Design by Chase Westover

The Incumbent

in Features

Editor’s note: Since the publication of this article in print, Mayor Harp has decided to revive her campaign after suspending it.

It’s Wednesday night and DJ Commander plays the music loud. I’m at the Elks Lodge on Dixwell, where Mayor Toni Harp’s supporters are hosting an appreciation day to celebrate her legacy in New Haven. Harp is scheduled to attend, but she hasn’t arrived yet. R&B floods the room, and people greet each other, hug, laugh. The room keeps filling up. Then I hear some scattered applause from the hallway outside the room. The applause spreads inside, and suddenly everyone is cheering. “Toni, Toni, Toni,” they chant. Harp enters wearing a black blazer and waves to the crowded room. Over the speakers, DJ Commander says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mayor Harp!” The room goes crazy.

Two weeks earlier, Harp had suspended her mayoral reelection campaign after losing the Democratic primary to Justin Elicker. But tonight, she’s trying to rally the energy of the room, forcing her voice to be animated as she reminisces about her successes. Reading from a script, Harp recounts how she removed a controversial fence between New Haven and Hamden, revitalized the Long Wharf food trucks, restored College Street Music Hall, balanced New Haven’s budget, improved graduation rates, and reduced crime. Then she says, “I just want you to know that I am still on the ballot.” The audience erupts into applause, and then more chants of “Toni, Toni, Toni…” One man yells, “Don’t give it up!”

 Harp grew up in Salt Lake City. She was the only black student in her middle school, and in her high school she was one of thirty in a class of 600. According to the CT Mirror, she said in 2013 that she “saw mistreatment as an African-American child in Utah.” She “realized that people mistreat people. And you have to rise above it.”

 In 1974, Harp graduated from Yale with a Master’s in Environmental Design. She became an alder for the Dwight neighborhood, then a state senator for twenty years. In 2013, she defeated Justin Elicker in New Haven’s mayoral election. It was the first time a woman had become mayor of the Elm City, and the second time a black person had. Over the next six years, unemployment in New Haven dropped 50 percent and crime dropped to its lowest point in fifty years. High school graduation rates increased, and so did affordable housing. Harp won in 2015 and 2017 without much opposition.

And then, this September, she lost. Elicker took more than 58 percent of the votes in the primary. Harp suspended her campaign but decided to stay on the ballot for the general election on November 5. It was her first loss ever as a politician, and it was to an opponent she had beaten six years ago, whose experience consisted of two terms as an alder and who led a nonprofit of five full-time employees.

The mood was more somber when I met Harp in her office at City Hall. She seemed sad. When she spoke, she looked around the room and rarely into my eyes. Harp is seventy-two years old. Her hair is a rich dark brown that verges on black, and it falls snugly around her head and onto her ears. I asked her why she thought she lost. “It’s hard to say,” she said. Her voice was quiet and slow. “I don’t really know.”

*

Harp did say, vaguely, that some voters had concerns with her administration. That’s true. The first signs of concern came in 2017, during the tortured process of hiring Carol Birks, a controversial candidate, as superintendent. Harp cast a deciding vote in Birks’s election at a Board of Education meeting where, according to the New Haven Independent, students walked out in protest, audience members stood with duct tape over their mouths, and one board member challenged another to a “duel.”

Then in 2018, Harp raised taxes by 11 percent to compensate for reduced state funding. And in November of that year, her administration relaxed lead paint inspection regulations so that the city would only be required to inspect the homes of children with at least fifteen micrograms per deciliter of lead in their bloodstream, rather than the previous, stricter standard of five micrograms. Since May, the city has faced a class-action lawsuit representing around three hundred children who could be harmed by the regulations. And in June, the FBI subpoenaed records from the Harp administration, apparently to investigate its use of public funds. So far, the FBI hasn’t released any findings.

Elicker cited many of these events in campaign ads. He accused Harp of “corruption and mismanagement” after the FBI probe. He blamed her for the lead poisoning of three hundred children, and he even attempted to link her to a mass K2 overdose on the New Haven Green in 2018.

