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3 Democrats seeking to be CT treasurer begin a sprint to the convention

Jeff Cohen

Erick A. Russell, the vice chair of the state Democratic Party, opened his race for state treasurer Thursday with endorsements calculated to create a sense of momentum in what is now at least a three-way sprint to the state convention on May 6.

Exactly one week after Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden stunned Democrats by opting against a reelection campaign, the party has a field of three: Dita Bhargava of Greenwich, Karen Dubois-Walton of New Haven, and Russell, also of New Haven.

Bhargava, a former Wall Street trader, lost to Wooden in the Democratic primary for treasurer in 2018. Dubois-Walton challenged New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker last year, only to drop out before a Democratic primary.

Russell’s kickoff came with endorsements: Nancy Wyman, the former lieutenant governor and party chair; House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford; Comptroller Natalie Braswell; and Arunan Arulampalam of Hartford, a candidate for the office four years ago.

The competition between Dubois-Walton and Russell, two Black candidates from New Haven, will complicate the role of urban power brokers, especially that of Vinnie Mauro, the long-time New Haven Democratic chair and top aide to Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney.

Mauro had already decided to back Dubois-Walton, who created a campaign committee Wednesday. Mauro said Dubois-Walton and Russell, who is a bond lawyer with Pullman & Comley, are both well-qualified and will be good candidates.

“Erick and I are personal friends. This is not easy,” said Mauro, who often watches football games with Russell and former state Rep. Chris Lyddy, who is Russell’s husband. “His only fault is that he’s a Cowboys fan.”

In a year when Democrats are worried about an enthusiasm gap at the polls, Mauro sees Dubois-Walton as capable of energizing African-American women, an important Democratic constituency.

He called her charismatic and, as the chief executive of the New Haven Housing Authority, attuned to the social impacts of investment decisions.

Identity politics have been attached to the Democratic nomination for treasurer since 1962, when Gerald A. Lamb was nominated for treasurer and elected as the first Black statewide officeholder. He served two terms.

In the 60 years since, every Democratic nominee for treasurer has been a Black man or woman. The reason has been a commitment to a racially diverse ticket and the simple mechanics of politics.

Lamb was succeeded by a Republican in 1970. Henry E. Parker, a Black Democrat from New Haven, was elected in 1974 to the first of three terms. When he did not run in 1986, the office of treasurer was the only open seat.

If the Democrats wanted a Black candidate on the ticket, treasurer was the only office available without denying an incumbent re-nomination. Francisco L. Borges, a Black Democrat from Hartford, won the first of his two terms in 1986.

A pattern was set.

Connecticut offers candidates a two-track path to party nominations: direct primaries that are hallmarks of modern politics, and the inside game of winning the endorsement of state nominating conventions.

More conventional is seeking the endorsement of the nominating convention. Anyone winning 15% of the convention vote on any one ballot automatically qualifies for a primary.

With a short runway to the convention, the support of insiders who can broker delegate support is likely to be crucial. There also is an open race for the Democratic nomination for secretary of the state, with a diverse, large and potentially growing field.

Four years ago, Bob Stefanowski sidestepped the convention process and petitioned for a spot on the Republican gubernatorial primary, which he won — a first for either party.

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