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Lamont leaning toward appointing interim comptroller, avoiding politics

Gov. Ned Lamont has to appoint the next state comptroller.
Cloe Poisson
Gov. Ned Lamont has to appoint the next state comptroller.

Gov. Ned Lamont signaled Monday he will not be drawn into political intrigue over the selection of a successor to Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo, who announced Friday he was resigning at month’s end due to poor health.

Lamont said he was disinclined to pick someone who would use the appointment as a platform to seeking the Democratic nomination next year, when comptroller and the other five statewide constitutional offices are up for election.

In doing so, he would be following the example set by Gov. William A. O’Neill, who chose caretakers to fill vacancies for secretary of the state, treasurer and attorney general.

“I think Gov. O’Neill was a pretty wise man,” Lamont said.

Lamont said his general counsel, Nora R. Dannehy, advised that no member of the General Assembly can be appointed the elective office, the same prohibition that applies to all executive or judiciary branch jobs.

“Nora checked that pretty closely,” Lamont said. “And it’d have to be at the end of a term for a legislator be able to step up. So I think we’ll probably think about a comptroller in an interim position.”

Lamont said he hoped to make an appointment by the end of the week. He said he has had plenty calls from potential appointees.

“By the dozens,” he said. Smiling, he added, “I think they want to serve. It’s a really good problem.”

Were they still interested when he indicated that his choice would be asked not to run in 2022?

“It brings different reactions,” Lamont said. But I think it’s the fairest way to go, easiest way to go.”

Lembo announced on Friday that a serious cardiac condition would force him to leave the fiscal watchdog post he’s held for the past 11 years. The governor only said he would reach a decision soon, since Lembo will leave the job on Dec. 31.

The comptroller’s announcement left many in political circles wondering which approach Lamont might take with his announcement.

Instead of appointing a caretaker — a veteran of state government who would fill the final year of Lembo’s term and then resign — Lamont could have opted to appoint someone with ambitions to run in 2022. An appointee under that scenario would have a huge advantage, running as an incumbent.

But several veterans of state government and party politics said that while the choice is Lamont’s, the caretaker option comes with fewer complications.

“My guess is that the race for comptroller next year will be contested, regardless of whether the person [Lamont appoints] is thought to be a caretaker,” said George Jepsen, whose political career included stints as Democratic state chairman, Connecticut attorney general and Senate majority leader. “These statewide constitutional office vacancies don’t occur very often, and Connecticut is brimming with talented officeholders who are naturally going to want to move up.”

State Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, who co-chairs the legislature’s Finance Committee, has been openly exploring a possible bid for comptroller in the event Lembo — also a Democrat — chose not to run again.

And while a Democratic field for comptroller hasn’t filled out yet, a glance at another race proves Jepsen’s point.

Longtime Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Hartford Democrat, declared in June she wouldn’t seek another term. Three Democrats and two Republicans are exploring bids for that office and a fourth Democrat, Rep. Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk, declared her candidacy last week.

More legislators besides Scanlon are expected to jockey for Lembo’s job, and Lamont would ruffle more than a few feathers if he tapped a political outsider to be anything more than a placeholder.

Still, Lamont prides himself on reaching outside government circles to find innovative solutions to political challenges. He has relied heavily on appointees from the private sector to help him guide health, business and education policy throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor also surprised many when he sought — and received — legislative approval to launch a public-private education partnership with hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio’s charitable trust.

And while that controversial partnership — which Lamont and lawmakers exempted from state ethics and disclosure rules — fizzled after one year, the governor vowed even as it dissolved in May 2020 that he would continue to look outside of traditional political circles.

“I was one of the first non-politicians, more of a business guy, in a long time here,” Lamont said at that time. “And I really wanted to get the private sector — big business, small business, academics, not-for-profits — more invested in their state. … We have amazing state employees but we can’t be experts on everything.”

But some political insiders say that in 2022, more than at any other time, the comptroller’s office will need people who are experts at fiscal policy and state politics.

The comptroller’s many duties include oversight of state retirement benefits, and Lembo’s office is projecting a huge surge in retirements next year, with roughly 12,500 state employees eligible to step down. And while no one is projecting that many will actually leave service, the eligible pool is almost six times the average retirement rate of the past five years.

The state also is just beginning to roll out a new Paid Family Medical Leave program for the private sector, and the comptroller’s office will play a huge oversight role in that endeavor.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said “I’ll defer to what he [Lamont] thinks is best” but added that the comptroller’s office will be in the spotlight in 2022.

Former House Speaker Richard J. Balducci added that any political veteran who’s familiar with the challenges of working with the legislature has a huge advantage in filling an “intricate job” such as the comptroller’s.

That understanding is crucial over the next two years, he added, while state finances are temporarily propped up by billions of dollars in temporary federal pandemic relief.

“People think this is going to continue growing on the trees, and it isn’t,” Balducci said.

O’Neill opted for caretakers in filling vacant constitutional statewide offices three times.

In January 1982, he named Maura Melley to succeed Barbara B. Kennelly as secretary of the state after Kennelly’s election to Congress. In 1986, he named former Rep. Joan Kemler to finish the term of Treasurer Henry Parker, who quit for a private-sector job. In December 1988, he named Clarine Nardi Riddle as attorney general to succeed Joseph Lieberman following his election to the U.S. Senate. All three of his appointees agreed not to run for full terms.

And it isn’t just Democrats who are watching closely to see what Lamont will do.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said that while the governor has authority to appoint Lembo’s replacement, he expects that many legislators hope to see the selection handled cooperatively.

Given that, Candelora added, the best choice might be a caretaker who’s already very familiar with the comptroller’s office.

“I think there should be a level of transparency … a level of public vetting,” Candelora said.

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