Harp’s supporters refute these allegations. Jeannette Morrison, the President Pro Tempore of the New Haven Board of Alders, where she represents Ward 22, noted that the fact that the FBI is investigating an administration doesn’t mean that the administration is guilty. Former Harp debate advisor Alex Taubes told me that Harp had to prioritize the most severe cases of lead poisoning first because the city didn’t have enough inspectors. And Harp herself pointed out that New Haven’s emergency services actually won awards for their response to the 2018 overdoses.

“She’s made mistakes,” Morrison said. “But she’s human; she’s supposed to make mistakes.”

Taubes and I are sitting on a bench in the backyard of Koffee. He’s wearing a suit without a tie, and his fine hair is streaked with gray. He speaks with passion but without hurry, lingering on his words when he likes them, gesturing with his hands, and leaning back on the bench with his eyes closed. Taubes says that Elicker’s campaign engaged in “character assassination” and got away with it because Harp is a black woman. Elicker employed the “stereotype of the corrupt black mayor,” Taubes asserts. “He turned her into a caricature.” When Taubes speaks of Harp he seems to be in awe. He describes her prodigious knowledge of policy and how she tries to hide that knowledge so as not to alienate voters. “She could be on Ezra Klein’s podcast,” Taubes says. “It’s why she gets so much done. She’s a policy wonk, 100 percent.”

I asked Morrison, at her desk at City Hall, if Elicker had attacked Harp’s character unfairly. “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes,” she said. She wore a jean jacket and hoop earring, and she swatted at a mosquito while we talked. Elicker “definitely” treated Harp differently because she is a black woman, Morrison said. She claimed that Elicker wouldn’t accuse a white man of corruption and mismanagement without solid evidence.

Harp supporters don’t mention that her campaign used plenty of attack ads, too. One flyer compared Elicker to President Trump, accusing both of “overconfidence and incompetence.” A television ad warned that Elicker planned to use drones to spy on New Haven residents. Harp’s former campaign manager, Ed Corey, even claimed that Elicker’s wife, Natalie, used her influence as an assistant U.S. attorney to have the FBI subpoena the Harp administration. Harp’s campaign called it a “political hit job.” Later, on a WNPR radio show, Harp admitted that her campaign’s attack on Natalie Elicker was “ill-advised ”and promised not to target Elicker’s family again.

Elicker and his campaign “started putting all this doubt in the minds of people, and so a lot of people just didn’t come out and vote,” Morrison said. She claimed that Harp isn’t corrupt. “She’s made mistakes,” Morrison said. “But she’s human; she’s supposed to make mistakes.”

*

Back at Elks Lodge, Harp approaches a group of reporters for a statement. One reporter asks about her prospects for reelection. “If people want to vote for me they certainly can,” she says, almost defiantly. “If you want me to be your mayor you’ve got to vote for me. I’ve done my job.”

The tables are almost full, and people eat fruit salad and meatballs from disposable plates. At every seat is a flier. “The People’s Campaign to Re-Elect Toni Harp,” each reads, alongside a photo of Harp at her desk. “Vote November 5.”

Emma Jones, a prominent activist who fought for New Haven’s recently established Civilian Review Board, is here at Elks Lodge. She is the mother of Malik Jones, a young black man who was shot and killed by an East Haven police officer in 1997. After Harp’s primary loss, she and Taubes created the People’s Campaign for Toni Harp, a group of Harp supporters devoted to getting her reelected in November. As of October 12, its Facebook page had 308 members. Most of the posts are ebullient stories about what Mayor Harp has accomplished. One post, by Taubes, reads: “You Got The Lies. Now For The Truth,” along with a list of Harp’s accomplishments. Taubes told me that the group organizes phone banking and door-to-door canvassing. “We don’t have money,” he said, “but we want to let [Mayor Harp] know that you don’t need money if you have people.”

Jones spoke to me with passion, and she emphasized her points by pounding one fist into her open hand. Harp was blamed for things that white mayors weren’t, she said—like lead poisoning, which has been a problem for decades. “I don’t like it, and I have an obligation and a responsibility to stand up and say, ‘No. That’s not right,’” Jones said. The People’s Campaign fulfills that obligation. “I want to educate people, so that people have the real truth,” she said. “Let’s talk about this woman’s record.”

