed to win 45 percent of the vote against DeStefano thanks in large part to that independent vote. New Haven has been a one-party town since it last elected a Republican mayor in 1951. Until recently winning a Democratic primary has been tantamount to winning a general election. That appears to have changed.
How do I decide among the four candidates?
One way to decide is based on their stands on issues. The four generally support Police Chief Dean Esserman and the resurgence of community policing while vowing to improve it. They generally support New Haven’s brand of school reform while pledging to improve it. They generally agree that taxes need to be held steady or cut, that new development needs to add to tax rolls, that the city must increase code enforcement against slumlords. Within those areas they do have specific disagreements or original proposals or different emphases. Click here to see how they stand on economic development, here on public safety, here on management and budget issues, here on public education.
Any other ways to decide?
Another way to decide is based on resume and biography. In other words, who’s best prepared to run the city? Fernandez argues he has the right experience: years running City Hall’s anti-blight and economic development agencies; experience starting and managing a youth agency called LEAP and a private consulting business; and helping organize voter-registration and immigration-reform drives nationwide. Carolina argues that his life experience—as a native New Havener who rose from poverty—and his work as principal of Hillhouse High School make him the right leader. Harp points to her 26 years in elected office, first as an alderwoman, then as a state senator co-chairing the legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee and championing health care programs for the poor, healthful food vouchers and markets, community policing, public-health campaigns, gun control and education reform laws, and countless annual multimillion-dollar state disbursements to city government and not-for-profit agencies. Elicker speaks of standing up for budget controls and against devastating fiscal gimmicks and out-of-control dirt bikes, in addition to volunteering for efforts like park clean-ups, during his two terms as an alderman; and of teaching school and serving as a State Department foreign service worker.
How about the people backing the candidates?
That’s another way of viewing the race, with perhaps the clearest distinctions. The four candidates’ different approaches to politics have attracted four distinct constituencies.
Carolina is banking on the city’s most marginalized voters—or former non-voters—to propel his candidacy. His camp argues that New Haven has failed people coming out of jail, kids growing up in broken homes, out-of-work adults with limited current job prospects. And it argues that the city can’t move forward until those groups become integrated into civic life. The pitch is that Carolina, as a son of the Elm Haven housing projects, product of city public schools, and longtime coach and now high-school principal, knows those people and what they need from the system far better than any of the other candidates do. And that if he succeeds in bringing them to the polls, that can start turning the city around.
Harp, who began the race as the city’s most popular politician based on previous polls, is running with the endorsement of political elites from the governor and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy to almost all current and many former aldermen, to the party town committee, to the two unions that provide the most money and grassroots vote-pulling in New Haven elections, Yale’s UNITE HERE (Locals 34 and 35) and AFSCME. Harp also has the broadest geographical support in town. She has the most money in the race as well as the most volunteers. Her backers tend to believe that the messy work of building democratic coalitions based roughly on the FDR model—labor, party officials, established civil-rights groups—offers the best way to develop and enact a progressive governing agenda. Her supporters argue that the mayor has had too much power, that the Board of Aldermen needs to have more say than it has in the past. Harp also is running to become the city’s first-ever female mayor, as well as the first black-female mayor; she has made the argument that New Haven needs female leadership.
Elicker has caught fire among people who tend to be skeptical of unions or party establishments, people who have brought a different set of causes to prominence in New Haven in recent years: bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets; farmers markets and locally-sourced food; publicly financed elections free of special-interest or out-of-town money. (Elicker and Carolina are participating in New Haven’s voluntary public-financing system, the Democracy Fund.) Elicker has shown his greatest support in neighborhoods like East Rock and Westville where those causes resonate most. He has also tapped into a general desire in some corners for broad political change in New Haven, away from the influence of contractors or veteran officeholders who have called the shots.
Fernandez has drawn support from employees and business people and activists who interacted with him in city government and at LEAP, as well as the editorial page of the New Haven Register, Yale Law School professors, and immigration reformers. Supporters argue that city government requires forceful, savvy, visionary leadership at the top. They argue that navigating city government’s special interests and bureaucracies is profoundly difficult, and that Fernandez is the only candidate who has done that (and done it well). They argue that his work with youth and as a consultant to school systems also gives him insight into those issues. Fernandez can start governing on “day one,” unlike all his opponents, his supporters argue.
What if I change my mind between now and Nov. 5?
You probably won’t be the only one. And you’ll have a second chance.
• Televised Long Wharf debate
• The “Mike Tyson” Debate
• Economic Development Debate
• Democracy Fund Debate
• Grassroots Social Justice Debate
• The Food Debate
• The Arts Debate
• Metropolitan Business Community Debate
• Term Limits Debated
• Police Union Debate
Selected coverage of candidates on the campaign trail:
To read all 265 previous articles the Independent has so far published on the 2013 campaign, click here for a page of the ten most recent campaign stories, then keep clicking at the bottom of the page for the next previous ten.