A few observations about yesterday’s historic election in New Haven:
One of Toni Harp’s keys to success on Tuesday was a very strong base in New Haven’s African-American community, especially among African-American women, for whom Harp’s candidacy resonated on a deeply personal level. But equally important was the consistency of her appeal across New Haven’s 30 wards. That’s not to say she didn’t lose some wards by considerable margins — for example, Morris Cove’s Ward 18, where Elicker trounced her by more than 600 votes (the highest discrepancy between the two candidates in any ward). Yet while Elicker received fewer than 100 votes in seven different wards, Harp’s lowest total in any ward was 188. Without exit polling we can only speculate about the racial breakdown of Tuesday’s vote, but the ward-level results indicate that while Elicker clearly won the white vote, Harp did not elicit the kind of ‘white backlash’ that often dooms minority candidates. As with Obama in 2008, that speaks both to her personal qualities — Harp may be polarizing in some respects, but she is not racially polarizing — and to the campaign that she ran, which mirrored Obama’s with her exceptional knack for maintaining a strong bond with her African-American base without compromising her ability to attract support from the political and economic establishment, including a lot of rich white people. Comparing Harp to John Daniels across a generation gives a whiff of the meaning of “Post-Obama Era.” Both Harp and Daniels became mayor of New Haven after serving as state senator from the tenth district. Following the Tom Bradley model, Daniels’s historic campaign in 1989 to become the city’s first black mayor successfully attracted white liberals into a winning multi-racial coalition, but Harp went beyond that, as Obama did, in securing support not only from across the entire Democratic Party establishment, including the local party machine (which virulently opposed Daniels), but also from wealthy white donors representing business and real estate interests. She proved to be a prodigious fundraiser, collecting checks from an impressive variety of political action committees, and her cautious campaign, in which she hewed to the center and surrounded herself with people intended to reassure the business community and bond markets, was (like Obama’s in 2008 and even more so in 2012) very much an establishment affair. When Daniels was elected, he said “The Daniels administration will belong to the people of New Haven, not the so-called bosses… or the big campaign contributors.” He might have been referring to some of the people at Harp’s victory party at Kelly’s 24 years later.
Because the second charter revision question New Haven voters will face on Tuesday is an omnibus package containing many separate elements, voters have to weigh the parts they like against the parts they don’t like. The most straightforward way to think about this is if you like more parts than you dislike, you should vote yes. If you dislike more than you like, vote no. Of course you have to factor in how much you like the parts you like versus how much you dislike the parts you dislike; you might vote yes because you really like one provision and hate all the rest, or vice versa. But either way it’s a 50-50 scale.
It is no secret that Senator Toni Harp has received endorsements and campaign contributions from an almost bewildering variety of organized interests: real estate developers, landlords, Chamber of Commerce-types (e.g. her former rival Matt Nemerson), law firms (e.g. Robinson & Cole), doctors’ groups (e.g. CT Association of Optometrists), state lobbyists, construction unions, the two powerful Yale unions, public employee unions, clergy groups, and various other constituencies. Some of these are traditional sources of support for Democratic candidates (labor, trial lawyers), while others are not. One measure of this kind of institutional support is PAC donations, which have made up about 20% of Harp’s fundraising. Meanwhile Justin Elicker has received few endorsements from organized interest groups and has not taken PAC money. Harp has defended the PAC money flooding into her campaign coffers by saying that you cannot pigeonhole her support as being just from business or labor or any other single group, and that her appeal to a diversity of special interests is a sign of virtue, not corruption. To Elicker supporters and some good-government purists that might sound like silly self-justification, but there is actually a good deal of political science research suggesting it is perfectly reasonable. You could easily paraphrase Harp’s argument in classic pluralist terms that would make Robert Dahl smile: if you have enough special interests from enough different parts of the political spectrum looking to reap returns on their political ‘investments,’ these narrow interests balance each other out and the outcome is successful representative government. It might sound paradoxical, but according to this theory of governance, the more special interests supporting a particular politician, the better able he or she is to carry out the people’s will.
