Kevin Lembo to resign as state comptroller
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, once a possible frontrunner for governor, is resigning his post due to a serious heart condition, effective Dec. 31.
The Democrat, who serves as the state’s fiscal guardian, paymaster and chief of health services to state employees and retirees, announced his resignation in a written statement Friday, saying he has been diagnosed with “a serious and debilitating cardiac condition that has recently been worsening in intensity and severity.”
The statement indicates Lembo, 58, came to the decision after repeated consultations with a team of cardiologists, who recommended he not continue working.
“It has been the honor of my life to serve the people of Connecticut as state comptroller,” Lembo said in the statement. “Over ten years ago, voters took a chance on a gay, vegetarian nerd that had never run for office in his life. I’ve worked every day since to represent this office with honesty, integrity, and a focus on the common good. Even now, I love the work that I do and the people I work with. Unfortunately, my health simply won’t allow me to continue to serve.”
Lembo was first elected to the job in 2010 after serving as the state’s first health care advocate. As comptroller, Lembo has worked to expand health care access, advocating for years for a public option insurance plan for small businesses and nonprofits in Connecticut — against strong lobbying by the health insurance industry.
He is also seen as an advocate for transparency in government, spearheading a program and a database to make it easier for the public to track state spending, including salaries. He also co-authored a bipartisan plan in 2017 that raised the cap on the state’s rainy day fund and required excess amounts from capital gains taxes to be used to pay down the pension funds.
Multiple sources had told Hearst CTInsider that Lembo planned to make his announcement at noon Friday. His office issued the release at 10:54 a.m., 30 minutes after Lembo texted a Hearst reporter in response to a query about his pending resignation, saying someone would call shortly.
Gov. Ned Lamont will make an appointment to fill the seat until the next election, which is next November, under state statute. The General Assembly would have the appointment if it were in session.
“It is with incredible sadness that we receive this news,” Lamont said in a written statement. “I can only imagine how difficult it is for Kevin to make the decision to step down from a position that he loves and that he energetically campaigned to fill.”
Lembo, a resident of Guilford, is married to Charles Frey, with whom he has three children.
The governor will name a replacement “soon,” according to a Friday news release from his office. His spokesman, Max Reiss, declined to comment further on possible candidates for the appointment.
Lamont could choose someone to serve out the remainder of Lembo’s term who would not seek election, such as a ranking staff member in Lembo’s office. Or he could name someone who wants the job and who would run for election next year — essentially picking the nominee.
Can Lamont appoint a legislator?
Among the possible contenders whose names arose Friday is state Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s powerful finance committee and is also executive director of Tweed New Haven Airport.
Scanlon praised Lembo in a statement Friday, saying he has “transformed” the comptroller’s office.
“As a result, Connecticut now has greater transparency, better health care, a stable budget and a full Rainy Day Fund,” he said. “Our state is better off because of his service to our state and as a friend I’m praying for him as he focuses on his health after a career spent fighting to improve the health of others.”
A sitting state legislator can’t hold most other state appointed jobs. But beyond that, a reading of statutes and the state Constitution appears to show that Lamont cannot appoint Scanlon, or any other sitting legislator, even if that lawmaker were to resign from office to take the job of comptroller.
The reason: Legal opinions say a legislator must complete his or her term before even being considered for an executive or judicial appointment. That rule is in place to prevent undue influence by lawmakers seeking jobs during their terms.
Attorney General William Tong, through a spokeswoman, said Friday he would not issue an opinion on whether that applies to a vacancy the state comptroller’s office.
His office referred to a 1986 opinion by then-Attorney General Joe Lieberman, which cites the state Constitution in saying “executive department” appointments in the middle of a lawmaker’s term are barred.
The comptroller is one of six statewide elected offices under the state Constitution, along with governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general and secretary of the state. The comptroller is not under the office of the governor.
Still, the Constitution does list the comptroller as one of the offices under the executive department — sharpening th idea that Lamont cannot appoint a sitting lawmaker.
No campaign for governor
In a joint statement, Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, applauded his efforts to lower health care costs and increase transparency in government.
“We are a healthier state physically and financially because of all his tireless efforts over the years,” Looney said. “I wish him and his family the best as he steps away from elected office at this time.”
The top two Senate Republicans, Kevin Kelly of Stratford, the GOP leader, and Paul Formica of East Lyme, issued a statement that they share “many of the same goals” to increase health care access.
“Even when we have differed in our approach to a policy, it was always respectful. We want to thank Comptroller Lembo for his many years of service,” they wrote, “and for his deep respect in executing the job of Comptroller.”
The last time a constitutional officer resigned from office was in 1997, when then-Treasurer Chris Burnham took a job on Wall Street. Then-Gov. John G. Rowland appointed Paul Silvester, who was later convicted on corruption charges. The last state comptroller to resign in office was Raymond Thatcher in 1966.
In 2017, Lembo announced that he’d formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for governor in 2018, but later decided to forgo that bid and seek reelection as comptroller.
In a statement at the time, he said traveling around the state talking to voters “reinforced and reminded me what I’m most passionate about: a health care system and a state financial and economic system that works for everyone.”
It’s unclear whether he had or knew about his heart condition at the time he decided not to run for governor.
“I am determined to continue that fight and believe the best place for me to do that is as state comptroller,” he said.
On Friday, he said in his release, “While I’m disappointed that I’ll be unable to complete this term, the work that’s been done in the last 11 years has made Connecticut a better place to live, work and raise a family and that’s why I wanted this job in the first place. I feel confident that whoever follows me in this position has all the resources in place to continue this work and build on our successes.”