“If you want me to be your mayor you’ve got to vote for me,” Harp said. “I’ve done my job.”

“Do you know how big it is that we don’t have to wake up and see there’s been another shooting in a high school community?” Jones added.

She was talking about YouthStat, a program designed to intervene with young people who are at risk of dying from gang violence. According to the CT Mirror, at least two young people were shot down on the streets within Harp’s first hundred days as mayor. So Harp brought together superintendents, principals, police officers, fire chiefs, and other professionals. They came up with criteria—grades, graduation, attendance, criminal history—for identifying the kids who were most at risk. Then they developed an electronic system to allow parents, social workers, teachers, and other adults to coordinate with each other to help the kids stay engaged in school. The resulting program was YouthStat, and since its creation in 2014, Harp told me, “We haven’t lost a kid.”

*

Harp seems torn about letting go. She told me she stayed on the ballot because she wanted to honor the Working Families Party’s nomination and give people another chance to vote for her. “So many people who said they didn’t vote in September thought that the real election was in November,” she said. “So I wanted them to have an opportunity to either vote for me or vote for my opponent.”

But if she wants to give voters another chance, why not actively campaign? Her voice gained momentum as she told me that Elicker’s primary run was full of malice and viciousness. She didn’t want to go through more of it.

“He smeared me, smeared my administration—the people who work hard on behalf of the people of New Haven every day—and it was undeserved,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be a part of allowing that to continue.”

Harp didn’t say that Elicker ran a racist or a sexist campaign. “I’m sure that men are attacked too,” she said. But she also said she had never seen anything in New Haven politics as vicious as Elicker’s campaign. “And I do happen to be a woman and an African-American, so I don’t know what his motive was, other than to win,” she said.

 Elicker’s campaign strategy seems to have worked. Sure, Harp doesn’t want to put herself through another round of his attacks. But maybe it’s also true that Harp won’t campaign because a part of her knows it won’t change the results of the general. Has she already let go?

*

Many of Harp’s supporters say they’re uncertain what would happen to New Haven without Harp as mayor. I asked Morrison how the city might change: “That is the biggest question that I have,” she said. She praised Harp for supporting the new Q House, a community center in Dixwell that opened in 1924 and shut down in 2003. Harp helped secure funding for a reopening of the center in 2020. “I am just so thankful to Mayor Harp for making Dixwell a priority,” Morrison said.

And Shaleah Williams, the YouthStat program coordinator, claimed that YouthStat was possible only because of Harp. “YouthStat is her baby, so to speak,” she said. She told me about a student who was disengaged from school because he needed glasses but didn’t have the means to get them. At a meeting, the school nurse told officials about the student’s situation. YouthStat assigned him a case manager, who spent almost two months helping him. The case manager took him to an eye doctor, got a prescription, and let him choose his frames. After that, Williams said, the student engaged more in school, and his grades improved.

“He smeared me, smeared my administration—the people who work hard on behalf of the people of New Haven every day—and it was undeserved.”

Williams, like Morrison, is apprehensive about the prospect of Harp’s departure. Harp “understands the youth in this city and what’s necessary to help them along,” Williams said. She worries that new mayors won’t “have the heart that she does.”

This might be Harp’s last term as mayor, but YouthStat and the Q House will outlast her. And maybe it’s some consolation to her supporters that institutions like these will live on as proof of Harp’s time in this city.

But what will Harp do if she isn’t mayor next term? She’s not quite sure. “I may do some of what you’re doing,” she told me. “I may write—memoirs or something—and it may be helpful to people.”

Harp seemed surprised—or maybe relieved—when I brought up her free time. She talked faster, unburdened by the thought of how her words might be used against her. I asked if she saw her children much. “My daughter lives with me, so I see her every day.” She laughed, one of the few times in our interview. “And that’s my first grandchild right there. He just turned a year and a half.” She pointed to a photograph on her office wall.

On Sundays she goes to Center Church on the Green with her daughters. She’s a member of groups that help “the city’s neediest.” She has two dogs, Ella and Cece, and she plays with them in her backyard twice a day. “So, you know, I have things to do with my time,” she said. And she laughed again, briefly.

Eli Mennerick is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.

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