Arulampalam quits as Democrats debate diversity

Clarice Silber / CTMirror.org

Arunan Arulampalam talks to delegates on the convention floor.

Arunan Arulampalam ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for state treasurer Tuesday with a concession and a challenge: He declined to risk a potentially racially divisive primary, but challenged Democrats to look at diversity with a broader lens than a tradition of nominating only African-Americans for treasurer.

His withdrawal leaves Shawn Wooden, a finance lawyer and former Hartford council president who is black, in a two-way primary in August with Dita Bhargava, a former Wall Street trader of Indian descent who reiterated her intention to stay in the contest. Arulampalam, a finance lawyer who finished a strong second behind Wooden at the state convention 10 days ago, endorsed neither at a press conference streamed on Facebook. 

Arulampalam, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Zimbabwe to parents of Sri Lankan descent, said in an interview he had been pressured by party officials to withdraw and decrease the chances of the statewide ticket lacking a black candidate in November for the first time since 1958.

Beginning in 1962 with the nomination of Gerald A. Lamb as the first black state treasurer in the United States, every other Democrat nominated for treasurer since then has been black, a remarkable streak that has been a point of pride and, increasingly, discomfort to a Democratic Party struggling with notions of ticket balancing in an age of open primaries.

Denise L. Nappier, a Democrat and former Hartford city treasurer who is black, is not seeking re-election after 20 years. Once gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont named Susan Bysiewicz as his running mate, Wooden suddenly became the only credible Democratic contender for statewide office who was black.

“For the last few days before the convention there was a change in the tone of the dynamics of of the race,” Arulampalam said.

Instead of a contest between him and the other candidates for treasurer, it suddenly became a discussion about the diversity of the statewide ticket, and specifically its appeal to African-Americans and other urban voters important to the Democratic coalition. He was urged to leave the race, he said,

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Shawn Wooden accepting the endorsement for treasurer.

Wooden, a partner in Day Pitney, said no discussion about race should take away his long experience in public finance, including advising the AFL-CIO years ago.

“I hope all of the discussions around race don’t obscure for voters my 20 years of practicing law in public-pension fund investing,” Wooden said.

Lamont had raised expectations he would recruit a black or Hispanic running mate, and the announcement of a deal with Bysiewicz, a rival for the gubernatorial nomination, days before the convention ignited a backlash. Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, 30, a Puerto Rican labor organizer with a thin political resume, quickly announced her candidacy for lieutenant governor and won 40 percent of the convention vote. She and Bysiewicz will compete in August.

Arulampalam, who lives in Hartford and advises financial institutions on debt and equity issues for Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, said he did not want to risk dividing his party on questions of race. But he said Lamont, the convention-endorsed gubernatorial candidate, has agreed to lead the party after the election in a broad discussion of what  diversity and inclusion should mean in Connecticut electoral politics.

“I know Arunan’s decision not to run a primary was a difficult one,” Lamont said. “I respect his desire to lead a conversation in our party about diversity among candidates and in our ranks and I look forward to joining him in that effort after the November election.”

It is a conversation long in coming, as much about race and inclusion as a recognition that statewide tickets are now shaped more by the ambition and appeal of individual candidates than an overarching desire of a party for balance — however that might be defined in 2018.

The endorsed Democratic ticket of six statewide constitutional offices includes the first Asian endorsed for statewide office, William Tong for attorney general; the state’s first openly gay statewide officer, Comptroller Kevin Lembo; and Wooden. The others are Lamont, Bysiewicz and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.

Tong faces a three-way primary with Chris Mattei, a former federal prosecutor, and state Sen. Paul Doyle.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Dita Bhargava

John M. Bailey, the state’s legendary Democratic boss, turned ticket balancing into an art, drawing on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and geography to assemble statewide tickets. In 1998, his daughter, 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 part and as a testament to the wisdom of her father. But during his tenure, the convention — where Bailey could rearrange candidates for various offices like chess pieces — effectively was the last word on who ran under the Democratic banner.

Only in recent decades, when the threshold for qualifying for a primary fell from 20 percent to 15 percent of the convention vote, with an alternative route of petitioning, has the process become more open.

In ending his campaign, Arulampalam said Tuesday he is not giving up on that conversation.

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