As House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, publicly acknowledged his political retirement plans Sunday, the telephone scramble began by three House Democrats competing for two leadership jobs.
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, immediately confirmed he was running to succeed Sharkey as speaker, igniting a competition for his job between Matthew D. Ritter of Hartford and Toni E. Walker of New Haven.
Ritter, 34, a former city councilman elected to the legislature six years ago, already had been approaching colleagues about support for majority leader in 2018, when he assumed Sharkey would step down and Aresimowicz would move up.
“He might have somewhat of a head start on Toni as far as that goes,” said Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven.
Walker, 64, a legislator for 15 years and co-chair of the Appropriations Committee for nearly six years, is making calls to gauge the depth and commitment of Ritter’s support while pitching her own qualifications.
So far, it is a friendly competition. In separate interviews, Walker and Ritter each described the other as a friend and ally. Aresimowicz is uncontested for speaker.
“There is no question that Toni is someone who has mentored me and someone I’ve worked with on issues and have the utmost respect for,” Ritter said. “We’re good friends, and these things do happen.”
“He would be a great majority leader,” Walker said of Ritter.
Just not now, she said.
Walker has been the co-chair of a committee for 10 years, four years at Human Services and six at Appropriations. Ritter can only benefit by more time as a committee co-chair, she said.
“Knowledge of the budget will be important going forward,” she said.
Sharkey picked Ritter as a rising star two years ago, naming him as the co-chair of the Public Health Committee after just two terms in the House. Six months ago, Ritter and a circle of friends started scouting for a run at majority leader.
“I was under the impression Toni was leaning toward not doing it, yes. She felt her role in Appropriations was important,” Ritter said. “In the last few days Toni and I did talk. She wants to look at it. No disrespect. That’s the reality of things.”
Walker would be the first African-American majority leader of either chamber in the General Assembly, but Ritter said his support comes from all segments of the House majority, including members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
“When I started talking to people, I said I’m only going to run if two things occur,” Ritter said. “If I’m seen as a candidate of people on the left or the right, I am not running, or urban versus suburban, I’m not running.”
Both said they will continue to make their phone calls and meet with colleagues to get a hard count, something now possible since Sharkey and Aresimowicz are public with their plans.
If the race is close among incumbent legislators, Ritter and Walker would step up their campaigns among the candidates for House seats, whose identities are just now becoming known. At least 11 of the 87 House Democrats are not seeking re-election.
If Republicans pick up a dozen seats in November, the efforts by Ritter and Walker would be moot: By a margin of 76 to 75, the GOP would win control the House for the first time since 1984.