Elicker ’10 FES/SOM, takes office as New Haven’s 51st mayor

Justin Elicker
Justin Elicker

By the time Justin Elicker ’10 M.E.M./M.B.A. arrived in New Haven as a Yale student in the fall of 2007, he knew he’d run for political office. He just didn’t know it would be here.

At the time, he didn’t know much about his new home: Although he’d grown up in Connecticut, in New Canaan, the extent of his interaction with New Haven was glimpsing the old flag truck at Long Wharf as he drove by on I-95.

But Elicker fell in love with the Elm City, and almost immediately leapt into civic affairs, helping to reinvigorate the Friends of East Rock Park, a community and environmental advocacy group.

I realized this was a great place, and this was an opportunity for me to make a difference,” he said.

In 2009, while still a student, he ran successfully for the city’s Board of Alders, ultimately serving two terms. Later, in 2013, he made an initial, unsuccessful run for mayor, then served five years as director of the New Haven Land Trust.

Now he’s back in city hall: On Jan. 1, less than a decade after his Yale graduation, Elicker, 44, was sworn in as New Haven’s 51st mayor, succeeding Toni Harp ’78 M.Env.D.

As New Haven’s chief executive, Elicker said, his priorities include closing opportunity gaps in the city, promoting an economy that benefits every neighborhood, and strengthening local schools.

And, building on his experience as a Yale alumnus, he hopes to work in partnership with the university to make New Haven stronger for everybody.

Elicker came to Yale after serving as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State, where he focused on economic and environmental policies. He enrolled in the joint-degree program at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (FES) and Yale School of Management (SOM) to build the skills in leadership and problem-solving he would need for a career in public policy.

He was attracted to the program’s reputation for practical relevance and for preparing students to effect societal change, he said, and made it a priority to study urban planning and zoning, negotiation, and behavioral economics. 

Meanwhile, Elicker began applying what he learned as an alderman for the city’s East Rock/Cedar Hill neighborhoods.

After his unsuccessful 2013 run against Harp, a longtime state senator, Elicker signed on as executive director of the land trust, a local nonprofit that promotes community stewardship through land conservation, community gardening, and environmental education.

This was when Jayuan Carter, a civic leader in the Newhallville neighborhood, noticed something about Elicker: He remained committed to the neighborhoods long after the mayoral campaign ended. At the trust, for instance, Elicker created a funding mechanism that made the new Schooners program — an educational program that teaches kids about science, the environment, and water safety — available to families that couldn’t afford it.

Carter, a local entrepreneur (and, later, a member of Elicker’s mayoral transition team), said he started to believe Elicker had the instincts and interest to remove some of the institutional barriers for many New Haven residents in other key areas, including public safety, economic development, public education, and transportation.

I thought, if he could do that on a small scale, what might he be able to achieve on a bigger scale?” Carter said.

During the 2019 mayoral campaign, Elicker often spoke about “two New Havens” — the parts of the city that have benefited from years of economic development and the parts that haven’t.

His goals as mayor include allocating more funds for New Haven’s schools, increasing transparency in government, improving access to affordable housing, advancing responsible practices by the city’s landlords, and intensifying local commitment to environmental justice.

He also wants to work closely with Yale to continue strengthening its long-standing relationship with the city.

I think there are win-win opportunities,” Elicker said.

Brad Gentry, the Frederick K. Weyerhaeuser Professor in the Practice of Forest Resources Management and Policy at FES and SOM, taught Elicker in the classroom and has come to know him better in the years since — in part because Elicker has returned to campus to speak with current students. Gentry believes Elicker’s new role will present opportunities to build upon the existing relationship between New Haven and the university.

There are a lot of examples of partnerships between Yale and the city already,” Gentry said. “And I think that there is certainly an opportunity for Justin to build on the personal relationships he already has.”

Yale’s commitments to the city and community take many forms, including making a voluntary payment — no city in America receives a bigger check from a university than New Haven — hiring from local neighborhoods, supporting longstanding educational outreach programs, and promoting economic development.

Among many examples are New Haven Promise, co-founded by the university, which provides scholarships for New Haven Public School students to attend any public university in Connecticut; Yale’s Pathways to Science and Pathways to Arts and Humanities programs, which provide free year-round classes and workshops to hundreds of local public school students; and the Urban Resources Initiative, a Yale-based nonprofit through which members of the community and Yale students work to achieve a healthier environment.

Marjorie Shansky, a New Haven attorney and FES lecturer, taught Elicker in her course “Land Use Law and Environmental Planning.” She remembers him sitting in the front row during each class, a mason jar of water on his desk, eager to engage.

One of the principal takeaways from the course, Shansky said, is cities’ and towns’ immense authority to forge a sustainable future by committing to renewable energy sources, creating access to affordable and diverse housing, and protecting water quality.

These are all issues that are important to Justin,” she said. “It makes you feel hopeful for the future.”

The new mayor remains an eager student.

One of the things I have found most valuable that I learned from the university is creative problem solving,” he said. “Oftentimes in government you find that, when you suggest an idea or an approach to address a problem, the response is, ‘That’s too difficult.’ Or ‘This is the reason it can’t happen.’ Or ‘We tried that, and it didn’t work.’ One of the things I learned through the joint degree program is that there are so many different ways of seeing a problem. Instead of giving up because there are some barriers, there are other ways around the barrier, or over the barrier, or maybe through the barrier.”

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