Hugh McQuaid Photo
Peter Lumaj (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Peter Lumaj, the Republican candidate for secretary of the state, called Wednesday for a law banning anyone convicted of crimes like corruption and voter fraud from holding public office.

In a press conference held outside current Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s Capitol office, Lumaj cited recent corruption cases like the arrest of state Rep. Christina Ayala, D-Bridgeport, on voter fraud charges and the recent conviction of former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland for campaign corruption.

Lumaj’s proposal would prevent anyone convicted of corruption, voter fraud, or civil rights crimes from running for office or being a political appointee.

“I think it’s needed just to establish the confidence of the voters in our system again. Now, if someone has broken the trust of the voters once, why should we believe that they’re not going to break that trust again?” he said.

Lumaj’s proposal would not have directly impacted Ayala’s case or Rowland’s conviction. Although Rowland had corruption convictions prior to his more recent crimes, he was not seeking to win public office. Ayala, on the other hand, was being investigated for voter fraud, but has not been convicted of it and she wasn’t charged until after she had lost a primary in August.

However, Lumaj’s proposed law would have prevented the candidacy of Ernie Newton, another former Bridgeport lawmaker. Newton, who ran unsuccessfully this year for his old House seat, spent four years in federal prison after being sentenced on charges of accepting a bribe, evading taxes, and other campaign-related crimes. This year, Newton won the endorsement of the local Democratic Town Committee, but primary voters picked another candidate, Andre Baker.

In a phone interview, Merrill said she had faith in voters’ ability to choose their candidates. She said prior felons running for office was not one of the state’s pressing election issues. Merrill said Lumaj’s proposal also raised constitutional concerns.

“It contradicts the principle that once you have served your time and paid your debt to society, you can resume as a citizen,” Merrill said. “I’m not sure it would pass constitutional muster.”

Lumaj said he was especially concerned with the allegations against Ayala, a Bridgeport Democrat who ran into trouble with the law several times during her first term. Her most recent charges stem from accusations that she cast ballots in voting districts where she did not live. Lumaj has previously called for the resignation of Ayala’s mother, Santa Ayala, who is a Democratic registrar of voters in Bridgeport. Santa Ayala has not been charged.

“When you have 19 allegations of voter fraud filed against someone who was in office, that is a concern to the voters because that will shade their belief in our election process,” he said. “. . . Then you have her mother, who’s the registrar of voters, actually whose job it is to expose this kind of corruption and she didn’t do that.”

Merrill said she called for Santa Ayala to step aside more than a year ago when the investigation began, but lacks the authority to remove her from the elected position.

Hugh McQuaid File Photo
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill (Hugh McQuaid File Photo)

Merrill called the charges against Christina Ayala “troubling.”

“Anyone who holds public office takes an oath to uphold the law,” Merrill said after Ayala’s arrest last month. “While everyone is entitled to their day in court, voter fraud is a very serious crime for which we have zero tolerance.”

Lumaj told reporters he intended to make his proposal to “end Corrupticut” a cornerstone of the last few weeks in his campaign against Merrill. He said his campaign had momentum despite the release of a poll this week, suggesting Merrill leads by 9 percentage points.

“What we’re learning from this campaign is that there is a frustration. The voters want to see a new leadership in our state. We’re hearing Democrats, we’re hearing unaffiliated, we’re hearing Republicans that they’re waiting for leadership,” he said.

Merrill said she was running on a record of improving ballot access in Connecticut. As voters weigh her re-election, they will also consider a proposal she helped spearhead that would change the state constitution to remove restrictions limiting absentee voting.

“I’m all about trying to get more people voting. I’m confident that I have a great record,” Merrill said. “I hope I can do more.”