Nick Balletto is making calls seeking support for his re-election as Democratic state chairman next month, despite the pointed absence of an endorsement from Gov.-elect Ned Lamont, whose viability as a candidate was sharply questioned by Balletto in the early months of the 2018 campaign.
In an interview Thursday, Balletto said he told Lamont he would like another term, but the conversation was brief and inconclusive. “I had a cursory conversation and expressed my interest about a month ago, and that’s it,” Balletto said. “I haven’t had any other conversations.”
Lamont’s silence has created a vacuum, opening the door for Balletto to make calls in an attempt to thwart a soft bid for the job by Justin Kronholm, a Democratic State Central Committee member, long-time political operative, and former executive director of the party.
Kronholm, who serves as a senior counselor to Attorney General George Jepsen, said Thursday he is interested in assuming the chairmanship once held by his grandfather, the legendary state and national party boss, John Bailey, but he views the decision as belonging to the governor-elect.
“I’m not actively campaigning for it,” Kronholm said.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, a member of U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy’s staff in Connecticut, has been asked to consider seeking the chairmanship with Lamont’s blessing, but sources close to Lamont and Murphy say Scanlon has concerns about performing the dual role of party chairman and state lawmaker.
Scanlon declined to comment.
Governors in Connecticut typically control the choice of state party chairs, though not always: the Democratic State Central Committee elected a future governor, William A. O’Neill, as chairman in 1976, ignoring Gov. Ella T. Grasso’s support for Peter Kelly.
Lamont is unlikely to make a definitive public statement on Balletto before Monday night, when the chairman is to host a victory celebration in Hartford featuring speeches from Lamont and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first Connecticut Democratic governor in more than a century to be succeeded by a member of his own party in an election.
“The Governor-elect is looking forward to joining CT Dems on Monday night to celebrate their collaborative work over the 2018 cycle and their successes across the state,” Lacey Rose, a Lamont spokeswoman, said in an email. “Certainly he looks forward to continuing to build a strong and inclusive state party, but his focus right now is on standing up a government that will be ready to lead on January 9 on behalf of all Connecticut citizens.”
Balletto was among the Democrats who questioned the ability of Lamont, a Greenwich businessman and unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006 and governor in 2010, to win in 2018. But with the tacit backing of Murphy, who was up for re-election and working on his own get-out-the-vote effort, the party largely coalesced behind Lamont before the state convention in May.
Balletto said he has not spoken about his re-election to Murphy, whose roles influencing the nominations for governor and the open 5th Congressional District seat have been the source of much public praise and some private resentment among Democrats.
The fate of the state chairs of both parties are uncertain for far different reasons in the aftermath of the 2018 elections that produced a Democratic sweep of congressional and statewide offices and their first state legislative gains in 10 years.
J.R. Romano, the GOP chair whose term expires in June, is trying to convince his demoralized party that he can lead a constructive evaluation of a disastrous election and help devise a strategy to grow a party losing ground to Democrats by nearly ever metric, including voter registration.
Balletto’s prospects turn more on the personal relationships with Lamont, Murphy and other leaders — as well as perennial question about the appropriate role and skillsets of a state party chairman in an era of open primaries. There has not been a true party boss in Connecticut since the death 44 years ago of Bailey, a master of ticket balancing.
Balletto is close to neither Lamont nor Murphy, and his disapproval of Murphy promoting the congressional candidacy of the inexperienced Jahana Hayes, a charismatic Waterbury educator who quickly became a political sensation, is widely known in Democratic circles.
“Certainly I’m talking to people about where the future of the party should be and where the future of the party should go,” Balletto said. “I’m having those conversations as we go along with state central committee people and other elected officials. We have a lot to build on. We had some great, tremendous victories. We’ve got to make sure we protect those victories, which is going to be a difficult job in itself.”
Balletto preferred to talk about his relationship with Lamont as the campaign ended, not how it began.
Democrats say Balletto was initially derisive when Lamont informed him he was about to announce his candidacy, then openly pessimistic about the party’s chances of holding the governor’s office with Lamont leading the ticket.
But once the gubernatorial field shrank to Lamont and Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, Lamont and Balletto met one morning at Portofino’s, a New Haven restaurant, to clear the air. The chairman and the party’s presumptive nominee had a productive working relationship for the remainder of the campaign, according to Democrats active in Lamont’s campaign and friendly with Balletto.
The inability to quickly resolve the question of Balletto’s status is evidence of growing pains by an incoming administration as well as an understandable focus on first rounding out the selections of the governor’s top aides.
Lamont announced his first appointments Tuesday, naming Ryan Drajewicz, who also is his transition director, as his chief of staff, and Melissa McCaw as his secretary of policy and management, overseeing the office responsible for state budgeting and labor negotiations. Other appointments are expected next week.