James Madison would probably have disagreed: in Federalist Number 10 Madison used the derogatory term “faction” to describe interest groups, and most Americans have traditionally agreed with Madison’s unfavorable view of interest groups as nefarious actors operating in a financially self-interested fashion that is bad for the body politic as a whole. In more recent times, many political scientists (particularly Robert Dahl and his followers) have produced research that suggests otherwise. Dahl’s ”pluralist theory” argues that interest group activity brings representation to all by fostering healthy competition in the political marketplace. The pluralist group theory of politics argues: 1) Groups provide a key linkage between people and government, 2) Groups compete in an open marketplace of ideas and philosophies, 3) No one group is likely to become too dominant, 4) groups usually play by the “rules of the game,” and 5) Advocacy (a.k.a. lobbying) is simply about access to information and is available to everyone in society, and is therefore a good thing, not a bad thing.
One of the few specific proposals Toni Harp has offered in her campaign is a seven-part plan to overhaul New Haven’s outdated ethics laws, many of which have not been updated in 50 years. Unfortunately the release of her plan was overshadowed by revelations about her late husband’s tax-delinquent business, which emerged at the same time in July. Indeed, if enacted Harp’s plan will certainly be put to good use on the various city contractors and lobbyists who have contributed to her campaign.
Nonetheless Harp should be commended for her interest in ethics reform — the kind of “process issue” that typically yields little political reward. But there are at least four areas where Harp’s plan needs improvement:
1) The main feature of the plan is requiring people who seek (or advocate on behalf of those seeking) city contracts or city business valued at over $50,000 to pay a fee and register as lobbyists. But the state and federal government already have such a requirement and it doesn’t work. There are thousands of unregistered lobbyists in Washington DC, many of whom disguise their activities by working for law firms. In the 2012 Republican primary Newt Gingrich became the subject of scandal and derision for referring to his multimillion-dollar lobbying deals as giving “strategic advice.” Tony Podesta, a top Democratic lobbyist, recently told NPR: ”It’s largely a matter of choice that each of us makes, as to whether we comply with the law or not. I could become an unregistered lobbyist with the flick of a pen.” There are even fewer resources for enforcing lobbyist registration requirements in New Haven than at the federal level.
2) Much of the plan simply restates current ethics law and responsibilities of the Board of Ethics as if new solutions were being proposed and new areas of conflict-of-interest were being addressed. For example, the plan calls for ethics trainings, but ethics trainings already exist in New Haven for all board and commission members. The problem with these trainings is that attendance is not compulsory — and many if not most board and commission members simply do not bother to attend. Similarly, many board and commission members neglect by accident or design to fill out their annual conflict-of-interest disclosure form. That includes not just appointed members, but also elected officials: in 2012 eight aldermen neglected to submit disclosure forms until they were exposed by the New Haven Independent. The Board of Ethics cannot even achieve this minimal level of compliance because it has no resources, no subpoena power, and no staff support. Harp’s plan calls for providing the Board of Ethics with the necessary resources, but offers no specific blueprint or strategy for doing so.
3) For Harp to enact her plan, she would almost certainly need to convene a new charter revision commission, which seems unlikely considering that New Haven has just gone through charter revision and is not scheduled to do so again until 2023. According to the current charter, the Board of Ethics has only three members, which is untenable for a volunteer board with the kind of considerable responsibilities that Harp wants to endow it with. A three-member board often has difficulty achieving quorum and cannot easily form subcommittees to carry out specialized tasks. The state-level ethics advisory board has nine members, a more typical size. Another problem with Harp’s plan is that she calls for the Board of Ethics to have its own budget and be “independent” of the mayor’s office, but it is hard to see how that can be achieved without changing the procedure (enshrined in the charter) by which the board is constituted, which is mayoral appointment. It would make more sense for the Board to have an appointment procedure similar to the Civilian Review Board — with neighborhood organizations or community management teams nominating members. Another option, used in some jurisdictions, is asking a local Bar Association chapter to nominate ethics board members. Harp had ample opportunity, but failed to propose these structural changes at any of the charter revision public hearings earlier this year.
4) There are three mutually reinforcing elements of a good-government agenda: ethics reform, campaign finance reform, and redistricting reform. It is a three-legged stool that is only as strong as its weakest link. Ethics reform functions best in tandem with campaign finance reform and redistricting reform. So it is troubling that Harp has raised the possibility of defunding or eliminating the New Haven Democracy Fund, the city’s program for public financing of mayoral elections. That would be a step in the wrong direction and would completely undermine anything she might accomplish in the area of ethics.
