The executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party is stepping down to make way for a successor to be chosen by Gov. Ned Lamont, a subtle confirmation of what has been clear for months: Lamont intends to seek a second term in 2022.
The move announced Wednesday comes a day after the municipal elections, when the political calendar rapidly flipped to 2022, and Democrats and Republicans sparred over what GOP wins here and elsewhere portend for Connecticut.
Lamont said the losses Tuesday in low-turnout local elections did not concern him, but the Democrats’ loss of the governor’s race in Virginia and close call in New Jersey were “a little bit of a wakeup call.”
Ben Proto, the Republican state chair, said the performance of Republicans in two states that Joe Biden carried easily — by 10 points in Virginia and 16 points in New Jersey — should leave the governor wide awake.
“I mean, across the country, Republicans did very well last night and Democrats didn’t, and there’s gotta be some correlation to what’s going on in Washington, what people are seeing in their state houses,” Proto said.
On Tuesday night, Proto framed the local elections as a Republican blowout that sets up the GOP’s efforts to compete in 2022 for control of the General Assembly and the statewide offices that will be on the ballot. That opinion was seconded on Twitter by Bob Stefanowski, the Republican who lost to Lamont in 2018 and is weighing a rematch.
Republicans held on to open GOP seats for mayor and first selectman in Danbury, Westport and Darien and flipped Democratic seats in Bolton, Bristol, Colchester, East Haddam and Windsor Locks. They also flipped control of some local boards, allowing Proto to claim pickups in 20 towns. Democrats won GOP first selectman seats in Avon, Simsbury and Roxbury.
Lamont saw no pattern.
“A lot of those are very local in terms of what’s going on town by town. I think we’re fine,” said Lamont, whose polling has been strong during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think Connecticut feels like they’re in a pretty good place right now.”
Lamont shrugged off a question about when he would formally announce his candidacy, but his allies, who asked not to be quoted by name, said the governor has made clear his intent.
One laughed and noted that Lamont’s belated interest in staffing at the state party underscores his plans.
Jacqueline Kozin, who became executive director of the party after Lamont’s victory in 2018, emailed Democratic State Central Committee members and Democratic town chairs Wednesday with news of her coming departure.
“Today we begin a new election cycle, and I wanted to share some personal news,” she wrote.
She said she is leaving the state party job to direct government relations at the quasi-public authority overseeing the state’s paid family and medical leave insurance program.
Nancy DiNardo, the state Democratic chair, confirmed Kozin’s departure plans and the governor’s intention to select the successor. Kozin declined to comment.
Even as Lamont increasingly adopted the posture of a candidate for reelection, he has been relatively indifferent to fundraising to support the party apparatus in advance of the 2021 municipal and 2022 statewide elections.
Lamont self-funded his victorious 2018 campaign and unsuccessful runs for U.S. Senate in 2006 and the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2010, leaving him with little experience in political fundraising.
His predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, aggressively raised money for the party, to the extent the efforts ran afoul of state elections enforcement officials.
But the party under Malloy successfully cultivated Democrats who vote only in presidential years and enticed them to turn out in the 2014 midterm, when he was up for reelection.
Turnouts vary widely from 30% or less in municipal years to 80% in presidential elections. Statewide elections in non-presidential years fall between: in 2018, turnout was 65%.
As a result, there are communities where Republicans long have competed in municipal elections, yet fail in statewide years, complicating any analysis of this week’s results.
“Republicans are trying to use this as a harbinger of what’s to come, but local elections and state and federal elections are completely different ball games, because the electorates are totally different,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford.
Republican Erin Stewart was reelected Tuesday to a 5th term as mayor of New Britain, where the GOP can only win state legislative seats in low-turnout special elections. In Westport, where voters support Democrats for president and the General Assembly, Republican Jennifer Tooker defeated Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, for first selectman.
As is the case in New Britain, a GOP victory in a municipal year in Westport is not new. She succeeded another Republican, Jim Marpe. In Danbury, Democrats now control the state legislative seats, but a Republican, Dean Esposito, was elected mayor, if narrowly, continuing the GOP winning streak begun two decades ago by Mark Boughton, who resigned last year.
“On Tuesday, we saw Republicans win who had a long track record of public service,” said John Kleinhans, a GOP consultant whose clients include Esposito and Stewart.
Esposito, a former Democrat with deep family ties in Danbury, had a been a five-term councilman and city clerk before becoming the chief of staff to Boughton. The Democratic nominee, Roberto Alves, was a one-term councilman who first ran in 2017 and won in 2019.
Kleinhans also is the Republican chair of East Lyme, where Democrats outnumber Republicans and unaffiliated are the largest voting bloc, but the GOP once again won the race for first selectman.
Republican Kevin Seery won an open seat. His victory margin was 600 votes, triple his predecessor’s two years ago. The hard to answer question: Is that evidence of a broader favorable sentiment to the GOP this year, or something about Seery and his campaign?
Kleinhans said he was inclined to credit Seery’s local ties and bio: He is a retired state trooper and former school board chair.
In Guilford, Scanlon said the overwhelming defeat of conservative Republicans who made critical race theory a central issue in the school board election was due to the ability of Democrats and Independents to generate a turnout typical of statewide elections. Two Democrats and three Independents, working on a common campaign, shut out the Republicans.
“When you can change the electorate and make the electorate more like it is in a state and federal year, as we did in Guilford, Democrats do well,” Scanlon said. “When the turnout is about what it is in a municipal election in most towns in Connecticut, Democrats don’t usually do well.”