Town Politics, Gown Politicking
Fernandez: “New Haven is now [Yale students’] home. They are impacted by all the things that happen here and they impact all the things that happen here.”
Elicker: “Since Yale students live in New Haven, and because in many ways they’re impacted by New Haven’s success, they should get involved.”
Carolina: “Yale students have a responsibility to this city and to themselves to educate themselves about what’s happening in the city that they’re living in.”
Harp: “Yale students are New Haven residents too. They have a responsibility to get involved. They have a chance to make a difference.”
To hear New Haven’s four mayoral candidates tell it, our bright college years should not be spent simply tossing a Frisbee on Old Campus, dozing in a lecture in LC, and dancing on the crowded floor at Toads. After all, we are not just students, they argue, but citizens of New Haven — members of a larger and more significant community.
In other words, this election is the perfect time for Yalies to branch out and involve themselves in local issues. It’s time for the Gown to get to know the Town.
On Tuesday, September 10, registered Democrats will head to the polls for New Haven’s mayoral primary. This election will be the first in two decades not to feature the familiar name of John DeStefano, Jr., who announced in January that he would be stepping down after the longest mayoral tenure in the city’s history.
According to the Connecticut Secretary of State’s office, there are nearly 7,000 active Democratic voters in New Haven between the ages of 18 and 25. And many of these voters are Yale students, making them a critical target for the mayoral hopefuls. Perhaps even more important than mere votes, eager Yale students often serve as campaign volunteers — knocking on doors, making phone calls, and helping get out the vote on Election Day.
A Politic poll of 881 Yale undergraduates found that 36.5 percent of current Yalies are registered to vote in New Haven. The poll, which was distributed on the evening of September 5 and controlled for class year, found that only one in five students plans to participate in Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary. (This number rises to 28 percent for seniors, and is understandably low — at 11 percent — for freshman.) This will likely rise substantially by November’s general election.
When they stare down at the ballot on Tuesday, however, students will be confronted by the names of four candidates: former city economic development administrator Henry Fernandez, Ward 10 Alder Justin Elicker, Hillhouse High School principal Kermit Carolina, and State Senator Toni Harp.
Three of the four candidates are alumni of Yale University. Each has students volunteering on his or her behalf. And each has worked hard to engage Yalies politically. For many students, the difference between the four candidates has more to do with personality than policy. Yet for the candidates — facing a low-turnout primary and a chance of rain on Tuesday — the decisions of several hundred Yale students could be crucial.
On Monday, September 2, Henry Fernandez and his campaign team descended on Yale’s campus for a discussion with actor Danny Glover. Over 100 students and New Haven residents crowded in the stifling heat of the Afro-American Cultural Center’s Founder’s Room, many of them gushing about the prospect of seeing Glover, who has appeared in films such as Lethal Weapon and The Color Purple.
Fernandez (LAW ’94) co-founded and directed LEAP, an enrichment program for low-income youth. He also worked as New Haven’s economic development administrator from 2002 to 2006, before managing DeStefano’s 2006 campaign for governor. Fernandez, who once served as an associate fellow of Ezra Stiles College, currently works as CEO of Fernandez Advisors, a consulting firm that partners with left-leaning New Haven organizations.
Applause rang as Fernandez and Glover walked through the audience and took their seats at the front of the room. Glover began by talking about his past as an activist, recalling an extensive list of progressive groups with which he had been involved (United Farm Workers, the SFSU Black Students Union, Dudley Street Initiative, etc.). The thesis of his myriad anecdotes about city government and social justice seemed to be that real change hinges on the success of bottom-up community involvement. City government, Glover affirmed, “works when people mobilize to make the changes necessary and elevate their own expectations of themselves and the person who acts on their behalf.”
When asked why he’s supporting Fernandez, Glover responded, “Because he began as a student activist.” Fernandez, running with this theme, spent most of the second half of the event speaking about the immense yet largely untapped power that students have to fix New Haven. Drawing from his experience with LEAP, he expressed his belief that the most significant social and political reforms in America start with young people.
“Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott when he was only four or five years older than you,” Fernandez told the audience.
In an interview with The Politic, Fernandez widened his vision for New Haven. He talked about how, through a combination of his vision and grassroots student involvement, “New Haven can be a beacon for cities like East Saint Lewis, Newark, [and] Camden, to show that change is possible.”
Indeed, Fernandez’s driving assertion for the evening was that Yale students should not only vote for him, but that they should also work with him to transform New Haven into a modern-day City upon a Hill.
Despite the visibility of Fernandez’s event with Glover, the mayoral candidate who has spent the most time on Yale’s campus since the beginning of the semester is Justin Elicker. From freshman move-in-day on Old Campus to a fundraiser at the home of School of Management professor Douglas Rae to the Slifka Center’s first bagel brunch, Elicker has been about as ubiquitous as the Flower Lady, it seems.
Elicker (FES ’10, SOM ’10) currently serves as the alder from East Rock’s Ward 10, a relatively affluent part of New Haven. Previously, he worked for five years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department, as well as the Community Carbon Fund Coordinator in Yale’s Office of Sustainability. And unlike Fernandez and Toni Harp, Elicker has chosen to participate in the New Haven Democracy Fund, which limits his campaign contributions to no more than $370.
The cornerstone of his campaign is his belief in technocratic policymaking. “Traditionally, politicians just throw money at problems and base policy decisions on hunches and emotions,” Elicker said in an interview with The Politic. Instead, Elicker suggests employing “Evidence-Based Governance,” a policy approach that favors the analysis of scientific data to help fix problems in New Haven.
