The Flip: How Justin Elicker Unseated New Haven’s Incumbent Mayor
I met Sally Espocito in Cedarhurst Cafe right off Orange Street. She wore a white and black striped turtleneck and had long silver hair and brown eyes that crinkled when she smiled. After introducing myself, I asked how long she’s been in New Haven, and she chuckled. “A long time. I’m 70, and I’ve lived here for all but six years of my life.”
Sally started her career as a teacher at Hillhouse High School in the Dixwell neighborhood, and then as a counselor at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, 25 miles out of the city. After ten years, she worked at City Hall’s Disability Services Department, transitioned to Yale’s Student Accessibility Services, and then worked as an Education Consultant at the State Education Resource Center. Five years ago, she retired.
Now, she and her partner are members of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association, which hosts community events like an annual picnic. She’s also on the management team for her policing district in Fair Haven, which meets monthly at the local library.
Sally would not have considered herself politically active, however, until this year. She had been excited to support Toni Harp back in 2013, when Harp’s victory would have made her the city’s first female mayor.
But as she perceived mayoral mismanagement in the past few years, her opinion of the administration started to sour. In August, for the first time, Sally went beyond merely voting. She canvassed for Justin Elicker, now mayor-elect, in her neighborhood. “If you notice a problem and you don’t work to change it, you have no right to complain,” she said.
She wasn’t alone. Although Fair Haven had voted for Harp for the past three terms, the district was one of several majority-minority wards, among Dixwell and The Hill, that flipped to Elicker. Sally, among other voters in these neighborhoods, propelled the shift in New Haven’s mayoral politics.
The 2019 election felt like déjà vu. In 2013, John deStefano, who had been mayor for 20 years, announced he would not not seek re-election. His retirement made way for a contentious primary between three main candidates: Toni Harp; Henry Fernandez; and Justin Elicker, then Alder for the East Rock and Cedar Hill neighborhoods.
That year, Harp’s was a household name thanks to her 20-year tenure in the state senate, where she served as co-chairwoman of the Joint Appropriations Committee. “Harp ensured that New Haven received fair funding in the state budget,” Alex Taubes, a local attorney and longtime Harp supporter, said in an interview with The Politic. “She also fought for progressive causes, helping to raise the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18.”
Harp’s popularity propelled her to victory in the primary. New Haven is a one-party city of Democrats, so the primary typically decides the election. 2013 was no exception.
Harp ran for mayor again in 2015 and 2017, winning both elections handily. During those six years, Elicker headed the New Haven Land Trust, a local non-profit. In an interview with The Politic, he reflected: “I gained management experience and ultimately helped turn around the financial situation [of the organization]. I was also able to meet residents across the city, and understand issues in different communities.”
In 2019, however, Elicker decided to run against now-incumbent Harp; this time, the results were very different. On September 10th, Elicker won 58.29 percent of the vote. But the election was far from over.
Fifteen days after the first vote, Harp decided to leave her name on the ballot as the Working Families Party’s candidate but suspended her campaign. Shortly after, Taubes and Emma Jones, who was also an attorney and ran the Malik Organization, which advocates for police accountability, launched a campaign on her behalf. They organized a group of approximately 40 members over Facebook and called the group the People’s Campaign for Toni Harp. “A groundswell of support rose [after Harp’s loss],” Taubes said.
The People’s Campaign successfully encouraged Harp to resume her campaign in October. Harp did not rehire campaign staffers, nor did she open an office; the People’s Campaign, with the help of volunteers, organized all activities.
On November 10th, Elicker won the general election by a sound majority, with 69 percent of votes to Harp’s 31 percent.
Sally points to the cop at the counter. “He’s our district manager,” she said. “We like him a lot.” A district manager, she explained, runs the area’s police force and is responsible for creating community ties and establishing trust. I turned my head, but the cop and his coffee were gone.
The main problem has been turnover: In the last eight years, Fair Haven has had ten district managers. Two years ago, the first woman was appointed and replaced within a month. Another manager lasted a week before she was moved to Newhallville.
