New Haven Dems at the convention on Friday. Clockwise from top left: Ward 25 Co-Chair Janis Underwood and Newhallville Alder Devin-Avshalom-Smith; former mayoral chief of staff Tomas Reyes and former state party chair Nick Balletto; Kevin Walton, Ward 29 Co-Chair Audrey Tyson, and DTC Chair Vinnie Mauro; a table full of Maritza Bond supporters. Credit: Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent

An exciting time. And a tough spot.

New Haven Democrats wrestled with those two feelings on the first day of a state party convention where they’ll have a chance to pick between three fellow New Haveners running in two crowded statewide races.

Friday marked the first day of the 2022 Connecticut Democratic Party convention, held in the Xfinity Theatre on Savitt Way in Hartford.

Among the roughly 1,000 Democratic Party insiders from across the state who descended on the music venue amphitheater were several dozen of New Haven’s 95 delegates.

They came not just to vote to endorse Richard Blumenthal’s bid for a third-term in the U.S. Senate, but also to prepare themselves for what promises to be a full and hectic Saturday.

That’s because the second day of the convention is when all 2,000-plus delegates will take endorsement votes for various statewide elected offices up for grabs this year, including secretary of the state and treasurer. (The races for the Democratic nomination for governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, and attorney general are all at this time uncontested.)

The exciting part for New Haven Democrats: The opportunity to help lift one of their own onto the ballot for a statewide elected office for the first time since then-Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. ran for governor in 2006.

The conundrum: Two New Haveners, Karen DuBois-Walton and Erick Russell, are both seeking the Democratic nod for treasurer, against Greenwich’s Dita Bhargava; while city Health Director Maritza Bond is running for secretary of the state in a field crowded with other seasoned Democratic politicians, like State Reps. Hilda Santiago, Stephanie Thomas and Josh Elliott, as well as State Sen. Matt Lesser.

On the Republican side, Dominic Rapini, Terrie Wood, and Brock Weber are running for secretary of the state. Cynthia Jennings is seeking the Independent Party nomination for that office. And Greenwich State Rep. Harry Arora is running for the Republican nomination for treasurer.

Whoever gets the votes of at least 15 percent of the convention’s delegates wins a spot on the Democratic primary ballot in August. Whoever wins the votes of a majority of delegates gets the party’s official endorsement.

Besides overseeing elections, the secretary of the state is in charge of business filings and maintaining the commercial registry. The secretary of the state also proposes and lobbies for new election laws while promoting voting and participation in elections — serving as the state’s top​“civics” official. The treasurer, meanwhile, is responsible for managing the state’s pension funds, managing state banking relationships and short-term investments, issuing and managing state debt, and handling property like uncashed checks and proceeds from stocks and bonds and mutual funds whose owners can’t be located.

Mauro: “Long Gone Are The Days Of Delivering A Unanimous Ballot”

“It’s exciting having three well-qualified candidates from New Haven running” for statewide office this year, New Haven Democratic Town Committee Chair Vinnie Mauro said before the start of Friday’s opening speeches and subsequent endorsement vote for Blumenthal.

While he’s supporting Bond for secretary of the state and DuBois-Walton for treasurer, Mauro said, ​“We’ll coalesce when we need to coalesce” behind whoever wins the Democratic nominations for any of these offices. New Havener or not. 

“New Haven puts up the biggest plurality” of Democratic votes of anywhere in the state, Mauro said. Therefore, one of the potential boons of having a New Haven Democrat on the ballot, he posited, is that that kind of local representation could ​“motivate the base” to come out in an even bigger way in the November general election against a Republican.

Is he worried about a split in the New Haven Democratic delegation between Russell and DuBois-Walton for treasurer, and between Bond and, for example, Santiago, whom a number of high-profile Connecticut Latino politicians have backed, including many from New Haven — or Lesser, who handily won a straw poll conducted by a Westville Democratic Ward Committee before the convention?

“You always worry about a split,” Mauro said. But ​“long gone are the days of delivering a unanimous ballot” for a single set of candidates pre-selected by party higher-ups, he said. The convention delegates — including New Haven’s — will all get a chance to weigh in on Saturday, he said, and whoever emerges from the endorsement vote and from August’s Democratic primary will need the backing of the full party and its supporters come November.

“New Haven Is Rich With Potential”

In the hours before Friday’s convention kick-off, New Haven Democrats joined hundreds of their party compatriots from across the state in the concert venue’s concession area, where they donned campaign t‑shirts and boosted their preferred candidates.

Newhallville Alder Devin Avshalom-Smith, a proxy delegate for Ward 29 Democratic Party Co-Chair Major Ruth, said he’ll be backing Bond for secretary of state and DuBois-Walton for treasurer.

“Maritza to me is salt of the earth people,” he said. He said he’s confident she’ll make the secretary of the state’s office more transparent and accessible, and will back measures to boost voting rights. Plus, she’s a Latina who was ​“born and bred in New Haven,” he said, bringing a much-needed level of diversity to the Democrats’ statewide ticket.

He said he’s also backing DuBois-Walton for treasurer. ​“I think Karen is qualified. She’s well connected” with people from all different wakes of life. And, in her capacity as housing authority director, she’s ​“overseen big budgets” and complex organizations with lots of employees, making her well-suited for the treasurer role.

Standing right next to Avshalom-Smith was Janis Underwood, a Ward 25 Democratic co-chair — who plans to back Lesser for secretary of state and Russell for treasurer, following straw poll votes taken by her committee before the convention.

“New Haven is rich with potential,” Underwood said about the three New Haveners vying for Democratic nominations for statewide office. ​“I’m proud to be a part of the New Haven Delegation.”

Downtown/East Rock Alder Eli Sabin (pictured) said he’s made up his mind for secretary of state, and will be backing Bond on Saturday.

As for treasurer… he’s still deciding.

“It’s great” to have so many New Haven candidates at the convention, he said. ​“We haven’t had a New Havener in statewide office in a long time. It’s overdue.”

Why is it important to have a New Haven resident on the ballot?

“Representation matters,” he said. ​“We want to make sure that state government is always” keeping in minds the needs of urban centers like New Haven. One great way to make sure that’s the case is to have a New Havener in one of those statewide elected roles.

Ward 29 Democratic Co-Chair and state party ​“superdelegate” Audrey Tyson (pictured) said she’ll be supporting Russell for treasurer, and Santiago for secretary of the state.

“I’ve known Erick since he was a kid,” she said with a smile, recalling how his family lived across the street from her on Dixwell Avenue.

“He is so dedicated. He’s so smart.”

She offered similar praise for Santiago. ​“She’s humble, a hard worker,” and, Tyson added, she and Santiago have known each other for 20 years, having worked on plenty of other campaigns together, including now U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy’s.

“It’s tough for me, because I know all of them,” she said about picking between the different candidates for secretary of the state and treasurer. ​“It’s tough because everyone can’t win.”

Tomas Reyes (pictured at right, with Frank Alvarado), a former Board of Alders president and mayoral chief of staff, had less anxiety about boosting his preferred candidate.

“I think New Haven deserves to have one candidate on the ballot,” he said. 

Who he most wants to see get the nod during Saturday’s vote, however, is not a New Havener, but rather Santiago for secretary of the state.