If Harp achieves an almost-certain victory next Tuesday, her first action as mayor should be to ask the Board of Alders to convene a charter revision commission to expand the Board of Ethics and rewrite the charter’s Code of Ethics to prevent the kind of ethical mess exposed by Andy Rizzo’s revolving-door lobbying earlier this year. She should ask the Board of Alders to write the strongest ethics ordinances in the country. And she should come out and clearly state that she will not eliminate the New Haven Democracy Fund, but will work with the Board of Alders and good-government groups like Common Cause and League of Women Voters to improve and strengthen it.
On paper Henry Fernandez was the perfect candidate: an African-American with a Hispanic surname who could also appeal to white progressives. He had a compelling personal story of escaping childhood poverty to attain two Ivy League degrees; impeccable progressive credentials reinforced by endorsements from the likes of Danny Glover and Van Jones; a formidable fundraising apparatus bolstered by his Ivy League connections and tacit endorsement from Mayor John DeStefano; experience in city government, having run two different city departments; a politically active wife who could help bring along her own loyal constituency. If you read articles like this flattering Kevin Rennie column or this glowing Chris Keating profile in the Hartford Courant leading up to the primary, you probably would have thought Harp and Fernandez were running neck and neck. Given Fernandez’s impressive resume and strong debating skills, who can blame the clueless Hartford pundits for thinking Fernandez was a real contender?
Is ___ the next Detroit? For obvious reasons (mainly schadenfreude and political opportunism), this has become a popular meme not only for political pundits but also for mayoral candidates in New Haven (and elsewhere) looking to capitalize on Detroit’s misfortune.
Justin Elicker says “New Haven is Detroit ten years ago,” but in any case it should be pretty obvious that at least for the moment New Haven is not Detroit. On the one hand the two cities both suffer from huge unfunded pension and health care liabilities; they have both relied too heavily on borrowing, one-time asset sales, and shell-game gimmicks to balance their books; and both have tax bases that cannot meet the need for city services without substantial state aid. But Detroit differs from New Haven in at least one key aspect of credit-worthiness: for New Haven to become Detroit, its tax collection rate would have to plummet from 95% to below 60%. More than anything else, it has been the increasing inability to collect taxes (at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in lost revenue) that has undermined the full faith and credit of once-mighty Detroit. The sovereign debt crisis in Greece, where $15 billion are lost every year in tax evasion, has a similar origin. If all the taxes in Greece were actually collected, instead of siphoned off into bribes and offshore bank accounts, its structural deficits would almost completely disappear. Similarly, if Detroit raised its tax collection rate to that of New Haven, it would still have financial problems, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the devastating insolvency that has made it the butt of jokes and the cruel sophistry of right-wing pundits.
To see how Powell’s supply-side voodoo determinism leads to absurd conclusions, look at Powell’s misleading discussion of population trends. Powell notes that New Haven “is estimated to have about 131,000 people (2012) – fewer than in 1910” and explains the decline as a function of “high taxes… and ‘progressive’ policies.” In fact, New Haven’s population has remained fairly stable over the last 30 years, and actually increased between 2000 and 2010 (the largest increase in any of the state’s big cities), a period during which property tax rates rose 10-15%. New Haven’s population trends over the past century have been a function of national immigration policy and changes in the geography of manufacturing wrought by globalization; not only is there no causal relationship with tax rates, there is not even any correlation. If there were a correlation, it would probably indicate that white flight had hollowed out the city’s tax base and led to rising taxes, not the other way around. (This is the one-two punch that more than anything else has led to the downward spiral in Detroit.) To look at it another way, the fastest growing places in Connecticut over the last decade — Colchester, Sterling, Hebron, and Tolland — offer cheap land (a rare commodity in a high-income, densely settled state) but not necessarily low mill rates. It is hard to see how the population statistics cited by Powell support his arguments; if anything they undermine him. But when all you have is neoclassical economics, everything looks like a nail.
[Cross-posted at MyLeftNutmeg.]
With the August 7 filing deadline in the rearview mirror, the primary field for New Haven’s historic mayoral election is set, with one clear frontrunner (state senator Toni Harp) and three challengers (Alderman Justin Elicker, former economic development official Henry Fernandez, and educator Kermit Carolina) vying to be the Democratic nominee on the November ballot, a position from which Democrats have triumphed in every mayoral election since 1953.
Can anyone stop the high-flying Harp campaign? After recovering from some early campaign stumbles, she has assembled all the ingredients for victory: money (she has opted out of participating in public financing, allowing her to fill her coffers with $1000 checks from non-resident lobbyists and ‘friends’ from the state capitol); organization muscle, including the support of nearly all the labor unions (both public- and private-sector) and the local party apparatus, which deposed the DeStefano machine in 2011 and 2012. With her formidable resources, with the entire Democratic establishment (except Mayor DeStefano) behind her, she has achieved the kind of frontrunner status that has already induced three of her former rivals to drop out and endorse her.