New Haven’s community policing program was established under Mayor deStefano, and has grown to be a nationally-recognized program. “I was working for the government in the ’90s when they piloted the program, and it’s quite different now,” Sally sighs.
Turnover has hampered the program’s potential. “Relationships are crucial and can’t happen as long as they keep changing [who’s] in the neighborhood,” Sally said. She and her neighbors pushed for reform, meeting with police chiefs to ask for long term placement. They were repeatedly assured district managers would not leave, only to be disappointed.
“It makes you wonder if they listen,” she told me. “Mayor Harp never seemed to have a clear vision of policing.”
It’s no surprise that Sally knows the police force by face and name: She’s lived in Fair Haven for 26 years. “When I first moved here, we were the youngest family on the block…. Now we’re the oldest,” she laughs.
Fair Haven is a neighborhood in the east part of New Haven with a sizeable Latin American immigrant community. Its main street, Grand Avenue, boasts some of the best Latin bakeries in Connecticut. The central Bregamos Community Theater is one of many places that bring citizens together to celebrate diverse cultures, through events like its Día de los Muertos parade in early November.
The neighborhood is also home to political change: In the general election, Wards 14 and 15 flipped from Harp to Elicker. Perhaps because her community is so close, Sally explained her grievances with the Harp administration through stories about her family, friends, and neighbors.
Two long-term residents on her block faced foreclosure this past year, and the families were forced to move. “I’m still not used to seeing those homes empty,” Sally shared. She attributed the foreclosures partly to Harp’s controversial tax hike to 11 percent in 2018. “The tax wasn’t the only reason, but it certainly pushed those families over the edge.”
Taxes were a city-wide issue in this election. Many voters were unhappy with the tax increase, a fact that the Elicker campaign frequently highlighted. Taubes, defending Harp, responded: “This was a matter of state, not city, government. New Haven’s budget was slashed, and [Harp] had no choice.” Elicker, in contrast, proposed the “Blue Deal,” a plan that encourages Yale to increase its annual contribution from 11 to 50 million.
Sally, over her cup of coffee, directed the conversation to a school building on Grand Avenue. Once used as a swing space for other schools during renovations, the building now lies vacant and frequently vandalized. She and other community members wanted to transform it into a youth center for the neighborhood’s low-income children and teens.
That wasn’t what Harp’s City Hall wanted. “Their vision was to put in a developer who made high-end housing with rents of $2,500,” Sally said. After many community meetings, the city withdrew the plan. But the building remains vacant.
Meanwhile, development is readily promoted in other areas of the city. One such example is the Winchester Lofts, a $60 million project to update a World War II-era arms factory into an apartment complex where residents are surrounded by “artisanal adventures.” Single-bedroom apartments can go for $2,240 a month.
Jacob Malinowski, president of Yalies for Elicker, argued, “Toni Harp was an excellent public servant, but under her tenure, certain areas of the city were helped more than others. And it wasn’t the places that needed it.”
Throughout New Haven, overall housing costs have risen. The government’s Affordable Housing Task Force announced in a 2019 report that the city needed 25,000 new housing units. Seventy percent of residents thought that the government’s efforts were inadequate.
From knocking on doors, Elicker found that “housing and development rarely came up in 2013, whereas in 2019 every other voter mentioned it.” His platform promoted inclusionary zoning laws, which, unlike the previous system, would require all new buildings to prove a certain amount of affordable housing, rather than negotiating affordable units on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, Harp supporters cited rising housing prices as a product of her success, rather than her shortcomings. Taubes argued that Harp administration policies addressing violence and education issues made New Haven a more desirable place to live. “Elicker twisted this growth into arguing that the mayor is bad at housing,” he said.
The grey sky grew darker and the cafe door’s bell jingled with a new crop of visitors. Above the traffic noise, Sally spoke about issues in public education. In response to tightening budgets in 2018, the school district fired over 30 counselors and teachers. “As a former [educator], it hurts me to see the firings,” Sally said. “They’re precisely the sort of people that at-risk kids need.” She read about the Board of Education’s infighting in the newspaper. “It was an embarrassment,” she sighed.
