By Paul Bass
For the first time in New Haven’s 375-year history, “Hizzoner” is about to become “Her Honor.”
That’s because voters Tuesday elected Toni Harp as their next mayor—the first woman ever to win the job.
Harp will usher in a new era when she takes office on Jan. 1, ending Mayor John DeStefano’s two-decade tenure as the city’s chief elected officer and primary civic agenda-setter.
“Wait, listen, hear that sound: That is the sound of a glass ceiling shattering!” Harp declared to boisterous supporters at a jam-packed victory party at Kelly’s Gastro Pub Bar & Restaurant on Crown Street.
“We are on fire!” Harp said, riffing on her campaign theme song. “The flames of inclusion engulf us.” And she told her supporters: “You will be at the table. You will be heard. Together, we can move New Haven forward.”
According to the Independent’s tally of the machine votes in all 30 wards, Harp (pictured) beat back a strong challenge by petitioning candidate Justin Elicker, winning by 11,353 to 9,416 votes, or 54.66 percent to 45.34 percent. Those numbers include absentee ballots and votes cast by same-day registration.
Click here for ward-by-ward breakdowns of the vote. (To compare the results to the September Democratic primary ward-by-ward results, click here.)
Elicker called Harp to offer his congratulations. Harp told the crowd at Kelly’s about that, and she thanked him. She called Elicker “a young man of ideas and substance, and he has a great future ahead of him.”
She also credited DeStefano as a mayor who “did the best that he knew how to do on behalf of the city.”
In the city/town clerk’s race, Democrat Michael Smart crushed incumbent Ron Smith, who ran as an independent, by about 62 to 38 percent.
And voters overwhelmingly chose to amend the city charter to give more power to the Board of Aldermen. By 82 and 71 percent respectively, voters approved two referendum questions that will, among other changes, create a hybrid Board of Education (partly elected, partly appointed by the mayor) and give the Board of Aldermen approval powers over many top mayoral appointments.
Tuesday’s election capped an energetic 10-month mayoral campaign that at one point saw seven active candidates seeking a mayoral seat that became open for the first time since 1993.
Elicker, a two-term East Rock alderman, waged what all sides acknowledged was an impressive campaign. He defeated candidates with far longer service and better name recognition in town to emerge as the final opponent to Harp, an 11th-term state senator who was the mayoral race’s instant frontrunner because of her popularity, decades of public service, and overwhelming support from elected officials and politically active unions. The campaign offered voters at least 17 debates (we lost count) on issues ranging from food policy to budgeting and the arts.
At a post-election party at Bar on Crown Street, Elicker (pictured) offered an upbeat, future-oriented assessment of his campaign to some 125 celebratory supporters downing bottles of Budweisers and Newcastle.
“I’m proud to be standing side by side with so many people who believe in the ideas that we were talking about .. that believed in a government that was clean and had integrity … that people don’t necessarily have a background in politics can actually say in what government does for them. … We earned every single vote in this campaign. We earned it. And I mean it. Nothing was given to us.”
He also spoke of how his campaign proved that a candidate could run a viable race while voluntarily participating in the public-financing system.
Elicker challenged his supporters to join him in remaining involved in local politics—and in working with the Harp campaign’s supporters to improve New Haven.
“Politics is not about one election. So much of this campaign isn’t about this election. But it’s about redefining New Haven and redefining our government. And we have successfully done that. And as we move forward I know you will join me in pushing more on this political system and pushing more on the ideas … pushing more for a government with integrity.”
DeStefano issued a statement Tuesday night congratulating Harp: “I am excited by the promise of new leadership that Toni Harp will bring to the City of New Haven. As the current mayor of New Haven, and as a lifelong New Haven resident, I look forward to the new administration’s commitment to serve the hopes and dreams of the people of our wonderful city. I will be glad to assist in any way I can.”
Meanwhile, Teresa Younger, head of the statewide Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, released a statement about the historic significance of Harp’s victory:
“With her election, Toni Harp has become the first female mayor in New Haven’s 375 years, and is currently the only woman serving as mayor of one of Connecticut’s largest cities. In fact, she’s managed to do what only a handful of American women have achieved: according the U.S. Conference of Mayors, there are only 27 other women currently serving as mayor of cities with a population equal to or greater than New Haven’s (about 130,700). As we congratulate her on her election to this leadership position, we must also call attention to the unfortunate reality of the lack of political parity, which continues to cause a gross imbalance in our elected leadership.”
2 Views On “Experience”
One Westville couple, Lizzy Donius and Ken McGill (pictured at the Ward 25 polling station at Edgewood School), supported different candidates—on different days. McGill started out planning to vote for Harp, then decided within the last day to vote for Elicker because of his concerns about the ethics of some of Harp’s allies. (He mentioned zoning lawyer and former state Sen. Anthony Avallone and former city development chief Sal Brancati in particular.) Donius, who was planning to vote for Elicker, said she, too, worried about that issue but in the end voted for Harp because of Harp’s greater experience in government.
Kim Jenkins, a 50-year-old housing authority maintenance worker who lives in Bishop Woods/Quinnipiac Meadows’ Ward 12, said she voted for Harp because of Harp’s experience in the State Senate.
Harp’s greater experience cut both ways with voters, some of whom sought someone less connected to the political establishment.
“I want a different face in there. Someone who can challenge the establishment,” said Robb Gallo, a 43-year-old laid-off Praxair worker who voted for Elicker in Fair Haven Heights’ Ward 13. He called Harp “a name I’ve recognized for years. I want a different face in there. Someone who can challenge the establishment.”
A particularly sought-after bloc of voters in the general election consisted of Democrats who had voted for Henry Fernandez in the Democratic primary. From the start of the general election campaign, Elicker pursued that bloc; he needed its overwhelming support to catch up with Harp.
The experience question (which Fernandez had used against Elicker in the primary) proved important for at least some previous Fernandez voters. Yale sophomore Eleanor Marshall (pictured) called Harp’s experience “valuable,” along with Harp’s support from Yale’s unions, so she went with her. Yale junior Nneoma Ahuruonye shared concerns about Elicker’s inexperience, but moved from Fernandez in the primary to Elicker in Tuesday’s general election because Elicker could “actually bring some change in the city.”
The Saddam Factor
One voter who lives in the new Brookside public-housing development in West Rock offered an unusual reason for her voting: the Middle East and the price of gas.
The voter, Susan Bachli, said she voted for Elicker because of a Toni Harp ad which contained a person wearing a T-shirt with Arabic writing. “I’m sick of paying Arabs four dollars [a gallon] for gas,” she said by way of explanation. When told that the New Haven mayor does not have much say about the price of gas, she replied, “This is America. You want to be mayor of New Haven … it’s like inviting Saddam Hussein to dinner.” (Harp campaign manager Jason Bartlett said he couldn’t immediately recall an ad with Arabic writing. “But even if we did, we embrace everyone in this city,” he added.)
Nick DeFiesta, Cora Lewis, and Thomas MacMillan contributed reporting to this story.