Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, is creating an exploratory campaign for statewide office Tuesday, becoming the first Democrat to put down a marker on the office of comptroller since an ailing Kevin P. Lembo quit the post last month.
Comptroller is one of Connecticut’s six statewide constitutional offices, responsible for the often-prosaic tasks of keeping the state’s books and overseeing the administration of state employee payroll and benefits.
But it has evolved in recent decades, first under William E. Curry Jr. in the early 1990s and more recently under Lembo, as a platform with a potential for shaping public policy on health care and retirement.
“I think the Office of State Comptroller, which is the focus of my exploratory committee, is a job that is really relevant in this moment where health care affordability is an issue, where the budget is something that needs to be really watched like a hawk,” Scanlon said.
Comptroller and secretary of the state are expected to provide the only two open races in 2022 for statewide or congressional offices in Connecticut. Topping the Democratic ticket this fall will be Gov. Ned Lamont and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced in June she would not seek a fourth term, drawing a field of nine politicians who have declared candidacies or are testing the waters with exploratory committees, with a tenth expected to join them shortly.
The field for comptroller has been slow to develop.
Lembo, also in his third term, announced on Dec. 3 he would resign on Dec. 31 due to a serious heart condition. Natalie Braswell, who was appointed by the governor to complete Lembo’s term, is not a candidate.
Mary Fay, a Republican member of the West Hartford town council who ran for Congress in 2020, is the only declared candidate for comptroller from either party. Without fanfare, she filed papers creating a candidate committee on Jan. 4.
Scanlon was elected to the 98th House District in 2014 as an ambitious 27-year-old aide to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. He was reelected without opposition in 2016, 2018 and 2020 and has risen quickly in the House.
He was one of two lawmakers named as committee co-chairs in their second terms by then-House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz in January 2017: Scanlon on Insurance and Real Estate; Caroline Simmons, who was elected mayor of Stamford last year, on Commerce.
The first act of House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, as Aresimowicz’s designated successor after the 2020 election was to name Scanlon as co-chair of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
Scanlon is now 35, married, the father of a 2-year-old and facing a career crossroads. He is known at the Capitol as ambitious yet cautious. He declined entreaties to run for an open state Senate seat in 2018, while making statewide connections working on behalf of House candidates.
He left Murphy’s staff in 2019 to become the executive director of Tweed New Haven Airport, a city-owned facility with limited commercial services and ambitions of becoming a regional airport. On his watch, the discount airline Avelo designated Tweed as its east coast hub and announced plans for a new terminal.
With mixed results, the office of comptroller has become a springboard for the politically ambitious, albeit one whose powers are largely unknown to the voting public.
After a single term as comptroller, Curry won the 1994 and 2002 nominations for governor, losing both times to Republican John G. Rowland. Curry’s successor, Nancy Wyman, was elected lieutenant governor in 2010. Lembo explored a run for governor in 2018.
Connecticut is one of just 19 states with a comptroller or controller, whose duties overlap with treasurers’ in other states. It is an elected position in only nine states.
“Somebody may not know what the comptroller does by name, but the things that the comptroller does are relevant to a lot of people in this state,” Scanlon said. “And one of the things that I want to explore and hear about from people is can that office be more relevant in the day-to-day lives of Connecticut people. And I think the answer is yes.”
The office oversees health care coverage for 300,000 people in Connecticut, about 50,000 state employees and 250,000 dependents and retirees. The state has opened its health plans to municipalities, covering another 50,000 people or so, with relatively low administrative costs.
“This is pretty wonky stuff. But when you look at what works in one sample and you extrapolate that, you can figure out whether it can work in a larger sample,” Scanlon said.
With Lembo’s support, the General Assembly also authorized in 2016 a quasi-public retirement security authority to develop a voluntary savings mechanism for employees of companies with no retirement benefits. It has been slow to launch. By law, the comptroller is chair of the authority.
The comptroller’s office also is meant to act as a fiscal watchdog, an awkward role at times when the comptroller and governor are of the same party.
“So I think why that office is relevant today in this moment is because he or she is the chief budget watchdog, he or she is the chief health care officer of the state, he or she is the chief retirement officer for the state,” Scanlon said. “And all of those things are things that rank and file voters in Connecticut are worried about.”
The early months of a campaign or exploratory campaign for nominations on the under-ticket revolve around demonstrating credibility by fund raising and getting commitments from potential delegates to the state nominating convention. The fourth-quarter 2021 campaign finance reports filed last week showed no one escaping the pack in the contest for secretary of the state.
The only declared candidates for the fundraising period reported raising similar amounts:
- Rep. Stephanie Thomas, D-Norwalk, raised $31,336.
- Republicans Dominic Rapini and Brock Weber raised, respectively, $26,273 and $29,509.
In their second quarter as candidates, Rapini now has raised $47,311; Weber, $52,444.
A half dozen Democrats interested in the nomination raised varying amounts in exploratory campaigns.
- Rob Simmelkjaer of Westport, the chair of the CT Lottery board of directors, raised $24,965.
- Darryl Brackeen Jr., a New Haven alder, raised $4,310 in the quarter, bringing his total to $15,021.
- Maritza Bond, a top public health official in New Haven, raised $30,180 in the quarter, bringing her total to $36,100.
- Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown raised $14,976 in the quarter, bringing his total to $42,275.
- Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden raised $18,930 in the quarter, bringing his total to $21,588.
- Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden raised $18,105 in her final quarter as an exploratory candidate, bringing her total to $26,840. Santiago reported raising another $9,669 since converting her exploratory effort to a candidate committee.
Sources say Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, is expected to file papers this week creating either a candidate committee or exploratory committee with an eye towards running for secretary of the state. She could not be reached for comment Monday.