While campaigning, Sally repeatedly heard from neighbors unhappy with the Board of Education—they felt that the Board cared more about politics than their children. “The fact that there were three superintendents in four years signifies a problem,” agreed deStefano. The New Haven Independent reported that the most recent Superintendent, Dr. Carol Birks, was removed in early October after reports of covering up spending and firing.
“Elicker isn’t more progressive, he just looks more white,” Taubes tells me. It is perhaps too cold and windy to be sitting on Cross Campus, but it’s a place that’s familiar to both of us. When he first moved to New Haven in 2012 for Yale Law School, Taubes had not considered himself to be politically involved, but soon was swept up in the 2013 mayoral election.
From the start, he admired Harp’s campaign and long-standing service to New Haven. “It wasn’t even a question which candidate was more qualified,” he said. After witnessing what he perceived to be racist and sexist attacks against Harp, he decided to join her team as a debate coach. He saw similar issues this cycle, which in part prompted the founding of the People’s Campaign.
“Elicker ran a racist campaign of effective character assassination against a public servant,” said Taubes.
I asked him if he was referring to the claims of corruption that circulated in 2018, which accused Harp of providing lucrative contracts to city developers in exchange for support. “I won’t even say the c-word,” he responded. “These claims against Harp are offensive and certainly not true. Frankly, they’re only allowed because Harp is a black woman.”
Harp’s then-campaign manager Ed Corey alleged outside interference. He accused Elicker of working with his wife, who is an assistant U.S. attorney, and Democratic Town Committee (DTC) Chair Vincent Mauro to push an FBI investigation of City Hall.
The Harp campaign claimed that they were exposing New Haven to the truth. They put up fliers comparing Elicker to Trump—two politicians who, in their eyes, were only electable because of their wealth and overconfidence.
Taubes explained how, days after the primary, Elicker spoke at a dinner party fundraiser, organized by Mauro, where tickets went for $1,000. However, the New Haven Independent reported that the fundraiser was for the local Democratic party, and none of the funds went to Elicker.
Harp’s negative campaign tactics didn’t resonate with voters like Sally. “I was particularly disturbed by the comparison to Trump. I didn’t understand where they were coming from, and they seemed to be more divisive than productive,” she said.
The Harp campaign also believed that New Haven political structures failed them. Typically, the Democratic party’s endorsement is decided by the DTC convention, comprised of ward committee co-chairs. Harp had won the convention with 34 votes to Elicker’s 16. After Harp lost the primary, however, some Democrats flipped to support Elicker. “Local Democratic leaders stabbed Harp in the back,” Taubes said.
Elicker tried not to engage with these attacks, but in one contentious debate, it proved impossible. He shared with the Yale Daily News: “I think it’s time that we talk about issues and the direction this city is heading instead of making up lies and inaccuracies about the other candidates.”
Elicker’s proposed antidote? “My goal was to go everywhere, especially where I was least well known.”
This wide outreach appealed to Sally. “His victory speaks to his commitment to creating relationships across the city. He spent a lot of time in Fair Haven and other wards where he flipped results.”
Harp, too, tried to appeal to a diverse coalition of voters. The afternoon before the election, she made her way to Fair Haven to campaign at an apartment complex there, but it wasn’t enough.
“The best thing about Elicker is that he just listens,” said Malinowski.
Sally finished her coffee. Throughout the campaign, as she canvassed strangers and talked to friends, all she heard was that people wanted a conversation.
“Ultimately,” Elicker said, voters “wanted an accessible government. We’ll work on deeper issues like job creation. But we’ll also make sure we’ll get sidewalks and speed bumps fixed.” In other words: No issue is too small.
Elicker hopes to unite the city after the divisive election and plans to build his core team from all groups, regardless of how they voted or what neighborhood they’re in. Of the three women leading his transition, Elicker appointed Sarah Miller, a Fair Haven resident, who is described by community members as a “fierce” advocate for her neighborhood.
Still, according to Sally, Elicker’s work is not over: “He hasn’t met everybody in Fair Haven yet, and I would encourage him to come back.”