Eva Bermudez Zimmerman. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.prg

The office is derided as the spare part of government, a job with few duties other than being available should the boss go ill or worse. But primaries for lieutenant governor in Connecticut are asking Democrats and Republicans to think about their openness and appeal to millennials and minorities in a decidedly unsettled election cycle.

“Honestly, it represents a changing of the guard,” said Erin Stewart, the 31-year-old Republican mayor of New Britain, who has cast her campaign in a three-way race for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor as a call for generational change. “It’ll say which party is ready for this change.”

Her message faltered two weeks ago at the Republican convention, where she ran a distant second to one of the most conservative members of the state Senate, Joe Markley of Southington. He had been seeking the endorsement for 14 months, while Stewart ended a gubernatorial campaign on the eve of the convention to compete for L.G.

It was a different story last weekend at the Democratic convention.  A stunning 40 percent of the delegates rejected former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz — the running mate chosen by their presumptive gubernatorial nominee, Ned Lamont — in favor of a young woman of Puerto Rican descent with a thin political resume, Eva Bermudez Zimmerman.

The vote was less about Zimmerman’s qualifications or differences with Bysiewicz on major issues than a protest over Lamont’s inability to meet the expectation he would find a running mate able to engage the black and Latino communities. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the vote for Zimmerman and its implicit rebuke of Lamont was how quickly a resistance blossomed.

News of the Lamont-Bysiewicz ticket leaked Monday and was announced Tuesday morning. Zimmerman, who had been exploring a challenge for secretary of the state without much success, declared her candidacy for lieutenant governor Wednesday night. By Saturday afternoon, Zimmerman was a lightning rod for delegates hungry for something other than a ticket composed of two former rivals, both white and middle-aged.

Now, Democrats just have to figure out exactly what it means.

Zimmerman, 30, a labor organizer who was raised in Hartford and lives in Newtown  where she served on the local council before losing a race for state representative in 2016, is intent on making the transition from a vessel of protest to a candidate credibly ready to take over state government, if the occasion arises.

Susan Bysiewicz mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

In a 43-year span, three lieutenant governors took over in Connecticut upon the resignation of a governor: John Dempsey in January 1961, when Abraham Ribicoff joined the Kennedy administration; William A. O’Neill in December 1980, when Ella T. Grasso was dying from cancer; and M. Jodi Rell in July 2004, when John G. Rowland faced impeachment.

Zimmerman, who is employed by SEIU, was assisted at the convention by fellow union activists, but she cannot count on formal union endorsements in her primary, given that Bysiewicz is supportive of the labor agenda, including protecting collective bargaining for pubic employees and supporting a $15 minimum wage.

On Saturday, Zimmerman readily acknowledges, she was in the right place at the right time.

“Timing is key when it comes to a campaign, and I’m not going to shy away from the reality that timing has worked in my favor,” Zimmerman said. “But this is beyond my name or whatever I represent. I think people are holding onto the values and the message of the timing. That’s the reality.”

Bysiewicz said she understands the appetite for greater diversity at the top of the ticket.

But she noted that the six candidates endorsed by the Democrats for constitutional statewide offices include Shawn Wooden, an African-American running for treasurer, and William Tong, a candidate for attorney general who would be the first Asian elected to statewide office in Connecticut. Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo, who was nominated for a third term, is the first openly gay statewide official.

“Ned and I are committed to building the most diverse administration the state has ever seen,” Bysiewicz said.

Erin Stewart

The tumult in Connecticut comes as analysts and political operatives nationally struggle to understand the changes that have rippled through U.S. politics since the election of Donald J. Trump, starting with a women’s march on Washington that has seemed to spawn a new generation of activists, some turbo-charged by the Me Too movement. 

High school students took the lead on gun control after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., giving new energy to a movement that has made little headway in Congress.

“The past year and a half has changed everything,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic operative in Connecticut. “We’ve had these these seismic shifts. It has rippled out in ways that we don’t yet understand. We see the impact only on certain candidates in certain races.”

On Wednesday, Democrats rushed to analyze another set of unexpected primary results from the previous night — ones that reinforced a sense voters may be looking for some non-traditional candidates.

In Georgia, state Rep. Stacey Abrams easily won a primary, setting her up to try this fall to become the first female African-American governor of any state. A gay Latina, Lupe Valdez, won a Democratic primary for governor in Texas. In Kentucky, a former fighter pilot seeking office for the first time, Amy McGrath, upset Lexington’s mayor in a race for Congress.

“It’s stunning to me what happened yesterday in Georgia,” said Lori Pelletier, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, which will consider formal endorsements on June 22.

Abrams’ win — and whether she succeeds in November — will be closely watched. Her opponent was a white state representative who argued that the best path for Democrats to win a governor’s office long held by the GOP was to appeal to white, moderate voters. Abrams made a different bet, insisting she could expand the base.  

State Sen. Joe Markley, who was endorsed for lieutenant governor, addresses the convention. Keith M. Phaneuf / ctmirror.org

As Politico reported, “She’s looking to register and engage more black voters, who turned out at a lower rate in the last midterm elections in 2014, when 40.6 percent of African-American voters turned out, compared with 47.5 percent of whites.”

That is an element of the debate under way among Connecticut Democrats.

J.R. Romano, the Republican state chairman, dismisses the approach and the Democrats’ emphasis on identity politics in Connecticut. Romano said the state is hungry for a vision on improving the economy.

“What you heard at the Democratic convention was not solutions to Connecticut’s fiscal problems, it was identity politics,” Romano said.

But Stewart is confronting the GOP with its own discussion of identity politics, albeit on the terms of gender, generation and ideology, not race. Stewart, a friend of Romano’s, said two white males at the top of the GOP ticket — every gubernatorial contender is a white male — is not the message the Grand Old Party should be sending in 2018.

“I got criticized pretty heavily for saying that,” Stewart said. But she stands by her remarks.

Markley, a small-government conservative who won an open seat in 2010, said he would be a useful partner to a GOP governor. In addition to his four terms this decade, Markley also served a single term in the 1980s, swept into office by the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1984. Or, as Stewart archly puts it, “Before I was born.”

He said he understands, but does not embrace, identity politics.

“To my mind, the Republican Party was founded on the basis that all people were created equal,” Markley said. But he added, “The identity politics which the the Democrats are eager to engage, I understand it. I am sympathetic to it. I understand the historical forces that lead people to embrace it.”

Unlike Zimmerman, Stewart has elective experience as the three-term mayor of New Britain. She will be competing in the Aug. 14 primary with Markley and Jayme Stevenson, the first selectman of Darien.

There was no deal to be struck for a ticket at the Republican convention. The gubernatorial endorsement was won by Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who could not afford to antagonize delegates supporting Stevenson or Markley, given that he was facing an eight-man field at the convention.

Boughton, former First Selectman Tim Herbst of Trumbull and Steve Obsitnik, a tech entrepreneur from Westport, all qualified for the primary. Two wealthy businessmen, David Stemerman and Bob Stefanowski, bypassed the convention and are petitioning to get on the primary ballot, as is Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti.

Lamont faces a primary only if one of two remaining challengers, Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim and Guy L. Smith, succeed in gathering sufficient signatures for a primary. Ganim failed to win the necessary 15 percent at the convention to qualify. Smith, a newcomer to Connecticut politics, didn’t try.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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