New Haven Independent photo
Sen. Toni Harp (New Haven Independent photo)

The State Senate was prepared to vote on an important bill, but it decided to wait — until Toni Harp could take care of mayoral campaign business back in New Haven.

The delayed vote occurred Tuesday night. It reflected the juggling act that state legislators face when also running for municipal office.

Harp (pictured at her official campaign kick-off last Saturday) is one of seven Democrats running for mayor in New Haven. She is also a powerful state senator who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, which is dealing with pressing statewide issues at the climax of a legislative session.

The Senate was debating a bill Tuesday calling for genetically modified food to be labeled. It was prepared to vote. Harp wanted to vote on the bill.

But she couldn’t vote then, if she also wanted to seek the prize endorsement in the New Haven mayoral campaign. The Executive Board of Local 34 of UNITE/HERE, Yale’s largest union and the most successful source of vote-pulling help for candidates in New Haven elections, was conducting endorsement interviews with candidates at its College Street headquarters.

Before the Senate could vote, fellow New Haven state Sen. Martin Looney, the chamber’s majority leader, passed “temporarily” on the bill. That gave Harp time to rush down to New Haven, conduct the interview, and return to Hartford to vote for the bill. (Looney helped convince Harp to run for mayor and already has endorsed her campaign.)

The bill passed the state Senate 35-1 at 9:36 p.m. Tuesday. Harp cast one of the 35 “yes” votes.

“I didn’t ask anyone to hold the vote for me,” Harp said Wednesday in a phone interview.

But she said she was grateful her colleagues did, because the bill is important to many of her constituents.

Looney said the chamber regularly agrees to hold votes on a bipartisan basis.

Harp said she decided to leave the Senate chamber to attend the union board interview because it was the only time the 40 executive board members were able to meet.

That decision stood in contrast to her decision to sit out two mayoral debates. On May 7, Harp declined an invitation to a debate because, she said, she was in Hartford discussing the state budget cap. And she missed a second debate on May 13. Her stated reason: She couldn’t leave the Capitol.

“I decided I wasn’t going to do any [weekday] debates during the legislative session because a debate takes up almost three hours worth of time,” Harp said. “That’s time I feel I can’t take.” (She did participate in a Sunday debate.)

She said the meeting with the union’s executive board lasted about a half-hour.

“Hopefully, there won’t be any more of those,” Harp said.

Harp has a coveted seat in state budget negotiations with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration. The legislative session ends June 5 and the rough outlines of a state budget are only now beginning to come into focus.

Democratic state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield is also vying for the Democratic nomination for mayor in New Haven. He attended both debates.

“Any of us running for mayor who are here have to balance our time,” Holder-Winfield said. “Going down to New Haven and back to Hartford takes at least an hour.”

Juggling legislative business with a campaign for mayor has proved challenging; Holder-Winfield said he’s done his best.

Unlike Harp, Holder-Winfield is not in budget negotiations. He said he doubts House Speaker Brendan Sharkey would postpone a vote on a bill on his behalf.

“I would make sure they knew not to” hold a vote, Holder-Winfield said.

Both Harp and Holder-Winfield said they were not actively soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists at the state Capitol in Hartford.

“I definitely am not raising money from lobbyists or advocates during the session,” Harp said. “My donations are coming from the community.”

Holder-Winfield said he too has solicited money only from people in New Haven. He has also signed up to participate in New Haven’s public-financing Democracy Fund, which means he can’t take money from political committees such as those active at the state Capitol. Harp has chosen not to participate in the Democracy Fund, which frees her to accept such contributions once the legislative session ends.

The first financial filings for the campaigns won’t be available until mid-July.

Harp and Holder-Winfield are vying for the Democratic nomination along with five other candidates.

Paul Bass contributed to this report.