Is it possible to balance statewide tickets in age of primaries?

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

State Treasurer Denise L. Nappier’s departure resumes a debate from 1998.

Denise L. Nappier’s decision not to seek re-election as state treasurer is bound to reopen a debate over how to preserve one of the most enduring traditions in Connecticut politics: Nominating a string of racially diverse statewide Democratic tickets, beginning in 1962 with the choice of Gerald A. Lamb as the first black state treasurer in the U.S.

Nappier and every other Democrat nominated for treasurer since then has been black, a remarkable streak that has been a point of pride and discomfort. In 1998, the last time the seat was open, Nappier had to compete for the nomination in a primary with Frank A. Lecce, a white man whose supporters saw the streak as the product of a quota, not progressive politics.

Barbara B. Kennelly, the Democratic nominee for governor that year, broke a neutrality pledge and endorsed Nappier, saying she could not abide the thought of leading the first all-white Democratic ticket since 1958. Kennelly lost to Republican John G. Rowland, but Nappier won the first of five terms in the general election.

Kennelly recalls her endorsement fondly today as the right thing to do for her party — and as a testament to the wisdom of her father, John M. Bailey, the state’s legendary Democratic boss. Bailey didn’t invent ticket balancing, but he turned the game into an art, drawing on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and geography to assemble statewide tickets.

“Bailey was mostly intuitive on this,” said former U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a biographer of Bailey. “I once said to him, ‘Do you think all this ethnic, geographic and racial balancing is necessary?’ Glasses on forehead, cigar in the mouth, he said, ‘To tell you the truth, I don’t know, but we keep winning.’ ”

Bailey, the state party chairman from 1946 until his death in 1975, played a role in electing Abraham Ribicoff as the state’s first Jewish governor in 1954, John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president in 1960 and Ella T. Grasso as the state’s first female governor in 1974. Grasso was the first woman elected governor of any state without following her husband into office.

“Bailey broke a lot of barriers,” Lieberman said. “He brought to power some remarkable people.”

John M. Bailey, the power broker.

But the unwritten rules for balanced tickets could close doors as well as open them, as Lieberman discovered in 1982.

Lieberman, a former state Senate leader, was running for attorney general, attempting a political comeback after losing a congressional race in 1980. He was surprised when a friend and political ally declined to support him at the nominating convention, saying he was committed to Patricia Hendel in the contest for secretary of the state.

Like Lieberman, Hendel was Jewish. One Jew was fine on the ticket in 1982, Lieberman said he was told, but two were one too many.

mark pazniokas /

Joseph I. Lieberman was told in 1982 the ticket could have one Jew. In 1994, he was one of four, all victorious.

Lieberman won the nomination for attorney general, defeating an Italian-American. Hendel lost to Julia H. Tashjian, who was Armenian.

Twelve years later, Nancy Wyman, one of three Jews running for the six statewide constitutional offices, was urged to end her campaign for comptroller. (A fourth, Lieberman, was running for a second term to the U.S. Senate.) “All of a sudden they wanted to balance the ticket,” Wyman recalled. “They said, ‘There’s too many Jews on the ticket.’ They found an Italian man who was very nice. They were going to bump me.”

The definition of balance did not extend to gender. Without Wyman, the ticket would have been all male.

She refused to quit. Wyman won the nomination and the first of six statewide races, four as comptroller and two as lieutenant governor. And, Wyman noted, the only other Democrats to win statewide races that year were Jewish: Lieberman, Wyman, Miles Rapoport for secretary of the state, and Richard Blumenthal for attorney general.

For the past eight years, all six constitutional offices have been held by Democrats, three men and three women. This year, there are four open seats as Nappier, Wyman, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Attorney General George Jepsen are not seeking re-election. Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill each are seeking third terms.

One question black politicians raise today is whether the Democrats’ 56-year tradition of nominating only black candidates for treasurer is a help or a hindrance. No treasurer has moved to higher office, and there is a suspicion that some Democrats now reflexively see treasurer as the only “black office.”

“I guess I’m of two minds, like many people on this issue,” said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, a black politician who considered seeking statewide office in 2018. “To a certain degree, I appreciate there is a spot, if you will. I also see it as problematic.”

Winfield was interested in running for lieutenant governor, but reconsidered after his wife became pregnant with twins. She is due in March.

Connecticut has elected four black candidates to statewide office, all Democratic state treasurers: Lamb, Henry Parker, Francisco L. Borges and Nappier. The only black congressman from Connecticut was Gary A. Franks, a Republican elected to the first of three terms from the 5th District in 1990.

No Hispanic candidate ever has been elected to statewide office. Lieberman said if politics still was dominated by Bailey and nominations were settled at conventions, a Hispanic would have been elected by now.

“He would have said, ‘Look at the growth in this group,’ ” Lieberman said.

Kyle Constable /

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman says in 1994 some in her party were willing to run an all-male statewide ticket.

But Lieberman, despite his own unhappy experience with a primary, said that is no argument to roll back the clock to the time when candidates needed 20 percent of a convention vote to qualify for primary, not the 15 percent of today.

“There’s not a substantive argument that carries the day,”said Lieberman, who was re-elected as a petitioning candidate after losing a Senate primary in 2006. “You should let every Democrat and every Republican nominate their candidates.”

In promoting the candidacy of a black man for treasurer in 1962, Kennelly said, her father did not intend it to become the “black office.” His intent was to open a door to broader opportunities for an important element of the Democratic coalition, she said.

The only announced candidate for treasurer is a Republican, Thad Gray.

Two Democrats, John Blankley of Greenwich and Arunan Arulampalam of Hartford, have exploratory committees, with an eye toward possible runs for treasurer. Shawn Wooden, a former Hartford City Council president, is expected to declare his candidacy next week. All three have experience in finance.

Blankley is the former chief financial officer of BP North America. Arulampalam is a lawyer at Updike, Kelly & Spellacy who advises financial institutions on debt and equity issues. Wooden is a partner at Day Pitney who represents public pension funds.

Wooden is black. Arulampalam was born in Zimbabwe to parents of Sri Lankan descent. Blankey, who has run unsuccessfully for the state House and Senate, is white and British born. If he runs, Blankley would be trying to become the first white Democratic nominee for state treasurer since John Speziale in 1958.

“I told him that the party structure would be against him because he is the wrong color for the job,” said Michael Farina, a campaign consultant hired by Blankley.

Blankley said he well understands the tradition, but he is hoping delegates and voters look past race. It would help if the fields for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general get more diverse.