Justin Elicker was ready to talk about changing the way New Haven government runs. He asked for “more time” to provide fully formed positions to some of the most controversial specific choices he might face.
Elicker did that during an appearance Tuesday on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” in which he discussed his campaign for the Democratic nomination for mayor. In a rematch from 2013, he’s taking on (now-incumbent Mayor) Toni Harp in this year’s election.
Elicker, who is 43, set the broad themes of a campaign focused on jobs, public education and taxes; and on responding proactively with “transparency” to widespread “frustration” over how government is being run and addressing major challenges.
He spoke in depth about those challenges and responded to questions from listeners.
Like any candidate especially early in a campaign, he faced questions pressing him to take detailed, specific positions on tough choices that will likely alienate some voters once he would take office. He criticized some of the Harp administration’s actions, offered a perspective on the issues — and promised to more fully formed answers as the campaign develops and he has had more conversations with people.
He also addressed an elephant in the donkey room of party primaries: The fact that he is a white man running against a black woman in a majority-minority city.
That issue arose when he spoke of how civil rights and concerns of the Black Lives Matters movement have put racial and social justices at the forefront of civic debate.
“I’m white. The reality is I can never understand what it’s like to be black or brown,” said Elicker, who attended recent events in support of creating a stronger version of the police Civilian Review Board.
“But I don’t think that detracts from my ability to champion issues that everyone in the city cares about. I imagine that some people would be pushing a narrative like that to discredit my ability to champion those issues because I am white. I recognize that I come from a privileged background. But I don’t think that means I will not be capable of prioritizing issues around racial and social economic justice.
“In some ways, looking at what is going on currently, I think I will be much more effective at doing this. And I will surround myself with people that are from the community and who look like the community to help move that vision forward.”
Read on and add your vote to some of the questions posed to the candidate.
Tough Question 1: Community Policing 3.0
One of the tough choices facing the current and perhaps next mayor: How to keep crime down and keep cops on the force.
Fifty-nine cops, at all levels, have resigned or retired in the past 13 months. The chief is leaving in March; three of his four assistants are looking for jobs outside the department. Another 39 become eligible this year to retire, with many considering it.
A big reason: New Haven pays cops up to $20,000 less than suburban departments, which also offer better benefits. New Haven’s cops haven’t had a contract since 2016; the next contract is the subject of binding arbitration, with the city seeking retiree health care givebacks.
On the one hand, New Haven government has a structural deficit estimated at $30 million. It feels it can’t pay cops more, and needs concessions, in order to avoid tax increases. On the other hand, the department faces a “crisis,” in the words of departing Chief Anthony Campbell, that could endanger public safety.
One suggestion floated by retired Assistant Chief John Velleca: Have far fewer cops, in part by eliminating some special units and dedicated walking beats, and then pay cops more and keep them longer. (Some have argued that the department does not need four assistant chiefs, either.)
Mayor Harp has rejected this suggestion She argued that walking beats are crucial to community policing, and the large number of cops required to carry that out has helped drop the violent crime to its lowest levels in decades.
On “Dateline,” Elicker praised the work of the cops. He declared that “we do not effectively have community policing now,” with neighbors knowing their neighborhood cops.
“The morale in the police department has been lower than it’s been in a long time,” he added.
“Yale University is stealing our officers,” he said. “It’s almost like your big brother stealing your lunch money for candy.”
He argued that the city should push Yale either to pay its cops less or else “we can pay our” officers more.
Elicker was pressed on whether he agrees with Velleca’s force-reduction, pay-raise suggestion.
“I’m reluctant to commit to lowering” the number of cops, he responded. “The pay is a challenge. ... Give me more time” on the question.
Tough Question 2: Fixing The Budget
Elicker was adamant that, if he were mayor, he would not have taken Mayor Harp’s route in borrowing money to cover operating deficits. He said he would have opposed refinancing $160 million in debt — as the administration did last August — to free up money for a few years while incurring longer-term costs (a practice known as “scoop and toss”). As an alder, Elicker helped kill a similar plan pursued by Harp’s predecessor.
“It’s easy to borrow money and get reelected and not make tough decisions” and “pass these problems” to future generations in the process, Elicker said
So what tough decisions would he make on the budget?
In the short term, he said, he would order “cuts” rather than raise taxes. He didn’t specify which cuts. But he did say he would order all department heads to submit plans for 5 and 10 percent cuts and work with those plans.
Long term, Elicker said, he would work to bring “more partners to the table” to address the city’s structural deficit. He said he’d push the state for more municipal aid and Yale for more contributions to the city. Asked by listener Patricia Kane whether he’d support seeking to revoke some of Yale’s tax exemptions, he said he considers that option “on the table.” He said his position on Yale has “matured” and he believes “Yale has to do more.”
Another listener, Aaron Goode, pressed Elicker on whether he would seek a change in registrars of voters in light of the recurrent problems at the polls on Election Day.
“I’m not going throw people under the bus,” Elicker responded. “But something needs to change. ... What has gone on in New Haven with voting is a disaster.”
He said he would like to see sample ballots mailed to voters in advance of elections so people know what they’ll be asked to decide at the polls, including referendum questions.
Click on the video below to watch the full interview with Elicker on “Dateline New Haven.” Click here to read a story by the New Haven Register’s Mary O’Leary about Elicker’s critique of Monday night’s “State of the City” mayoral address, including discussion of the city’s lead abatement efforts.