The state AFL-CIO rejected convention-endorsed Democrats in two high-profile primaries Friday by backing political newcomers with strong union ties: Eva Bermudez Zimmerman for lieutenant governor and Jahana Hayes for the open 5th Congressional District seat.
The endorsements give a strong boost to two women who would bring racial diversity to the ticket, a move some Democrats say is necessary to mobilize the party’s urban base. Zimmerman, who is Puerto Rican, would be the first Hispanic holding statewide office, while Hayes would be the first African-American elected to Congress as a Democrat from Connecticut.
Zimmerman’s win over former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz is a significant blow to her political comeback after eight years out of office — and an implicit rebuke of Ned Lamont, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee who had raised expectations he would pick a minority as a running mate.
By endorsing Zimmerman, the delegates disregarded calls by leaders to remain neutral in the Aug. 14 primary for lieutenant governor out of deference to Lamont, who chose Bysiewicz as his running mate shortly before the party’s state convention. Bysiewicz had been running for governor.
The hurriedly organized candidacy of Zimmerman, 31, an SEIU organizer, became a rallying point at the Democratic convention for delegates unhappy that Lamont had failed to pick a minority for his running mate, dashing expectations raised by Lamont. She won 40 percent of the convention vote.
“I’ve got to say the system is not rigged,” Zimmerman told the labor delegates, referring to her showing at the Democratic convention.
Hayes, 45, a Waterbury educator who was the national teacher of the year in 2016, is facing Mary Glassman, a former nominee for lieutenant governor and Simsbury first selectman, in a Democratic primary to succeed U.S. Rep. Elizabeth S. Esty, who withdrew over her mishandling of a harassment complaint against her chief of staff.
With the encouragement of U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, Hayes made a late entrance into the race, nearly winning the endorsement at convention roiled by complaints of irregularities. Hayes had a lead, but lost to Glassman after a series of vote switches.
In contested races for other Democratic nominations, the labor federation endorsed Lamont for governor, but delayed endorsements for attorney general and treasurer until after the primary. Delegates voted 103 to 57 for William Tong for attorney general, just missing the two-thirds necessary for endorsement.
The choice of Lamont over Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, who served seven years in prison after his conviction on corruption charges in 2003, was expected, as Lamont easily won an AFL-CIO straw poll in April and the endorsement of the Democratic state convention in May.
But the ability of Hayes to win two-thirds of the delegates was less than certain. Both Hayes and Glassman addressed the delegates Friday, as did Zimmerman and Bysiewicz.
Glassman was challenged by one delegate during a Q & A about her support as a municipal official for legislation that could have lowered the prevailing wage for construction workers in municipal projects. She asked to be considered on a 30-year record in politics, not a single issue.
Hayes was physically embraced by Lori Pelletier, the AFL-CIO president, after addressing 192 delegates from 80 local unions. She left the Hartford Hilton Hotel to a standing ovation — as did Zimmerman.
Hayes became pregnant as a teenager, but finished high school and slowly made her way through higher education — attending community college and eventually earning a four-year degree and master’s. As a single mother, she worked at state’s Southbury Training School, where short-staffing often mandated involuntary double shifts.
“I went to my bosses and said I can’t do this. I am physically and mentally unable to do this every single day,” Hayes said. “They said to me you can find another job. But instead, what I did I found my union brothers and sisters.”
She was a member of District 1199, an affiliate of SEIU. As a teacher, she remains a union member.
Even in an era of dwindling union membership, labor remains influential in Democratic primaries in Connecticut, which has the highest per-capita union membership in New England and is one of the top five in the U.S.
“It’s boots on the ground,” said Sal Luciano, who retired recently as the head of AFSCME Council 4, but remains as executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.
The AFL-CIO previously endorsed the Democratic congressional incumbents seeking re-election: U.S. Reps. John B. Larson of the 1st, Joe Courtney of the 2nd, Rosa L. DeLauro of the 3rd and Jim Himes of the 4th. Murphy was endorsed Friday.
Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who are unopposed for the Democratic nominations, were endorsed in April.