In a surprise move, state Sen. Toni Harp said Monday that she has changed her mind and is now running for mayor of New Haven – a move that shakes up a potentially raucous Democratic primary.
One of best-known politicians in the Elm City, Harp currently represents about half the city from her seat in the state Senate, sharing it with Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney. Entering the race has little downside for Harp, who would still retain her legislative seat even if she loses in the September primary. Her state Senate term does not expire until January 2015.
For the past 20 years, Harp has served as a member of the budget-writing appropriations committee, which is arguably the most powerful committee at the state Capitol. Harp, the co-chairwoman, just finished a busy two-month period in crafting the committee’s final recommendations in trying to balance the two-year, $43.8 billion state budget, and the Democratic-controlled committee approved the recommendations on a party-line vote Friday.
“I changed my mind over the weekend,’’ Harp told Capitol Watch in an interview Monday. “I’m going to do it.’’
Harp, 65, said she has been thinking about running for mayor “for a number of years,’’ but did not want to challenge John DeStefano, the Democratic incumbent who has held the job for the past 20 years. DeStefano announced in January that he is not running this fall.
When asked about her relationship with DeStefano, Harp said, “I’m loyal to our delegation and our city. I have a great deal of respect for him.’’
Known as a hard worker, Harp knows the details of the state budget as well as anyone at the state Capitol.
Former state Republican chairman Chris Healy said that getting into the race less than five months before the primary would normally be a problem for an obscure neighborhood alderman, but not for Harp.
“She is a very strong candidate,’’ Healy said. “She has support. She has name recognition. If the budget gets done by June, she’ll have more than enough time. In the next couple of months, she’ll try to get as much support as possible.’’
With so many alliances and rivalries, New Haven politics is “Beirut-like at times’’ and “similar to Chicago’’ with warring factions and internal clashes, Healy said. For the past 20 years, DeStefano has been able to hold the factions together in order to win reelection multiple times. An outspoken political survivor and the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, DeStefano presides over a city that now has 80,000 jobs, including new ones at Ikea, Pfizer and downtown retail shops that did not exist when DeStefano took over in January 1994. Harp began a key role in that same month as a state senator, and they both have 20-year histories in high-profile positions in the city.
“She’s done pretty well for the city in her capacity as a state senator,’’ Healy said.
Harp was married for decades to Wendell Harp, a well-connected architect, developer and political fundraiser who died at the age of 64 in December 2011.
She will have an immediate impact on the race as the best-known of the six candidates, which includes state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, former president of the Greater New Haven chamber of commerce Matthew Nemerson, Yale Law School graduate and former DeStefano aide Henry Fernandez, city alderman Justin Elicker, and Sundiata Keitazulu, a 55-year-old plumber who changed his name from John Denby.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has dealt with Harp on budget issues, said Monday that she will be tough to beat.
“I was shocked when she didn’t announce almost instantaneously when Mayor DeStefano decided not to run,” Malloy told Capitol Watch. “Obviously, she’s had a change of heart. I think she’s a formidable candidate, and the people of New Haven will have an opportunity to speak to that issue.’’