It’s the dog days of summer, right smack in the sweltering middle of August, which must mean it’s almost time for some municipal primaries! You didn’t forget, did you?
Yes, primaries have crept up on us again. Despite the fact that the state moved statewide elections to August primaries over a decade ago, town and city primaries largely remain in September (a very small number are also in March. Don’t ask).
There are mayoral primaries in each of the state’s three largest cities this year, and they’re all worth watching for one reason or another. By far the most interesting is in New Haven.
Toni Harp has been mayor of New Haven since 2014, and under her leadership the city has seen both successes and struggles. Still, Harp was popular enough among Democrats in 2015 and 2017 that she didn’t face a primary challenge, allowing her to handily defeat Working Families Party and independent candidates in those elections.
This year is different. A few rough budget cycles, higher taxes, a terrifying incident where over 100 people overdosed around the New Haven Green on a dangerous synthetic marijuana product called K2, disconnect between City Hall and the people, and a host of other issues have left New Haveners feeling disillusioned and frustrated about the city’s direction.
Some of this is absolutely not Harp’s fault. The state’s budget miseries, which led to tax increases in New Haven after cuts to state aid, and the overdose incident were out of her control. But she’s the face of City Hall, and the obvious target for voter frustration.
Justin Elicker, who was one of Harp’s primary opponents when she ran for the open mayor’s seat in 2013, is back to take another shot at the mayor. He’s been promoting a more inclusive and ethical government, better budgeting, and accountability. What evidence we can see suggests that he’s finding a good number of Democrats receptive to his message.
For one thing, he’s raising more money than he did in 2013. New Haven’s Democracy Fund, which provides matching public funding for campaigns, has disbursed over $10,000 more than it did during the 2013 primary. Elicker has raised an impressive amount of cash, made all the more impressive by the Democracy Fund’s requirement that he rely upon small donors and avoid government contractors.
Harp is not participating in the Democracy Fund.
Elicker is also winning support in what should be Harp’s strongholds. The Democratic committee in each ward held a straw poll, and Elicker flipped several wards that he’d lost to Harp in 2013 — including Harp’s home ward.
Harp’s campaign has had what could generously be called some missteps. In June, City Hall offices were raided by the FBI, and Harp’s campaign chair, who appeared to be at the center of part of the investigation, resigned.
Harp’s new campaign manager decided that the best response would be to accuse her opponent, whose wife works in a different division of the FBI, of orchestrating the whole thing as some kind of political hit job.
This, then, may be the best chance a challenger has to pick off an incumbent mayor since State Sen. Martin Looney almost defeated John DeStefano in 2001. Elicker is still an underdog in this race, however. New Haven does have a history of contentious primaries, and there seems to be enough grumbling about Harp for some Democrats to bolt, but incumbency, and the support of organized labor, are powerful advantages.
If he loses the primary, Elicker will get a second bite at the apple. He has successfully petitioned his way onto the ballot as an independent for the general election.
Think of this as Round 1. If Democrats don’t decide to jettison Harp, the rest of the city might.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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