New Haven Mayor-Elect Justin Elicker has vowed stability, continuity — and nuts-and-bolts improvements to how government interacts with citizens, rather than a “house-cleaning.”
The city’s newly minted 51st mayor-elect delivered that message at a low-key post-election press conference held at his 161 Whalley Ave. campaign headquarters.
Fifteen hours after the former East Rock/Cedar Hill alder, nonprofit executive, and 2013 mayoral runner up found out that he had defeated incumbent Mayor Toni Harp by more than a 2 to 1 margin, Elicker held the 15-minute press conference. He had no prepared remarks, no announcements to make. He dived right into answering questions from reporters.
Elicker sought to put an end to the bitterly divisive campaign Tuesday night by lauding Harp’s 32 years of public service and myriad accomplishments during her three terms in the mayor’s office. In that vein, Elicker turned his even-handed praise Wednesday towards the department heads and city staff who currently occupy City Hall.
“I think the overwhelming majority of city employees are hardworking people that are working to do the right thing,” he said.
He said many supporters and residents have told him over the course of the campaign, “You’ve got to clean house! You’ve got to clean house!”
That’s not exactly where his head is at, Elicker said, even after winning a decisive victory at the polls.
For one, he pointed out, most current department heads have two years left on their four-year contracts. “I can’t just unilaterally go in and fire a lot of people,” he said. “I’m not saying that I would necessarily do that, either.”
New Haven has reached a consensus on the broad role of government, Elicker observed, one that he and the Harp camp share, he said. “At the end of the day, most New Haven residents are Democrats. We view the role of government in people’s lives much the same way. We have the same goals,” including “high-quality education,” housing code enforcement, keeping taxes in check.
As he looks forward to his first term as mayor, he said, he’s thinking most about how best to improve municipal services and government transparency. Without taking a wrecking ball to 165 Church St.
“At the end of the day, the directors in city departments are working hard and they believe in what they’re doing,” he said. “So I’m going to work as best I can with them to make sure that we get the job done.
“At the end of the day, the directors in city departments are working hard and they believe in what they’re doing. So I’m going to work as best I can with them to make sure that we get the job done.”
“We may not always agree exactly on the direction. That will be a conversation with them to make sure that we are changing course in some areas of the city. But I am looking to work with people that were a part of Mayor Harp’s administration and now, in many cases, will be a part of mine if they decide to stay or decide not to leave.”
He said a priority of his administration will be “addressing the issues of every resident.” That doesn’t necessarily mean swapping out current staff for new staff, he said, but rather better managing the city’s data systems so that residents and city staffers have clear, open lines of communication and understandings of when and how a concern is being addressed.
“This is something I want to work,” he said, “that we manage the city’s data system better.”
He said the best short-term solution for the past few year’s of turmoil at the Board of Education and in the higher ranks of the public school system is stability under the interim superintendent, the fourth district leader in four years.
“My sense is that Dr. [Ilene] Tracey] is going to bring that stability,” he said.
He offered a similar continuity about relations with the Board of Alders. He vowed to continue and build on the relationship Mayor Harp developed with Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers, including meeting together regularly.
On his first morning, he had already touched base with the mayors of Bridgeport, Waterbury, and Hartford, as well as with Yale President Peter Salovey.
“If we work together as a team, we’re way more likely to get things done for our cities,” he said.
Elicker said he’ll be making an announcement soon as to who will be leading his transition team, which he expects will consist of around 20 people. He promised that the group will have people who supported his campaign as well as people who supported Mayor Harp’s re-election campaigns.
He said the most important attributes for transition team hires as well as subsequent City Hall appointments will be their ethical compass; their expertise in important areas of need like housing, prison reentry, and public education; that they reflect the diversity of the city; and that they are as accessible to all city residents in the way he made himself to be over the course of his campaign.
“I will continue to use the same cellphone,” he said, keeping the number he gave out to the public on the trail. And he’s soliciting feedback from all residents on his campaign website for whom people for hiring recommendations and policy areas of interest.
“I want this process to be inclusive,” he said about his transition to leading City Hall over the next two months. “We are very open to getting feedback from so many New Haven residents.”
He cautioned that the challenges that he outlined in his campaign — on taxes, public education, quality employment — have no easy fixes.
“I think that this will take time,” he said. “It will be challenging.” But at the end of the day, if all city residents come together, work together, and have patience, “we’ll be able to accomplish a lot together.”
This story was first published Nov. 6, 2019, in the New Haven Independent.