Postcards from an Historic Campaign

The work was stressful, educational, challenging, sometimes nasty but always exciting. That’s how I would sum up my time as communications director for Toni Harp’s mayoral campaign. Harp of course became the first African American woman to win the Elm City’s highest office on Election Day.

Here are some observations about the campaign:

• Harp supporters have to be the most passionate people I’ve ever seen. I’ve worked on some campaigns in which the retired seniors working on the race sat at headquarters munching on Fiddle Faddle and Bugles and drinking gallons of Diet Pepsi all day. Not so in this race. Two women in particular come to mind (no names in this case so as not to offend the others). They had more energy and were more productive than many of the younger folks. Harp won by an enormous margin in the senior housing projects where absentee ballots are key.

• Toni Harp is personally a bit of an introvert. Unassuming, humble and even shy, it was a challenge to fire her up at times. It’s not her style. Those are wonderful attributes for a public servant but kind of tough for a candidate. Fortunately, she’s also brilliant, tireless and deeply caring. And she did fire it up indeed. She’ll be a great mayor.

• Toni’s son Matthew Harp is to be commended for his restraint and professionalism. The company he inherited from his deceased father was under constant attack for owing taxes to the state and for having some of the properties the company managed in need of repairs. In a nutshell, the taxes were disputed by the company so it took it to court—as is the right of every citizen or business entity. The company lost in the Connecticut Supreme Court and is now working with the state to pay it off. End of story.

 

Photo New Haven IndependentWith Mathew Harp at first debate

Photo New Haven Independent
With Mathew Harp at first debate

The “slumlord” charge was offensive and nonsense. Sure, some of the properties were in need of serious repairs. But things got out of control on this nonissue at the first debate in the general election. Two guys dressed as the “Pay-to-Play Pirates” were passing out literature showing dilapidated, dangerous conditions at properties in the city and then inviting people to a “Pay-to-Play Pirate Ball.” (Even in comedy the lowest on the rung is the prop comic.) First, there was no attribution on the papers being passed out as to who paid for the material and who funded the “pirates” and second, it showed properties that Matthew Harp’s company doesn’t even own! I happened to be standing next to Matt before the debate when we got ahold of the handout. He was understandably furious but we talked about how the story of the night had to be the debate and not these clowns, uh, pirates.

And the most outrageous statement in the material read, “By consistently hoodwinking the landlubbers into believing she’s one of them! Who would know that this year running for mayor is a half-Asian woman raised in Utah who lives in a million dollar home…We love our Harpee!” Unreal. We didn’t make an issue of it at the time because we wanted to focus on the issues and not raise the lies again. Who was responsible for the slander? Well, Harp had only opponent at the time, Justin Elicker. But Elicker was supported by Kermit Carolina, he of getting-up-in-the-governor’s-grill fame.

These are the types of things that turn people off from politics. Back before he announced he would run, Elicker said, “I think nationally, people are tired of politics that are negative and candidates that only talk about how bad the other candidate is. If I do run, I think an energetic and optimistic campaign around issues of public engagement will win the day.”– Justin Elicker, Yale Daily News, Nov. 13, 2012. Yeah, right.

• The media in New Haven is interesting and unique. Having spent years as a journalist myself, I never subscribed to the idea that reporter write stories to sell papers. In my opinion, reporters just try to write good stories. Their motivation is never “to sell papers.” However, I do believe papers want to stay relevant in political race for as long as they can.

The New Haven Register seemed particularly negative to the Harp campaign. They were happy to keep raising issues that had long ago been debated—everyone knew where the candidates stood. But they endorsed Henry Fernandez in the primary and when he came in third in a four-person race, they were in a bit of a bind. The race was now down to Harp who got 50 percent of the vote and Elicker who got 23 percent. If the Register wanted to stay relevant on the race for the next two months, they needed to get to on my candidate.

One particular instance stands out. We put together a diaper drive to help low-income mothers obtain diapers (a recent Yale study showed and astounding number of low-income, many times single moms reported problems in paying for diapers. It was shown to cause serious mental health and other problems). At an event at the New Haven Diaper Bank at which more than 4,500 diapers were donated. Officials there were overjoyed.

The Register’s Mary O’Leary however, focused on the fact that a couple of years ago, a line item in the state budget that dedicated some money to the diaper bank was eliminated. And how could Sen. Harp claim ownership of this issue if she couldn’t save that money?

Harp answered that all such programs were being cut that year and she fought to save other programs from even further cuts. When O’Leary persisted on the issue, Harp playfully said, “Oh, Mary…” to the amusement of all of us in attendance. It became very clear where the Register was going—there had to actually be a race. (The Register did endorse Harp in the general election. However, the endorsement was so tepid as to almost be damning by faint praise.)

The New Haven Independent’s coverage was fairer. Paul Bass and company do excellent work for the most part. However, Bass has a bit of a penchant to try stand out. Sometimes the story needs to be about how it’s his story, not just the news as it is. I don’t think that’s a particularly a bad thing.

All in all, working on the campaign was a great experience. I met great people, learned a lot about New Haven politics, and gave me a feeling of participating in some really historic. Whenever Toni Harp needs me, I’ll be there to help.