Much attention has been given lately to the fact the Democratic primary is no longer the only dispositive election for municipal office in New Haven, as the share of unaffiliated voters continues to rise. All of the mayoral candidates besides Harp have left open the possibility of running in the general election. Does that offer a realistic path to victory for any of Harp’s challengers?
Despite raising the most campaign cash according to most recent disclosure reports, Fernandez’s dim path to victory gets murkier by the day. Mainly because of his ties to DeStefano, he lacks the appeal to independent and fiscally-conscious voters that will boost Elicker in a potential November re-match against Harp. The math isn’t there for Fernandez to come back from losing the primary to win the general, unless he finishes a close second on September 10, and then uses his prodigious fundraising ability to bludgeon Harp in the home stretches of October with mountains of negative advertising. Most observers would say Fernandez’s better bet is to spend his money sooner rather than later, and try to knock out Harp in the primary rather than in November. Lack of funds can’t be the reason Fernandez has waited so long to begin his advertising blitz. With barely four weeks left in the primary campaign, Fernandez hasn’t left himself much time to get his message across to voters — a tardiness that he may come to regret.
Kermit Carolina has no realistic path to victory in either the primary or the general. His impact will be the extent to which he takes votes away from other candidates. If he remains on the general election ballot, which he has qualified for, that could help Elicker by drawing away votes for Harp, the other candidate perceived as having the most appeal in the African-American community. On the other hand, there is some evidence that Carolina is energizing younger voters who wouldn’t otherwise be supporting any other candidate, so his spoiler role may be minimal.
Elicker’s narrow path to victory clearly runs through the general election. The tenth ward alderman, who appears to be running second in private polling, seems to have accepted Harp’s almost-inevitable victory in the Democratic primary and set his sights on November, when almost 25,000 unaffiliated, Republican, and third-party voters will be eligible to participate. Unaffiliated is the fastest growing voter bloc in New Haven and comprises almost 30% of the electorate. While the other candidates (excluding Harp) decided late in the process to get on the November ballot as a kind of insurance policy, Elicker has been clear all along that he was intent on running in the general, despite the predictable accusations of “pulling a Lieberman.”
The perils of this November-focused strategy are twofold: he has to tread carefully as he tries to appeal to fiscally conservative and tax-conscious independent and GOP voters while not alienating his more liberal backers. His other problem is that he cannot use the funds he has received from the New Haven Democracy Fund (Connecticut’s only public financing program for mayoral elections) in the general election. New Haven’s public financing law has a “sore loser” provision that forbids a participating candidate from using public funds in the general election after losing a primary. So Elicker will have to spend all his public funds in the primary, and then raise private funds outside the public financing system for the general. Elicker has proven himself a formidable small-dollar fundraiser who has refuted the conventional wisdom that a candidate participating in the Democracy Fund cannot compete financially with non-participating candidates, but it remains to be seen whether as a non-establishment candidate he can raise the big-dollar contributions he will likely need to compete in the general.
Elicker’s game plan for the next three months is strikingly similar to the one adopted by Jeffrey Kerekes in 2011. A political newcomer, the little-known Kerekes pulled in 45% of the general election vote against DeStefano despite being outspent more than 10-to-1. Kerekes had won only 22% in the four-way primary, but in the general he was able to successfully consolidate the anti-DeStefano vote and appeal to GOP and independent voters to achieve a near-victory that many observers have credited with influencing DeStefano’s decision to retire.
In order to win, Elicker will need to hold Harp to 5000 votes in the primary (approximately what DeStefano received in 2011), then consolidate the anti-Harp vote in the general, win 80% of Republicans and 60% of unaffiliated voters, and rack up huge margins in the wards comprising his East Rock base. If Carolina chooses to continue into November, that could provide a critical boost to Elicker’s chances by diverting votes from Harp. If everything goes right for him, Elicker might be able to eke out a victory in November.
The smart money is on Harp. For one of her challengers to prevail, it will require not only a flawless campaign from Elicker or Fernandez, but also some assistance from Carolina as a spoiler, and probably also some serious missteps by Harp herself (sexting under the pseudonym Carla Danger?). Her position at the moment is so dominant that even that kind of ‘perfect storm’ — the kind of blindsiding scenario that allowed Elizabeth Esty to win the Democratic primary last year in Connecticut’s fifth congressional district — might not be enough.
