New Haven’s recent mayoral election was one of the most brutal races in recent years. Or was it? In 2013, the same two candidates fought it out but led with opposite results. Then state Senator Toni Harp defeated then Alder Justin Elicker (54% to 45%).
But last month Mayor Harp, the longtime local leader, lost public office for the first time in over 30 years. And Elicker, the former alder turned nonprofit leader, won significantly (68% to 28%) as he did in the primary election in September (58% to 42%).
There’s no need to get into the political oddities of a local party committee endorsing the incumbent mayor followed by the party chairman and primary voters supporting the challenger. Or the incumbent mayor hesitating and then running two weeks before the general election as a third-party candidate. Or that Connecticut’s largest majority-minority cities (including New Haven but also Bridgeport and Hartford) will be led by White male Democrats.
Instead, what should concern New Haven voters and Connecticut residents are the current and incoming mayors’ political and generational gaps. Besides the laundry list of concerns and issues facing the city, a lot of little things could be addressed not just by the incoming mayor and his team, but in collaboration with the current mayor and her loyal legions.
After this bruising round two of New Haven mayoral elections, it would be ideal if both Harp and Elicker found pathways to amend their differences. One assumes that they had a meeting or two by now. Hopefully, they and staff members have talked out their concerns as there are real differences between them. Politically, maybe not so much. But in terms of styles and leadership, Harp has been a part of the local civil rights old guard and Elicker has been a Generation X technocrat. One relied on a close circle of supporters while the other’s been more glued to social media and texting.
Quite frankly, Harp and Elicker are not the backslapping leaders one often sees in other cities. But their leadership approaches of old guard versus new guard could be learning lessons for other Connecticut cities. It is no secret that too many of Connecticut’s cities have undergone little economic growth or political change. With this election, however, Elicker is a rarity as a Generation X leader coming into a Connecticut city hall where the vast majority of urban mayors are Baby Boomers.
This mayoral transition is a generational shift and the two need to find ways of helping one another for the good of the city. For generations, New Haven has largely been a city divided by race, ethnicity, and class. Both mayors spoke toward these dynamics – and often politicized them. But Harp and Elicker need to bring forth their unique backgrounds and stress how the city can progress beyond those political and even personal differences.
The incoming mayor also inherits a city hall that remains significantly “old school,” relying more on in-person contact than on local government webpages, social media, email, and voicemail. Considering Elicker is more in-tune with technology, one assumes this will be an area that he and others can improve upon. A unique aspect of New Haven’s city hall is that many constituents know the various officials and public employees who work there. Hopefully, this close-knit factor will not be ignored or lost.
Finally, it is always a given that the legislative arm to city hall can be a bright or sore spot for mayoral leadership. With 30 New Haven alders, the Board of Alders has a history of hyper-democracy representation. Since the incoming mayor (like the current mayor) is a former alder, Elicker is familiar with the board. But herding so many of these legislative representatives is never easy, particularly as mayor. Harp and former Mayor John DeStefano can offer advice. Elicker should pay special attention to developing key coalitions and strategies to get proposals through the board.
New Haven also has some 30 boards and commissions and a very polemical Board of Education. There’s much to be done to resolve New Haven’s numerous issues. The incoming mayor must connect with these boards to usher in various initiatives. This is why, beyond the mayoral generational gap, there must be some respect and dialogue between the current and incoming mayors for the city’s future.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He also serves on the New Haven City Plan Commission and Republican State Central Committee.
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