New Haven Mayor-elect Toni Harp
New Haven Mayor-elect Toni Harp

“Justin was always fighting an uphill battle.”

“Her campaign has been pushing this aura of inevitability.”

On November 5, 2013, New Haven voters went to the polls and confirmed what many political players and observers had been saying for months: the election results were almost entirely predictable. In the Elm City, campaign season 2013 has been framed as a battle between union-affiliated candidates backed by the Democratic Party establishment, and their independent rivals. It was a story of the political machine against the underdogs.

This past Tuesday, with few exceptions, the establishment won. But the groundwork for this victory was laid over two years ago.

In 2011, labor-backed candidates won a two-thirds supermajority on New Haven’s 30-member Board of Alders, after Yale’s employee unions, Local 34 and 35, prevailed in nearly every ward where they backed a candidate. Labor’s growing political clout showed itself again in 2013.

Toni Harp, a state senator for twenty years, was elected mayor with 55 percent of the vote to Alderman Justin Elicker’s 45 percent. Local 34 and 35 worked as some of her strongest allies, along with New Haven fire, police, and other municipal unions. In Yale’s Ward 1, Alder Sarah Eidelson decisively won reelection with 64 percent of ballots to Republican challenger Paul Chandler’s 34 percent. Eidelson ’12, herself a union employee, also received significant labor support.

Throughout New Haven, Election Day 2013 saw labor expand its supermajority on the Board to control almost every seat. Drew Morrison ’14, who led Yale for Elicker, identified only three strong voices on the current Board opposed to the union coalition: Doug Hausladen ’04 in Ward 7, Mike Stratton in Ward 19, and Anna Festa in Ward 10. “It’s not exactly 27 to 3,” Morrison told The Politic, “but they are the people who have been most outspoken about [opposition to union control].”

Ward 1 GOP candidate Paul Chandler talking to Yale students
Ward 1 GOP candidate Paul Chandler talking to Yale students

Even Stratton, once a member of the “Take Back New Haven” campaign — founded by Hausladen as a counterweight against New Haven “machine politics” — has backpedaled. He left “Take Back” and said he has reversed his views on the union coalition. In August, he told a gathering of Local 34 members: “I want to be one of your soldiers.” Festa also withdrew from Take Back’s slate of candidates.

The framing of the election results as “new government” rookies being swept aside by the city’s union-allied Democratic establishment has been pervasive. And although the reality is surely more nuanced, plugged-in New Haven politicos still believe the narrative is largely accurate.

A central issue in the campaign was the experience differential: Harp’s twenty years of experience in the state senate contrasted with Elicker’s two terms representing New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood. Throughout the campaign, Harp had also stressed her ability to use strong relationships with Connecticut politicians to accomplish legislation, as proven by high-profile endorsements from Governor Dannel Malloy, Senator Christopher Murphy, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, and virtually every alder on the Board.

“Citywide, clearly there was a lot of institutional support for Toni, and that was invaluable,” Morrison said. Harp benefitted from union support not only in fundraising but in manpower: a well-organized get-out-the-vote effort by union volunteers helped bring Harp supporters to the polls. Morrison saw this as a crucial element of the “much larger apparatus around her than around Justin.”

He also talked of how Harp’s election was seen as “a historic moment,” as she will be New Haven’s first female mayor and second African-American mayor in city history.

The narrative of a historical or inevitable election undoubtedly had a racial component. When asked in a YTV interview about his underperformance among minorities in the Democratic primary, Elicker described the difficulty of achieving name recognition in minority-dominated areas, and his outreach efforts to minority voters. Elicker stressed his support from low-income and minority voters in his local Ward 10, but he acknowledged the effect of the candidates’ own ethnicity.

“We’d be lying if we didn’t say race plays a strong role in this city,” he said. A post-election report by the New Haven Independent agreed, showing African-American areas breaking strongly for Harp and white areas for Elicker: a much more polarized picture of New Haven than in the 2011 mayoral race which pitted John DeStefano against Jeffrey Kerekes, both white men.

Throughout the campaign season and through his “75 Days, 75 Solutions” imitative, Elicker portrayed himself as a policy expert who could bring fresh ideas and a new way of doing business to an often-corrupt city. Morrison claimed that a key issue that won Elicker support was his concern over “this one entity controlling [city politics].” He worried that “when a public group like the Board of Aldermen is used to win private goods,” true change is hard to accomplish. But given Elicker’s lack of institutional support, New Haven political insiders were nonetheless unsurprised by his loss.

In Ward 1, the narrative played out much the same. Republican Paul Chandler ’14 ran as a moderate, emphasizing his novel approach to education reform and his accountability to Yale students. Chandler attacked incumbent Sarah Eidelson as being non-responsive, out of touch with her constituents, and in thrall to labor unions. Eidelson, like Harp, pointed to her experience in New Haven politics and her record of achievement in social activism. Chandler trumpeted his ability to “be an independent mind, not follow lock-step with how the machine politics work in New Haven.”

Union support was also credited by her opponent as a primary reason for her lopsided victory. Chandler expressed disappointment in an interview with The Politic, saying that he had hoped “if it had been a loss, it would have been much closer.” He discussed the difficulty of overcoming labor’s political machine and its get-out-the-vote tactics. Chandler described Eidelson’s campaign team as “an established set of fifty hardcore volunteers, who at the drop of the hat are walking into people’s suites, grabbing them by the arms, and saying ‘you’re voting.’” He went on: “We didn’t have that large established volunteer base. We were relying on a core group of eight senior staff members… and twenty to thirty other volunteers. It was a lot about the numbers.”

His major regret in the race, he said, was that voters did not “look beyond the R and D” to focus on the individual candidate. Chandler said he ran “not to make a statement for the Republican Party, not to fight back against the union machine,” but because he “wanted the job.”

Other voices prominent in Yale’s electoral scene voiced support for a less generalized view of New Haven politics.

Zak Newman ’13, the former president of Yale College Democrats who managed Vinay Nayak’s unsuccessful run against Eidelson in 2011, told The Politic that he was skeptical of over-broad characterizations of the aldermanic supermajority. “Generally I think it’s somewhat hasty to interpret union-backed local officials as being monolithic in their politics,” said Newman. “Members of the coalition have diverse backgrounds and political allegiances; that one member has a certain policy position does not in any way mean that position is shared by other members of the coalition.”

Though Morrison conceded that next cycle’s aldermanic elections would likely enforce the labor/non-labor divide, he held out hope that 2014 would be a more unifying year for Democrats, thanks to the gubernatorial race to reelect Dannel Malloy. He hoped that “the specter of having a Republican governor” would bring about “a great opportunity to unite the two factions for a governor who’s not always been the most popular, but has at heart the issues of New Haven.” He said that New Haven had benefited from having in office a “former mayor [who] has been helpful in repositioning the state’s priorities” towards cities, given Connecticut’s historically suburban focus.

Morrison was also not ready to give up on Elicker. “There is another coalition forming,” he said, “the coalition that formed around Justin, that’s fairly diverse, that cares about a new approach to government in New Haven. It’s strong — internally, we surpassed our targets, we did better than we expected to do.” He noted that Elicker’s roughly 9,400 votes surpassed Mayor DeStefano’s winning total of 7,991 in 2011.

“There’s something emerging that’ll make sure that the union coalition won’t go unchallenged,” said Morrison. “Regardless of people’s opinions of slates and unions and what have you, on a local level, the individual is what matters.” Morrison hoped to change a divisive conversation based on blocs into a conversation focused on individuals and individual strengths.

“But maybe that’s too idealistic,” he said, laughing.

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