Drew Morrison, the president of Yale for Elicker, believes that this sort of pragmatism will appeal to Yale students. Said Morrison, “When they think about city government, they want someone who’s looking at what the best cities are doing, who’s looking at data.”
“My mom grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. My dad came here and worked as a legal aid lawyer,” Morrison told The Politic. “When I arrived, I got involved right away in community development because this community matters to me. I have found Justin to be the candidate with the best ideas and the best approach to government and to creating a new New Haven.”
When asked what would most influence students this election, Morrison responded, “Yale students want to see a candidate who can clearly articulate a vision for a new type of city and a new type of city government.”
The other candidate participating in the Democracy Fund is Kermit Carolina. Unlike Elicker, who has still managed to collect $170,000 in contributions, Carolina has struggled to raise funds — an issue emblematic of his shoestring and underdog campaign.
The last candidate to enter the mayoral race, Carolina works as the principal of James Hillhouse High School. Carolina was born and raised in the Elm Haven Housing projects of New Haven, and he has worked on behalf of minority political leaders in New Haven for the past two and a half decades.
Like Fernandez, Carolina also spoke in the Founder’s Room of the Yale African-American House. His September 5 event, however, was decidedly more intimate, with only sixteen people in attendance. Instead of the sweaty rows that crowded the Fernandez event, students sat in a disjointed, roomy circle around the candidate.
Carolina stressed that his perspective of New Haven is from “the ground view, not a helicopter view.” After reminiscing about his childhood and time working in the Yale Co-op, he pointed to a stately portrait on the wall of Khalid Lum, a former director of the Afro-American Cultural Center. He said, “Khalid was one of a group of ten individuals that I collaborated with to elected the first African American mayor of this city, John Daniels.” As he spoke about his past as a student activist, Carolina emphasized, “The most powerful people in this country are powerful students, because you have more time that anyone else.”
After a standard stump speech, Carolina implored students to “do their homework” on the candidates, especially when it comes to campaign finance. He expressed pride in the fact that 194 of the 199 campaign contributions he had received (as of the September 5 event) came from New Haven residents. None of those 194 contributions exceeded 25 dollars. Carolina claimed that he can consequently govern without strings attached if he wins the race, and stressed the importance of running a clean, efficient city government.
“I’m happy being a school principal, but I’ll be even happier knowing my city is going in the right direction,” he concluded.
If Carolina is the race’s underdog, State Sen. Toni Harp is most decidedly the frontrunner. Local activists expect her to handily win Tuesday’s primary, thanks to her strong fundraising and influential backers.
Harp (ARC ’78) has served in the Connecticut state legislature for the past two decades, including ten years as the powerful chair of the State Senate appropriations committee. A former New Haven alder, she has earned endorsements from Governor Dan Malloy, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a majority of the Board of Alders and Yale’s two Unite Here unions. Despite this intimidating laundry list, however, Harp does not have nearly as large a presence among Yale students.
Campaign manager Jason Bartlett told the New Haven Register that “at least thirty students” have been working on Harp’s behalf, but those numbers were vigorously contested by student representatives of the other candidates. Indeed, according to the Politic poll, nearly half of students believe Elicker has the most visible campus presence; 33.3 percent of students said Fernandez had been the most visible, while just 13.3 picked Harp and 4 percent named Carolina.
Harp’s first on-campus appearance with students was a brunch meet-and-greet at Timothy Dwight College on September 2. At the brunch, emceed by Josef Goodman ’14, the co-chairman of the Ward 22 Democratic Town Committee and a former Editor-in-Chief of The Politic, Harp stressed her experience — repeating the word over a dozen times during the hour-long encounter.
“The difference is experience,” Harp told a student who asked what set her apart from the others in the race. “Not one of the other candidates have even testified before the General Assembly. They don’t understand how it works. It’s a lifeline for New Haven. I understand how it works.”
After the last of the vegan bean burritos had been eaten and volunteers began to depart for a canvass, Harp spoke with The Politic about student interest in her campaign. “My reception [among students] has been positive,” she said. “I’m really not aware of Justin and Henry’s efforts. But a number of Yale students are working on my campaign.”
Harp said that Yale students were especially attracted by her strong progressive values, noting that she was more liberal than Fernandez or Carolina. “Elicker doesn’t even pretend to be progressive,” she quipped.
Many of the students working for her campaign are also members of Students Unite Now (SUN), the left-leaning activist group on campus. Alex Lew ’15, a SUN member and Harp supporter, said that among the most important issues to him were youth services, the jobs pipeline, and juvenile justice.
“[Harp] will make sure that development projects will benefit all of New Haven,” Lew said. “She cares about all of New Haven’s communities.”
In some ways, Tuesday’s primary is little more than an exercise in futility. With Harp expected to win the primary, Fernandez, Elicker, and Carolina have all pledged to run in the fall as Independents. Some New Haven politicos believe that one or even two of them could drop out and coalesce behind the second-place finisher. Regardless, the race is far from over.
For Yale undergraduates, however, the race has barely begun. According to the Politic poll, only 4.5 percent of students have volunteered for one of the mayoral campaigns. But as the candidates continue to make appeals to Yalies, students will likely find themselves participating in the contest more and more.
“I expect Yalies will get more involved with the campaigns as we get closer to November,” Sarah Eidelson ’12, the Ward 1 Alder, told The Politic. “Students care about this city.”
Eidelson continued, “All the candidates are making efforts to engage students in the time they have been back in New Haven. But it’s only been two weeks, and we’ll see a lot more engagement as we head toward the general election.”