The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

How a longshot Democrat won the day for a statewide race

- DAN HAAR

Stephanie Thomas entered the Xfinity Theatre in Hartford Saturday morning as one of the longshots in the 5-person race for secretary of the state at the Democratic state nominating convention, at least in the convention­al wisdom

Thomas, a first-term state Representa­tive from Norwalk, knew she needed support from people like Sharon Thomas, no relation, a delegate from Simsbury. Delegate Thomas, on the board of education and party committee in her town, was a sort of rarity at the convention: In both of the contested races on the ticket, treasurer and secretary of the state, she was truly undecided.

Sharon Thomas was there to listen and learn. That would matter as the afternoon progressed. She perused the candidate tables at the entry to the open-air music hall. She read the pamphlets. She recalled candidate Thomas's visit to the Simsbury Democratic Town Committee back in March, which did not go well, or so it seemed at the time.

Voting was underway for the treasurer endorsemen­t when I met Sharon Thomas. She had made her choice among three candidates and was carrying a memento to signal it: a t-shirt for Karen Dubois-Walton, the New Haven housing authority head. Thomas told me she was leaning toward a candidate in the secretary of the state race, but wouldn't divulge the name.

For the tall, ever-smiling Stephanie Thomas, a fundraisin­g consultant for nonprofits, the climb seemed steep because of the nature of politics. Throughout the noisy music hall as candidates and their lieutenant­s and handlers jockeyed for votes, the coin of the realm was who, over the years, had come to be liked or

needed, or maybe just known.

A convention, after all, is for insiders. And Stephanie Thomas, along with Maritza Bond, the New Haven city health director — arguably the two most compelling campaigner­s of the five — were the least known to the hard core of 2,000 insiders.

Rightly or wrongly, those delegates pick the names that voters will see at the top of the ballots on Election Day, or at least in primary elections. And rightly or wrongly, identity politics matters. The contest pitted Thomas, a Black woman, against two Hispanic women, Bond and Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden; and two white, Jewish men in the legislatur­e, Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown and Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden.

This may have seemed like inside baseball as it unfolded, but the outcome would bend the curve of state policy and shape the face of Connecticu­t’s leadership in ways that matter.

Sizing up the field

Manchester was among the cities and towns known to be solidly behind 10-year state Capitol veteran Santiago. I asked Mayor Jay Moran, a delegate, why that was. “She has always been there for us,” he said — meaning not just in votes, but in showing up to campaign for local candidates.

Santiago also had the large Waterbury delegation, headed by Ken Curren, district director for U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. Santiago recently retired from Murphy’s office and Curren raved to me about all the work she did behind the scenes, solving problems for constituen­ts.

Naturally, Santiago also had the endorsemen­t of Murphy and Waterbury’s U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, and perhaps more important at the convention, state Rep. Geraldo Reyes, chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus at the legislatur­e. Reyes worked the convention aisles with gusto by Santiago’s side.

Lesser had campaigned the longest, raised the most money and entered the hall as the other perceived frontrunne­r, along with Santiago. He made it clear in his speech that he was the candidate with the most experience working on electoral and voter access issues.

Lesser had significan­t backing from labor, especially the SEIU. It was no coincidenc­e he was nominated by Eva Bermúdez Zimmerman, a prominent Hispanic labor activist and 2022 candidate for state Senate who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Bond, the only one of the five with an executive government job, had support from the large New Haven delegation and some from Bridgeport, where she had worked under Mayor Joe Ganim. What she lacked in political base she made up in a tireless, mile-a-minute style and clear ideas about the constituti­onal office — the chief election authority in the state, which also registers businesses.

Elliott, a young leader of the progressiv­e wing in the House, campaigned with a multi-pronged plan. Like Lesser, but unlike Santiago, he has had significan­t accomplish­ments in the General assembly; Elliott brings a direct and creative style, less given to backroom dealmaking.

Thomas was the least known, but had quietly won over some key party leaders.

Democrats have not nominated a Hispanic candidate for any statewide race in memory, perhaps ever, and for many, this was the time to break that non-proud record. For treasurer, the party has nominated Black candidates for the last — get this — 60 years and running. That streak is on its way to continuing with the endorsemen­t of Erick Russell, a New Haven attorney, Saturday afternoon.

And with the secretary of the state contest coming last of the five endorsemen­ts Saturday, gender also weighed heavily. To that point the ticket had no woman other than Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, who campaigns as Gov. Ned Lamont’s chosen running mate. Many women made it clear that with strong female candidates in the field, endorsing a man was not an option.

