One spoke of how his grandfather worked as a machinist for three decades at Winchester Arms. Another recalled being voted “most respect on either side of the aisle” in the legislature. A third boasted that his financial credentials makes him the best state treasurer candidate — in history.
Those were some of the credentials, backgrounds, and personal pitches that 13 Democratic candidates for four different statewide offices made on Tuesday night during an energetic two-hour meet-and-greet with over 30 different New Haven Democratic Town Committee (DTC) ward co-chairs and convention delegates at the Betsy Ross School parish house on Kimberly Avenue.
They made those pitches not in speeches, but in one-on-one table-hopping interviews.
Eschewing the more conventional set up of a candidate forum or public debate — in which political hopefuls stand at the front of a room and address a large group of attendees all at once — DTC Chair Vincent Mauro, Jr. invited the many different Democratic candidates running for statewide office to walk the floor of the parish hall and engage in one-on-one conversations with local party stalwarts, many of whom they will have to win over to make it onto the primary ballot in August.
New Haven will send 97 delegates to the Connecticut Democratic Party convention in Hartford on May 18 and May 19. It’s the largest, and therefore often most-wooed, delegation in the state.
“For those of you who are running for statewide office,” Mauro said, “you’ve done this dog-and-pony show for six or seven months now, most of you. You all know each other’s speeches. We understand that. So what we want to do is talk to you in a more informal way, a more one-on-one basis, so you get to know the delegates here in the city of New Haven.”
Candidates have to win the support of at least 15 percent of party delegates to make it onto the primary ballot. That amounts to a minimum of 300 votes at the convention. Candidates who don’t secure enough delegate support can petition their way onto the primary ballot by collecting signatures from 2 percent of registered state Democrats, which comes in at just under 15,500 signatures.
The state attorney general candidates who showed up for the event included Mike D’Agostino, Paul Doyle, Clare Kindall, Chris Mattei, and William Tong; the state treasurer candidates included Arunan Arulampalam, Dita Bhargava, Shawn Wooden, and John Blankley; and the secretary of state candidates included Karen Talamelli Cusik, Denise Merrill, and Eva Bermudez Zimmerman. Current state Controller Kevin Lembo also made an appearance at the beginning of the evening, though he is running uncontested within his party in his bid for reelection as comptroller.
The meet-and-greet did not include any Democratic candidates for governor, who will appear at a separate DTC event.
Throughout the evening, the different candidates stood alongside tables covered in campaign literature as they spent five minutes with one delegate, five minutes with another, tempering their elevator pitches with specific policy stances and personalizing details in response to individual delegates’ questions about who they are, why they are running for office, and why they deserved New Haven Democratic Party support. Come listen in on some of the conversations.
Tapping Into Union Roots
Attorney general candidate Chris Mattei, a former federal prosecutor who used to head the Financial Fraud and Public Corruption Unit in the Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office, stressed his support for private and public sector unions as critical in allowing working people to achieve a middle class life. He tied his union advocacy to a family history of labor activism.
“My grandfather was a machinist for 35 years at the Winchester Arms Factory, where he was also a shop steward,” he told Iva Johnson, a party delegate and the DTC co-chair for Ward 30 in West Rock.
Mattei said that, although his grandfather had only an eighth-grade education, the job support and training and security provided by his union membership allowed him to become a crane operator and a homeowner. He was able to send his son, Mattei’s father, to college, who became the first in the family to receive higher education.
“Unions helped make that happen,” Mattei said.
He said that, as attorney general, he would work to make it easier for private sector unions to organize, noting that less than 10 percent of private sector employees nationwide are in unions.
He promised to seek to ban “captive audience meetings,” in which employers can require employees to sit with their bosses to discuss organizing drives without union representatives present.
Mattei, who used to work as a union organizer for the Service Employees International Union in California, called these types of meetings common intimidation strategies for employers interested in scaring employees out of wanting to form a union.
“Each candidate is very unique,” Johnson said after her conversation with Mattei. “And they all want to do the right thing. We just have to make sure that what they’re saying is substantive enough for the people.”
Across the room, attorney general candidate and Stamford State Rep. William Tong spoke with Fair Haven Alder Kenneth Reveiz and Edgewood Ward 24 Committee Co-Chair Art Perlo about his plans to protect the state’s most vulnerable populations, including undocumented immigrants and the poor.
Perlo asked him how he would prevent state marshals from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to detain undocumented immigrants on courthouse steps after immigration hearings.
“When you talk about sanctuary laws in Connecticut,” Tong said, “you’re talking about the Trust Act.” Tong was one of the co-authors of the Connecticut Trust Act, which explicitly proscribes local law enforcement from working with ICE to detain suspects unless if they meet certain criteria, such as if they are charged with a felony or are a public safety threat. Tong said that, as attorney general, he would file civil suits against violators of the Trust Act.