Now that New Haven’s decennial charter revision process has essentially concluded, it is an appropriate time to reflect on where it succeeded and where it did not. On the positive side, the charter revision commission gets high marks for transparency and public engagement — exceeding the statutory minimum requirement for public hearings, moving the location of public hearings out into the community, and holding open working group meetings. Certain New Haven bad habits are hard to dispel, and regrettably there were some important decisions made behind closed doors — the appointment of Michael Smart as commission chairman was cooked up in a smoke-filled room somewhere, and the basis for the momentous decision to divide the charter amendments into two ballot questions was completely opaque. (The crafting of ballot language is a fraught political choice, not an entry-level task to be tossed off as an after-thought; it can determine whether charter revision succeeds or fails on election day, and it should not be made without public input.) For the most part the fifteen-member commission responded to concerns brought out in public testimony, as I recommended last fall in the New Haven Register, rather than boorishly pursuing their own agenda or slavishly taking their cues from the Board of Aldermen. Overall the transparency of the process went beyond the call of duty and set a positive precedent that the next charter revision commission — which may not be convened until 2023 — would be wise to replicate.
On the other side of the ledger, the commission failed to deal with some long-overdue reforms like nonpartisan redistricting and overhauling the woefully obsolete Code of Ethics, which has not been updated since 1961. While the charter commission was finalizing its recommendations, an ethics scandal involving a recently retired building department official waltzing through the revolving door and becoming a lobbyist highlighted the pressing need for the latter. It makes sense to situate the commission’s glaring oversights in the context of the tendency of charter commissions to be straitjacketed, or to straitjacket themselves, with a particular overarching focus and vocabulary that end up defining not only which elements of the charter they choose to scrutinize, but how they approach reforming them. In some cases the straitjacket is explicit from the outset: in 1950s New Haven, Mayor Richard C. Lee brazenly attempted several times to use charter commissions to increase the already-substantial power of the mayor’s office, attempts that were mainly thwarted by voters despite Lee’s overwhelming popularity, a useful reminder that most charter referendums end in failure. Other charter revision commissions have been convened with the express purpose of overhauling the structure of schools governance (see Bridgeport in 2012) or for some other specific project, usually determined by the mayor. In other cases, a charter revision commission takes on a particular focus through a more organic or accidental process. To take a benign view, the task of amending an arcane and bewildering document like the charter can be rendered more manageable by adopting a particular rubric, no matter how arbitrary.
Whether by design or by accident the charter commission that was convened in December 2012 to revise ‘New Haven’s Magna Carta’ took as its primary goal, its overarching frame of reference, the need to rebalance power between the mayor and the Board of Aldermen. This goal seemed to become more explicit as the commission’s work progressed. The commission pursued many unrelated things — e.g. eliminating anachronistic language in the charter and making the document gender-neutral — but most of its major proposals, from introducing two elected seats on the school board to giving the aldermen confirmation authority over ALL board and commissions (including the Board of Education and the two planning and zoning bodies) to codifying the civilian review board (which until now has existed solely by virtue of executive order) have all had the effect, if not the explicit intention, of limiting the mayor’s power, increasing the power of the Board of Aldermen, or both. At times the overriding impulse to empower the legislature at the expense of the executive led to perverse decisions, such as giving the Board of Aldermen the power not merely to confirm members of the Board of Zoning Appeal, but to actually appoint two members of the BZA. The commission adopted this change very late in the process in response to public testimony about conflicts of interest on the BZA. Instead of reducing the number of city officials eligible to serve on the BZA (in order to balance the power of both mayor and aldermen against the power of average citizens), or beefing up the Code of Ethics, the charter commission adopted a change that no member of the public had asked for, and that some of the groups with concerns about the BZA actually opposed. The change in BZA appointment procedure is not inconsequential, and the fact that it has has been amalgamated into an omnibus ballot question will ensure it receives very little scrutiny by the public.
The point is that not every aspect of the charter can be fit into the procrustean bed of mayoral versus aldermanic power; but when all you have is a hammer, everything looks a nail. If you think a good charter commission needs to be more of a fox than a hedgehog — that it’s okay to pursue many small changes without some overarching (or overreaching) mission — then you might conclude that despite its good intentions and its laudable procedural openness this commission has been a failure.