Two members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, Reps. Jason Rojas of East Hartford and Robyn Porter of New Haven, are rivals in an early campaign to line up support for a leadership contest in 2020 — or sooner, if House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, fails to win re-election this November.
Porter and Rojas, both Democrats, are making calls asking colleagues to consider supporting them as the next House majority leader on the assumption the current majority leader, Matt Ritter of Harford, will succeed Aresimowicz as speaker, either after Aresimowicz voluntarily steps down after two terms following the 2020 elections, or he loses his seat in 2018.
A third possibility, of course, is that Republicans upend that succession plan by winning control of the House this year or in 2020. The GOP has not won a House majority since 1984, but they are only five seats shy of 76, the bare minimum necessary to control the lower chamber of the General Assembly.
All those what-ifs may make the early, low-key campaigning seem Quixotic. But it reflects a tradition begun by Ritter’s father, Thomas D. Ritter, who locked up the votes to succeed Richard J. Balducci as speaker two years ahead of Balducci’s departure in 1993 after the chamber’s traditional-if-not-always-followed practice of serving no more than two terms at the top.
Aresimowicz, an AFSCME employee whose politics run to the left of some of his suburban constituents, had a close call in 2016, collecting just 51.9 percent of the vote in a two-way race with a teenaged Republican challenger, Christopher Morelli. This year, his GOP opponent is Steven Baleshiski, a 21-year-old community college student.
“The speaker has had a really tough time in his district,” Porter said.
“Obviously, Joe is my speaker. I expect him to be re-elected,” Rojas said. “Of course, you never know. Elections are elections.”
Aresimowicz’s 30th House District covers the northern portions of Berlin and Southington. One measure of the district’s conservative tilt is that the latter community is home to Sen. Joe Markley, a Republican and one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly.
“I have a difficult district,” Aresimowicz said. “I’m never going to win by huge margins.”
Either Rojas or Porter would be the first member of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus to win a top leadership post in either chamber. Rojas is Hispanic; Porter is African-American. Both are committee co-chairs: Rojas on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee; Porter on the Labor and Public Employees Committee.
Neither claims to be garnering a lot of hard commitments, saying their conversations are preliminary. Others could get into the race after the 2018 elections are in the books.
Aresimowicz said he is not offended by early politicking being conducted in anticipation of his departure, be it voluntarily or involuntarily. With a somewhat fuzzy tradition of term limits for speaker — either two or three terms — Aresimowicz said he decided to make clear to his caucus that 2018 would be his last election and two terms would be his limit as speaker.
“Some speakers, they have kept things closer to the vest,” said Matt Ritter, who already has asked his colleagues to support him for speaker. “For Joe to do it the way he’s done, he’s put everybody on notice.”
Ritter’s father was the last speaker to win the post without previously being in leadership. The last five speakers all were majority leaders who succeeded their predecessors with little or no opposition: Moira K. Lyons of Stamford, James A. Amann of Milford, Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden, J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden and Aresimowicz.
Only two speakers have served three terms.
Most speakers served a single term before 1971, when the legislature began meeting annually instead of every other year. After 1971, the de facto limit was two terms for the next two decades. A speaker who sought a third term, Irving J. Stolberg of New Haven, was blocked by a stunning coup on the opening day of the 1989 session. Dissident Democrats enlisted the GOP minority to stop Stolberg and elect Balducci, also a Democrat.
The first speaker to win a third term was Balducci’s successor, Tom Ritter. He was followed by Lyons, the other three-term speaker.
Sharkey told his caucus in late 2015 that he, too, would seek a third and final term as speaker, then abruptly decided against re-election after the close of legislature’s 2016 session in May. Aresimowicz, who was majority leader, instantly became the consensus pick for speaker, opening a brief fight to succeed him as majority leader.
Matt Ritter, who had quietly been talking to colleagues about the majority leader’s post with an eye towards 2018, was the only Democrat positioned to capitalize on Sharkey’s unexpected retirement. Rojas and Porter said the lesson of Ritter’s early campaigning was not lost on them.
The assumption is Aresimowicz wins re-election to the House, Democrats retain a majority, and he is chosen for a second and final term as speaker, they said.
“Plan B is he doesn’t win,” Porter said. Then, she said, “What seems to be early may end up being late.”