“What about poverty?” Reveiz asked. He noted that many Connecticut residents struggle with low wages, high student debt, hefty medical bills, and job insecurity. “Can your office do anything to legislate against poverty?” he asked.
“The attorney general is the first and last line of defense in consumer protection,” Tong said. He said his job as attorney general would be to protect people from exploitation through corporate tricks like additional fees hidden in fine print. He pointed to his experience combating big banks and rewriting foreclosure laws as the House Chairman of the Judiciary Committee as evidence of his commitment to using law to defend the state’s working class.
“This is a deeply personal fight for me,” he said. “Now is the time to speak up.”
Incumbent Secretary of State Denise Merrill, who faces an intra-party challenge from Cusik and Zimmerman, sat with Quinnipiac East Community Management Team Chair Kurtis Kearney and spoke about the importance of working across party lines.
“I was in the legislature for 17 years,” she said, referencing her time representing the 54th district, which includes Mansfield and Chaplin, in the Connecticut General Assembly from 1995 to 2011. “It was a different place then.”
She said Democrats and Republicans alike would stick around after work, go to dinner together, and form bonds that transcended policy disagreements. “That’s how you build relationships and compromises across parties,” she said.
“No one wants to compromise anymore,” said Kearney.
Merrill noted that, when she was majority leader in the General Assembly from 2009 to 2011, her colleagues voted her the state congressperson most respected on either side of the aisle. She said that type of bipartisanship was key to a functioning democracy.
“That’s why you’re going to win,” said Kearney.
“I think people respect that I listen to everyone,” Merrill replied.
”My Word Is My Bond”
State treasurer candidate John Blankley boasted that not only is he the most qualified candidate in this year’s treasurer race — he is the most qualified candidate ever to run for the position.
A Greenwich resident with an extensive business background, including as chief financial officer for BP North America, Stolt Tankers and Terminals, and Harris Chemicals, Blankley said that his private-sector financial experience and acumen distinguishes him from most Democrats who have run, and are running, for treasurer.
He said that he would work to increase the rate of return on the state’s $34 billion pension fund. He said that last year’s return was 14.3 percent, whereas the best public pensions saw returns in the high teens. Two years ago the state’s pension fund return was 0.35 percent, whereas the best in the country saw upwards of 5 percent returns. Blankley said his deep work history and knowledge in the field would allow him to make the best decisions when choosing where to allocate investments and which institutional investors to work with.
One attendee who preferred to remain anonymous asked what he would do if the state legislature told him what to invest in or what to divest from.
“If they tell me to divest from gun manufacturers, I’ll be the first in line,” Blankley said. But, he noted, Connecticut already abides by the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which describe socially and environmentally friendly investing practices.
Ultimately, Blankley, he said, he would not shy away from telling the legislature to back off if they overstep their bounds. “If they push,” he said, “I’ll say: ‘I’m the sole fiduciary.’”
Playing up his British accent left over from his upbringing in the United Kingdom, Blankley quoted London’s motto as synonymous with his promise to Connecticut voters if they elect him treasurer: “My word is my bond.”
What Does The State Treasurer Do?
Former Hartford City Council President Shawn Wooden said he is running for treasurer because the state Democratic Party needs to elect candidates in every position in state office who know how to engage and connect with the grassroots.
“We really have to build from the ground up,” he said, “community by community.”
Art Perlo asked him what the treasurer does, and why state Democrats should care who’s in the role.
Wooden said that the treasurer manages the state’s $34 billion dollar pension fund and $20 billion in bonded debt. The treasurer handles all unclaimed property, state cash transactions and banking relationships, and sits on the state Bond Commission, port authority, and Finance Advisory Committee. He said he saw all of these responsibilities and appointments as opportunities for the treasurer to use state fiscal management to support working class and middle class people.
“The state treasurer can and should be a part of the economic recovery of this state,” he said.
Perlo asked what Wooden thought of the recent report from the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Growth, a 14-member body of Connecticut business leaders who recommended that the state cut $2.1 in personal income taxes, increase sales and corporation taxes, and eliminate collective bargaining for retirement and healthcare benefits in order to achieve a sustainable and vibrant Connecticut economy.
Wooden said that he likes parts of the reports, not other parts.
“But one of its biggest flaws,” he said, “was the absence of the voice of workers at the table.”
He said that his work on the City Council taught him how to negotiate with and appeal to a broad range of constituencies. He said he was first elected City Council president by his fellow legislators in January 2012 by a slim margin of five to four. Two years later, he said, he was reelected to the position with unanimous support.
“I brought everyone to the table,” he said. “I know that everyone has a voice.”
Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch the candidates introduce themselves at Tuesday night’s event.