The moment of truth

I inadverten­tly congratula­ted Thomas when I met her right before the balloting for secretary of the state. She looked puzzled. Recovering from the gaffe, I explained that the mood of the room showed she clearly had the 15 percent of

votes needed for a primary.

Marchers with Thomas signs paraded the main aisle. A few trusted, longtime party leaders were saying she was not to be taken lightly. One power couple in the party told me Thomas had stopped off at their house for more than two hours and impressed them mightily, over bourbon.

In the Simsbury delegation, Sharon Thomas had just told me her choice was Stephanie Thomas, based on Thomas’s speech, her manner, her statements about the office — not, the delegate made clear, because Thomas, like herself, is Black.

Sharon Thomas works at CVS-Aetna — CVS, she insists on calling the company — in health care equity. She’s the only African American on either the school board or the town council in Simsbury. Still, she said, “It’s not a Black and white thing for me especially for things like this, it’s who’s the most qualified… I don’t care if you’re pink or purple .... I don’t look at it that way.”

The moment of truth came at 3:41 p.m. Everyone watched the big board for the early voting results to appear. Boom! The first bar chart showed Thomas with 28 percent of votes, well ahead of Santiago and Lesser, who were in a near-tie. The game had changed.

Thomas the delegate exclaimed, “See! See! See!”

She bolted out to the entry, wanting a Stephanie Thomas shirt. She told a man at the table that the candidate was in the lead; results were not visible in the entry area. That turned out to be the Thomas’s husband. They hugged.

A fleeting chance for Lesser

Back in the main arena, the scrambling was underway in the vote-switching that makes convention­s a true sporting event. Bond and Elliott roamed the delegation­s, desperatel­y trying to bring their totals up to 15 percent.

Bond made it with two minutes to spare as she sprinted in high heels up the broad steps to the Shelton section. There, one of her supporters had found five votes — not in a horse trade, but rather, just because they liked her and saw they could put her over the top, into position for a primary. The diminutive Bond, surrounded at that moment by tall, white men, put her hand to her heart, held for a few seconds and darted back down to the main aisle.

Elliott fell short, negotiated throwing his support to Thomas and took the stage. He had elevated the debate with his ideas. “This was never about me,” he told the crowd.

Thomas held the lead in the frantic second round. With the Kentucky Derby approachin­g, Lesser approached Vincent Mauro Jr., chairman of the crucial New Haven party committee, whose father was the chairman. Mauro, known as Vinnie, who is chief of staff for the Senate Democrats, had endorsed Bond, who had exited the second round, satisfied with her 17 percent.

Mauro and New Haven had already provided more than 40 votes for Lesser, who was neck-and-neck with Santiago. With seconds remaining, there was no more they could do in this horse race. Lesser pulled ahead of Santiago by 10 votes to place second, giving him one more round, head-to-head against Thomas.

Bermúdez Zimmerman, scrambling, told me there was a chance for Lesser if labor delegates from Santiago’s camp came together. But it was too late. With Thomas’ win obvious, Lesser ended the balloting in the final round.

‘It was the calmness’

Thomas said from the podium she had no prepared acceptance speech. Sharon Thomas, now from a close seat, yelled out, “You don’t need a speech. Speak from your heart, that’s what you’ve been doing!”

A few minutes later, on stage with Gov. Ned Lamont, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and the other endorsed candidates, Stephanie Thomas told me she figured she would come in second, though that wasn’t the betting line. “They didn’t know me like I know me,” she said.

In the end, Thomas had something unique in the race: The lack of any big problems. She was not a terrible campaigner with few ideas; she was not brash or arrogant; she had not created a backlash with last-minute campaign ploys; she had not nominated the wrong person at a previous convention; she was not a white male.

No one took shots at her. She passed the pack on the strength of a message and a quietly confident manner that was clear in her two speeches.

“It was the calmness,” Sharon Thomas said as the convention ended. “And I think that that’s needed. With all the other craziness around you, you need somebody to have that temperamen­t. Because everybody else is always hyped. She’ll be the person who says, “We can get it done.’

 ?? Dan Haar/Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? State Rep. Stephanie Thomas, of Norwalk, won the endorsemen­t for secretary of the state at the Democratic state nominating convention in Hartford on Saturday. The result was unexpected, prodded by vociferous supporters marching in the Xfinity Theatre.
Dan Haar/Hearst Connecticu­t Media State Rep. Stephanie Thomas, of Norwalk, won the endorsemen­t for secretary of the state at the Democratic state nominating convention in Hartford on Saturday. The result was unexpected, prodded by vociferous supporters marching in the Xfinity Theatre.
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