Taking the Lead
Mayor Justin Elicker guides New Haven through an historic time
by Cara Rosner / photography by STAN GODLEWSKI
Leading one of Connecticut’s largest and most diverse cities is no easy task under typical circumstances. But just a couple months into his first term, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker – like the rest of the world – was thrown a major curveball when the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the political, social, and cultural landscapes.
Throughout the crisis, Elicker, who lives in the East Rock neighborhood with his wife and two young daughters, has been a near-constant presence to New Haveners, hosting press briefings almost daily to provide updates. From his earliest days as a mayoral candidate, he was eager to connect with his constituents, often organizing events where citizens could ask questions, voice concerns, and share their love of New Haven face to face. These days his outreach continues, though largely virtually.
One recent afternoon, more than two months into the COVID-19 outbreak, Elicker, 44, took time out of a busy day to talk – via Zoom – about what it’s like to lead New Haven, some of his favorite local spots, and what he most looks forward to when the city emerges from the pandemic.
Q: What led you to pursue a career in public service?
A: I’ve spent most of my life doing things that were focused on having positive impact on the world. I’ve been a teacher in multiple capacities [at the elementary and high school levels, as well as at Southern Connecticut State University], I was in the U.S. Foreign Service for five years, I was an alder for four years. We’re on this Earth to leave it better than we found it. I’ve always been seeking ways to maximize my ability to positively affect the world. At the same time, there’s an increasing lack of trust in government, and “politics” has become a bad word. I could complain about it [but] I felt like it was important to do something. So, I ran for mayor – twice. [Before he defeated former Mayor Toni Harp in November 2019, Elicker was narrowly defeated by her in 2013’s mayoral race.]
Q: What is the hardest part about leading New Haven during the pandemic?
A: There are a lot of things that are challenging. The biggest challenge is knowing that there may be some things that we could have done faster, differently, that could have literally saved people’s lives. In normal times, we often say things like that and it may or may not be true – but in these times, literally, if you don’t make a decision one day or you make the wrong decision one day, that decision in two weeks may result in more people getting sick and potentially dying.
Our team has been working just nonstop. One of the most enjoyable parts of the work are the people that I’m working with. It’s been so inspiring. Our staff is working incredible hours. I email my corporation counsel at 11 at night and she responds at 11:02, and that’s the same for pretty much everyone on our team, because they care about the work and understand the urgency at hand.
I call the family members of people (New Haven residents) who have passed because of COVID. That part of the job inspires me more than it makes me feel down because in talking with the family members, it’s incredible how strong people are. In a time when they’re losing a close loved one, which is difficult enough, but then to add on top of that they probably weren’t able to hold that person’s hand or hug that person to say goodbye. They may have said goodbye over FaceTime, they can’t get together with their family members or relatives in the typical way that we mourn. But they still say, “I understand why,” and I find that inspiring about our community – that people are able to get through this tough time and show strength.
Q: What other uplifting signs of hope or community have you seen during these difficult times?
A: There are so many examples of that. Everything from news reporters attaching their mics to a long boom now so that they can interview you and keep themselves and you safe, to my daughter’s school having a parade of teachers in their cars drive around the neighborhood, going by the houses of all the students with their cars decorated and their windows open, beeping and waving, to the public safety workers’ salute to hospital workers, to the artists finding ways to entertain and inspire the community from their front porches or on Zoom. It’s amazing how people have been determined to continue life, even though it feels as if life has been shut down.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
A: My 1.5-year-old calls out at 5:40 a.m. and my wife and I look at each other and are both thinking, “It’s your turn, right?” One of us gets up and hangs out with her until the 5-year-old wakes up. Then we make breakfast and get dressed. Then I head to the office – sometimes I bike, sometimes I drive.
There are only a couple of us in the office [due to the pandemic]. I’m on Zoom almost all day. We have an 8:30 a.m. call with our core staff to discuss the ongoing projects and the emergency issues that have come up. There are lots of other meetings throughout the day. There are a lot of other partner organizations that are working to address the crisis throughout the day. I have a daily call with some members of the Board of Alders to bring them up to speed with changes. We typically have a daily press conference on Zoom. I try to get home, when I can, to have a brief dinner and get my girls to bed, then I’ll hop on my computer to get to my emails and some phone calls.
Q: What’s your favorite way to enjoy New Haven with your family?
A: We love going to parks to hike and play. My daughter Molly, in particular, loves the playgrounds. We love going out to pizza. [He declines to name which of the city’s famed pizza restaurants is his favorite]. It [the pizza choice] depends on the day and depends on the mood. We like to eat ice cream downtown and being with friends.
Q: What are some of your favorite places to eat in New Haven?
A: At City Hall, when life was normal, I would go to Tikkaway [Grill] or Duc’s [Place]. I’d get my coffee at Cafe Java in the morning. That feels like an eternity ago.
Q: Once the pandemic passes, what is it about New Haven that you are most looking forward to seeing return?
A: Even though we’re trying to connect with each other over Zoom and remotely, it’s so different to interact with each other directly. One of the things we don’t have right now are the random interactions where you run into people who you’re not intending to run into, but you have a conversation, an interaction that you may have not been expecting but you can benefit from in so many ways. I miss that. Because I think that when you’re only seeking out those individuals who you intend to seek out, you don’t grow as much as a person, you can’t learn as much about the world around you, your ideas aren’t challenged as much. And I think those interactions help make us whole and keep us interesting.