New Britain, Berlin, and Farmington Democrats gathered Saturday at the Italian Fraternal Society to nominate former state Rep. Theresa “Terry” Gerratana to run for former Sen. Donald DeFronzo’s Senate seat.

Gerratana, the former co-chairwoman of the Human Services Committee, will face a formidable Republican opponent in New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart. Stewart is the only Republican consecutively elected to four terms as mayor in a heavily Democratic city.

The two will face off Feb. 22, the date of nine special elections mostly made necessary by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s decision to appoint several lawmakers to his administration. At least one former Democratic lawmaker resigned before pleading guilty to larceny charges, triggering a ninth special election.

Stewart, who was nominated by Republicans earlier in the week, said Saturday that he’s already held his first fundraiser and has qualified to receive funds from the Citizens’ Election Program.

While he says he is not a fan of taking public money, the relatively short five-week campaign period makes it necessary to do so.

Gerratana, who previously served on the State Elections Enforcement Commission and participated in the creation of the Citizens’ Election Program, said she too hopes to qualify for public funds. She held her first fundraiser on Sunday.

With phone banks and campaign plans taking shape, both candidates believe their message will resonate with the voters.

Gerratana promised she will do everything she can to maintain the state’s commitment to funding local education.

“We can’t cut back in an area where our future lies,” she said after receiving the nomination. “Jobs and getting people back to work is also important in these difficult economic times.”

Retired and self-employed, Gerratana said she will be committing all of her time to the position of state Senator if she is elected. Even though the General Assembly is in session part of the year, Diane DeFronzo said she knows the job requires more than a part-time commitment.

DeFronzo said Gerratana has the patience and work ethic required to be a good state senator. She also said Gerratana has honesty and integrity and the ability to motivate people.

Stewart said the state’s financial woes will dominate the conversation and he will do everything he can to stop the state from bonding for operating expenses. He said he has a history of reducing the size and scope of state government as mayor of one of the state’s largest cities.

But many Democrats questioned whether Stewart would be willing to give up his job as mayor, which pays about $87,000 a year. State Senators make about $30,000 a year.

Asked whether he is willing to take a pay cut, Stewart said he had no intention of seeking another term as mayor and when DeFronzo’s senate seat opened up he saw it as an opportunity.

“Our forefathers never intended there to be career politicians,” Stewart said. “I had every intention of moving on at the end of this term.”

As for his finances, Stewart, a former firefighter, said, “let’s just say I’m not financially insecure.”

New Britain City Council President Michael Trueworthy will assume the position of mayor if Stewart wins the election. Trueworthy said the city’s charter does not allow the mayor to hold two jobs, no matter what those jobs may be.

“You cannot be mayor and hold another position. The city of 70,000 demands your full attention,” Trueworthy said Saturday.

Stewart said he never expressed any intention to hold both positions. In a phone interview Saturday, Stewart said the charter doesn’t prohibit it, an opinion the Democrats don’t share.

Stewart said there are precedents for one person serving in both roles, including New Britain Mayor Stanley Pac in the 1970s. 

But Trueworthy said changes that were made to the charter over the past few years expressly prohibit mayors serving in other jobs.

Aside from the dispute over the charter, the special election between Gerratana and Stewart may become a heated political contest based on recent history.

In 2009, when state Rep. Timothy O’Brien was challenging Stewart for the mayor’s office, Gerratana’s son, Greg, was suspended without pay from his state job for a week after posting derogatory comments about Stewart on the New Britain Herald’s website from his state computer. At the time, Greg Gerratana worked as O’Brien’s legislative aide. He was reassigned by House Speaker Chris Donovan following the incident and still works for the General Assembly.

In addition to Gerratana, New Britain Democrats nominated Robert Sanchez, a school board member and Head Start administrator, to run for former state Rep. John Geragosian’s seat. Geragosian, former co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was nominated to the Office of Auditors of Public Accounts.

Republicans have decided not to run a candidate against Sanchez.