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Chaos before convention: Democratic candidates’ tactics questioned

Sen. Matt Lesser entering the crowded field for governor.
Sen. Matt Lesser entering the crowded field for governor.

The run up to this weekend’s Democratic State Convention got a jolt Thursday over allegations that one campaign for secretary of the state falsely implied an endorsement from Gov. Ned Lamont and another was trying to change the order of balloting to his advantage.

Rep. Hilda Santiago’s campaign is trying to sell her as the secret choice of the publicly neutral governor, while Sen. Matt Lesser’s campaign is lobbying delegates and the convention’s Rules Committee to move balloting in their race from last to first for reasons that anyone other than political insiders might find hard to comprehend.

Seven Democratic candidates for down-ballot statewide offices jointly issued a rebuke of Lesser — whose wife, Sarah Steinfeld, is on the Rules Committee — for attempting to change the rules for a two-day convention that opens Friday.

The intrigue comes from the crowded fields for secretary of the state and treasurer, contests linked by a desire for a balanced ticket that reflects the identity politics of gender, race and ethnicity.

It also arises from the absence of party leadership willing or able to shape a ticket of six statewide officers.

“I think we’ve got some extraordinarily well-qualified people who are running for those jobs. And I’m not putting my thumb on the scale,” Lamont said Thursday. “Broadly speaking, I’ve always championed the most diverse team.”

But not to the extent of declaring a preference among the two white males and three women of color running for secretary of the state — or the Black woman, Black man or Indian-American woman running for treasurer.

“I’ll be comfortable with the result, however it comes out of this convention,” Lamont said. “People know what my priorities are, but we got a good group of folks running.”

Santiago’s claim; Lesser’s changes

Lamont’s general call for diversity without favoring a candidate created an opening for Santiago’s campaign to send delegates a story published by Hearst Connecticut quoting anonymous sources asserting Lamont wanted a Hispanic on the ticket. As also reported by Hearst, the campaign suggested on social media that that candidate was Santiago.

Santiago, of Meriden, is competing with Rep. Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk, Maritza Bond of New Haven, Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden and Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown. Santiago and Bond are Latinas, Thomas is Black and the two men are white.

While the suggestion of a Lamont endorsement annoyed her competitors, it did not keep them from joining in an extraordinary rebuke of Lesser for what they say is an 11th-hour effort to upend a balloting order that the party says was determined at random.

Lesser’s campaign wants the secretary of the state’s endorsement to come first, not last, on Saturday —as it now is scheduled.

The reason is identity politics, and the assumption of how delegates might react if they are convinced the ticket is insufficiently diverse. His campaign’s theory is that delegates may be disinclined to vote for white male in the final contest if a Black candidate had not already been endorsed for treasurer.

Lesser said there is another reason: By the end of the day, there is an attrition of delegates.

“Secretary of the state is the most contentious, most competitive race,” Lesser said. “If that’s really the big question, then we should structure things in a way that allows the greatest number of delegates to participate.”

The candidates for treasurer are Erick Russell of New Haven, Karen DuBois-Walton of New Haven and Dita Bhargava of Greenwich. Russell and DuBois-Walton are Black. Bhargava is Indian-American.

Rep. Sean Scanlon of Guilford, who is white, is the candidate for comptroller.

DuBois-Walton was the only candidate for one of three open offices who did not sign the rebuke of Lesser. She could not be reached for comment.

“It’s deeply concerning that one campaign would try to change the order of nominations at our convention in order to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else,” the other candidates said. “The process for determining a nominating order was set weeks ago in a fair and transparent manner and every candidate has planned accordingly. Attempting to change it at the eleventh hour is neither fair nor transparent.”

Lamont, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, Attorney General William Tong and Scanlon, the candidate for comptroller, are expected to be unopposed at the convention, allowing delegates to endorse them by voice vote.

The two contested races will go last, settled by roll call of the more than 2,000 delegates expected at the Xfinity Theater. A coin toss by Democratic State Chair Nancy DiNardo determined delegates would vote for treasurer, then secretary of the state, said Patty McQueen, a spokeswoman for DiNardo.

“The order of nominations for contested constitutional offices was determined with knowledge and participation of those candidates,” she said. The order of nominating speeches in those races was determined by names pulled from a hat, she said.

‘These are the six’

Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, was a former urban mayor who reveled in the mechanics and machinations of convention politics, but Lamont has kept his distance from the question of who will be on the Democratic ticket, which has had a degree of racial diversity in every election since 1962.

“There was a time when delegates would get the word: ‘These are the six,’” said Vinnie Mauro, the Democratic chair of New Haven, which sends the largest delegation to the convention. “Those days are long gone.”

Roy Occhiogrosso, who was the top political adviser to Malloy, said Lamont’s approach is a drift away from top-down politics, and it limits the influence of town chairs.

“Instead of relying on them to affect an outcome, it’s essentially up to everyone,” Occhiogrosso said. “Which means it’s up to no one, which means it is wide open.”

Winning the endorsement requires 50% of the vote, plus one. Candidates who get less than 7.5% of the first ballot vote will be eliminated. On the second ballot, only the top two will go to a third ballot.

Anyone getting 15% of the vote on any ballot qualifies for a primary in August, or they can petition for a place on the ballot.

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