Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Eva Bermudez Zimmerman (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

Top New Haven Democrats bucked their party Wednesday night to line up behind an insurgent candidate for the state’s number-two elected job.

That turn of events was on display Wednesday night at an energetic fundraiser on Long Wharf for Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, a 31-year-old labor organizer from Newtown who is challenging state Democratic Party endorsed candidate Susan Bysiewicz for the lieutenant governor nomination in an Aug. 14 primary.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent

Over 60 local Democratic Party leaders, including Mayor Toni Harp and the entire state delegation, showed up to an enthusiastic fundraiser at the Greek Olive restaurant on Long Wharf for the fundraiser.

Just last month, around 50 local Democrats gathered in Westville in support of Bysiewicz when she was still running for governor. A few days later, Bysiewicz announced that she would be running for lieutenant governor instead, alongside Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Ned Lamont, a white Greenwich millionaire who is funding his own campaign. The Lamont-Bysiewicz ticket won the party endorsement at a convention last month.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Rep. Josh Elliott (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

“Urban centers got cut out of that deal,” Hamden State Rep. Joshua Elliott told the Independent during Wednesday’s fundraiser. Elliott, one of the most progressive members of the state Democratic caucus, spoke out in support of Bysiewicz’s gubernatorial campaign when it stopped at Manjares café in New Haven last month. He lauded her support for a $15 minimum wage and the legalization of marijuana.

Elliott said Bysiewiecz teaming up with Lamont looked like little more than political expediency. After her switch, he opened up to supporting another candidate that was a bit more rooted in the working-class, urban interests of cities like New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport.

That candidate, he found, was Eva Bermudez Zimmerman.

Zimmerman’s breakout candidacy for lieutenant governor was one of the biggest surprises to come out of the state Democratic Party nominating convention in Hartford in mid-May. Although Zimmerman had only officially announced her bid for lieutenant governor a few days before the convention after she opened and ultimately dropped an exploratory committee for the Secretary of the State position, she wound up winning nearly 40 percent of the delegate vote , almost twice as much support as she needed to force the Aug. 14 primary.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Jason Bartlett (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

Outspoken support for her candidacy by New Haven politicians like State Sen. Gary Winfield, who delivered a tearful endorsement of her candidacy at the convention, helped draw attention to the young, female, Hispanic labor organizer’s promise to better represent the interests of working class, minority, and city residents on the statewide ticket.

During Wednesday night’s fundraiser, local Democratic Party leaders stressed again and again how much her candidacy resonates with them and, by extension, with the city residents they represent.

“We are so excited for this opportunity to jazz up the local Democratic Party,” New Haven Youth Services Director Jason Bartlett said with his arms outstretched and chants of “Eva! Eva!” filling the Greek Olive’s back room.

New Haven State Rep. Juan Candelaria said he was excited to see Zimmerman, who grew up in Hartford and is of Puerto Rican descent, bring an element of diversity to the top of a statewide ticket that is right now headed by Ned Lamont. He said she is the one candidate who will actually walk city streets and talk with working-class New Haveners about their needs.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Rep. Juan Candelaria (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

“She has what it takes to help the governor lead the state,” he said.

The most enthusiastic support came from Mayor Toni Harp.

Harp said she first met Zimmerman only a month ago when the latter walked into her office and pitched her candidacy. She said Zimmerman stressed her background as a labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and her history of lobbying at the state capitol in advocacy of better healthcare access for low and moderate-income families.

“She convinced me,” Harp said to cheers.

She said Zimmerman has the right personality for the job, that she will not be afraid to fight for low-income residents.

“We have too many needs in our urban areas,” Harp said, “to take a chance and end up with a Republican governor.”

Some of the other local Dems present included New Haven State Sens. Martin Looney and Gary Winfield, and New Haven State Reps. Robyn Porter, Pat Dillon, Roland Lemar, and Al Paolillo.

With a dozen New Haven Democrats holding tri-colored “Eva” signs behind her, Zimmerman thanked New Haven for standing behind her. She stressed that she hopes to be a “vehicle for the people” and offer “an extension to their reality” through her campaign.

“If we start forgetting about middle-class reality,” she said, “people will leave” the party.

Zimmerman said she grew up in Hartford and attended school in an area of North Hartford that was high in gun violence. She graduated from high school in 2004, a year early because of her excess of credits, and spent a year working with the Rotary Exchange teaching English and distributing medicine in the slums, or favelas, of São Paulo, Brazil. She said her experiences in Brazil and in Hartford made her particularly sensitive to the needs and concerns of the urban poor and working class.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
New Haven Mayor Toni Harp (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

Speaking to Mayor Harp’s comment about personality, Zimmerman said she will bring a temperament open to diplomacy, empathy, and advocacy to the position of lieutenant governor if elected.

“I want to be a vehicle for positivity,” she said.

Zimmerman is currently looking to raise $75,000 in small donations to qualify for the state’s public financing program, or the Citizen Election Program (CEP).

She said she has been getting 150 calls a day since the convention from people wanting to support and volunteer for her campaign, and has a full schedule over the next two weeks, making campaign stops crisscrossing the state. She said she expects to hit the $75,000 threshold by the first week of July.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Janis Underwood (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

Janis Underwood, one of the co-chairs of Westville’s Ward 25 Democratic Committee and one of the organizers of the Bysiewicz support event at Manjares last month, said she had been interested in hearing out Bysiewicz last month but is now leaning towards supporting Zimmerman.

She stressed the importance of having a diverse statewide ticket and was impressed at how much Zimmerman has already accomplished in her young life.

“She better balances the ticket,” she said.

Westville’s Ward 26 Democratic Committee Co-Chair Amy Marx, who also helped organize the Westville party for Bysiewicz when she was running for governor, told the Independent that she too is supporting Zimmerman for lieutenant governor.

Another former Bysiewicz campaign supporter, Westville Alder Darryl Brackeen, Jr., said he is now “100 percent behind Eva Bermudez Zimmerman.” He said he identifies with Zimmerman as a fellow political progressive, millenniall, labor organizer, and city resident.

“You look for candidates you connect with,” he said. “She’s certainly living my story.”

Bysiewicz, for her part, said she welcomes the primary.

“Primaries are extremely healthy for our Democratic process,” she said in an interview.

She said she has the support of 23 Connecticut mayors and first selectmen, including the mayors of Hamden, Bristol, and Fairfield. The combined population of those cities, she said, is close to 120,000 … not too far from New Haven’s population of 130,000. She said she is looking forward to bringing to the debate for lieutenant governor the issues of job creation, balancing the state budget in a fair way, fully funding education and public employee unfunded liabilities, and creating a pipeline from school to work.