New Haven mayoral candidates bring debate to campus

“I have a confession to make—I went to Harvard,” said New Haven mayoral candidate Henry Fernandez, LAW ’93. Amid chuckles from the full auditorium in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Fernandez went on to outline his educational background and his track record of non-profit support and community mobilization. The five candidates in Saturday’s mayoral debate, sponsored by the Yale College Democrats, tried to strike a balance between issues relevant to Yale students and citywide initiatives.

The candidates themselves are mixed in background and experience. Justin Elicker is a second-term Ward 10 Alderman and environmental consultant. Ferndandez has experience as the former New Haven Economic Development Administrator. Gary Holder-Winfield, a state representative from the New Haven-Hamden district since 2008, has pushed for legislation to abolish the death penalty and reform campaign finance statutes. Matthew Nemerson, former president of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, points to his 30-plus years of experience working for the city. Sundiata Keitazulu is a plumber from Newhallville who strove to focus Saturday’s conversation on job creation.

In their opening remarks, candidates spoke to their experience and laid out broad visions for the future of the city. Elicker reminded students that “New Haven is a promise that has been granted, and granted well over the centuries.” He said that as mayor he would restore that promise. Holder-Winfield, Fernandez, and Keitazulu each emphasized the mayor’s duty to provide opportunities for New Haven youth, while Nemerson focused on his past experience of working at the state level to bring innovation to the city.

When asked about job creation, Nemerson told the crowd that New Haven needs to increase construction and manufacturing. “We should be the center of the manufacturing community,” he said. “We used to be, and we’ve lost it to other areas.”

“The nature of work is changing,” Fernandez added. “That’s why education initiatives like Gateway Community College are so important.” Keitazulu said he wants to open more vocational training schools. Elicker offered the boldest promise of the day: to bring 10,001 jobs to New Haven.

On the topics of community policing, immigration, and education reform, the candidates echoed similar platforms. All five said they support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants; all believe that the town-gown relationship is crucially important; and all agree on the need for new programs to keep kids off the street. “I had to fight for my education,” Holder-Winfield said, “and I don’t want education to be a fight.”

The one area over which the candidates seriously clashed was campaign financing. Holder-Winfield, who strongly supports the New Haven Democracy Fund’s public financing system, advocated “getting the money out of politics.” Fernandez, on the other hand, has opted out of the public finance system. “I mean, I’m comparing myself to Obama here,” Fernandez said, “and he isn’t controlled by big interests, is he?” Fernandez’s appeal to the crowd was met with jeers. Members of the audience also voiced disapproval of Nemerson’s claim that “it doesn’t matter where our money comes from.”

In their closing statements, most of the candidates made a plug for students to get involved. All five optimistically concluded that New Haven has potential for growth.

Nicole Hobbs ES ’15, president of the Yale College Democrats, said that the outcome of the Democratic primary will depend on the candidates’ abilities to appeal to different areas of New Haven. “We’re a really diverse city,” she said. “Rep. Holder-Winfield is from one area and Alderman Elicker knows another part really well, and the challenge will be for the different candidates to reach out. But we’re excited to see it.” The Dems will not endorse a candidate in the primary, which will be held on Sept. 10.

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