The launch of Gov. Ned Lamont’s week-old reelection campaign coincides with the mishandling of a political personnel move that has left the Connecticut Democratic Party without an executive director.
Lamont signed off on Matthew Brokman taking over as executive director of the party while retaining his job as chief of staff to the House Democratic majority, prompting concerns about potential conflicts.
In the face of private questions raised within the party and a public challenge from at least one Republican leader, Brokman has declined the executive director post and will remain as the chief of staff to House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.
“It was something that we thought we could balance, that ultimately we decided wouldn’t work,” Brokman said.
Aside from concerns about an executive director working less than full time in a statewide election year, the dual posts also would have put Brokman in the awkward position of overseeing fundraising and working on legislation.
Legislators are barred from raising money during legislative sessions, a recognition that soliciting or accepting contributions from persons who may have interests in pending legislation can pose a conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said the original hiring plan clearly had potential to further erode public confidence in government, and he was glad to see it quickly abandoned — as he publicly urged last week. Candelora’s public criticism mirrored what some Democrats were saying privately.
In a brief interview, Lamont acknowledged Tuesday the dual post had raised questions about conflicts that made it untenable for Brokman to hold both jobs.
“In politics in general, and especially party politics, I think you’ve got to be ‘Caesar’s wife,’” Lamont said, meaning above reproach. “I want to make sure that nobody has any questions.”
Rojas, who like Lamont initially saw no conflict, said he and others concluded there was no way to detach the party job from the legislative one.
“I think the ultimate challenge was a desire to have him serve in that role on a full-time basis, completely detached from the legislature, and my position that I couldn’t afford to do that, because he is really important to our team and the operations of the house,” Rojas said. “We just arrived at the conclusion that we weren’t going to be able to balance those two interests.”
Twice in the past decade, Democrats in Connecticut have faced scandal or at least significant questions over fundraising, first involving a 2012 congressional campaign and then contributions by state contractors to the state party in 2014.
Both offered cautionary lessons.
In 2012, the connection between legislative business and campaign fundraising derailed the congressional campaign of Chris Donovan, who then was speaker of the state House.
Donovan was not implicated, but his campaign manager and chief fundraiser were convicted of federal charges relating to tying campaign contributions to killing a bill opposed by the roll-your-own tobacco business. The campaign manager had been Donovan’s chief of staff.
Aggressive fundraising by the Democratic Party prior to the 2014 reelection of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy resulted in a formal complaint by the Republican Party, a protracted legal battle with the State Elections Enforcement Commission and a record-setting $325,000 settlement.
The GOP’s complaint focused on how the Democrats exploited conflicts between state and federal campaign finance laws, as well as the inconsistency in state laws as applied to candidates and state parties.
Connecticut bars state contractors from donating to state campaigns, while federal law dictates the rules for raising and spending money that is used for get-out-the-vote efforts in federal election years, when state elections are also held.
As a result, contractors who could not contribute a dime to the Democratic Party’s state account were free to give as much as $10,000 to the party’s federal account that funded activities benefitting state and federal candidates.
State law also establishes two sets of contradictory campaign financing rules: one provides public financing to candidates who agree to accept donations of no more than $250 and abide by spending limits that vary by office; the other allows state parties to accept maximum donations of $10,000 a year and spend unlimited amounts supporting their candidates.
The Democratic Party insisted it complied with all relevant laws at the time, but it fought subpoenas seeking emails, bank records and other documents that might reveal how the party came to target state contractors for campaign contributions.
Ultimately, it settled the case in 2016 by agreeing to pay a penalty of $325,000 to the elections enforcement commission and drop its claim that federal election law pre-empts the commission from issuing subpoenas to investigate alleged potential violations of state elections law.
The episode involving Brokman underscores the governor’s distant relationship with the party and its roles in campaigns. Lamont has run three times for statewide office, each time self-funding his campaigns.
He did benefit, however, in 2018 by an effort led by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat elected to a second term that year, to identify and turn out Democratic supporters.
Next year, the governor, lieutenant governor, the other four state constitutional officers, 187 state legislative seats, all five congressional representatives and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal will be on the ballot.
Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz filed papers last week creating campaign committees.
“It’s really important to the legislators. Last cycle it was very important to mayors. It’s very important to constitutionals. It’s very important to congressionals,” Lamont said of the party. “Susan and I have our campaign, and we’re part of that process.”
Nancy DiNardo is the state chair of the Democratic Party, but the governor traditionally is its leader and dictates the hiring of its executive director.
On Tuesday, Lamont mingled with DiNardo and Ben Proto, the Republican state chair, at the kickoff of Connecticut Foodshare’s holiday giving drive.
DiNardo declined comment on Brokman’s appointment and un-appointment, saying only that the search was on for a successor to Jacqueline Kozin, who resigned.
“We’re actively looking for somebody,” DiNardo said. “Obviously, the governor’s involved with it. But we all just want to make sure we get the right person. Jacqueline Kozin did a phenomenal job. She set a high bar.”
“I’ve asked some folks for recommendations, but I think the political guys are a lot more involved in that than I am,” Lamont said. “What I want to do is have somebody in there with strong organizational abilities — and no questions asked.”
Lamont said he meant no questions about conflict.
He predicted, “We’re gonna get there very soon.”