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Gov. Ned Lamont on Thursday appointed Mark F. Kohler of North Haven, the former head of the special litigation unit for the Connecticut attorney general’s office, to complete the term of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.

The selection of a retired civil servant to succeed Merrill, who is leaving office early to care for her ailing husband, spares the governor from political controversy amid his own reelection campaign.

The promotion of Scott Bates, the deputy secretary of the state, would have generated opposition due to his previous role as the founding chairman of the controversial Connecticut Port Authority.

Kohler retired earlier this year after 30 years with the attorney general’s office, spending much of the last decade overseeing the special litigation unit, whose duties include representing the secretary of the state, other constitutional officers and cases involving election law.

“Mark is incredibly well-respected as a level-headed, tactful and experienced attorney who has a considerable understanding of Connecticut state statutes, particularly those concerning the operations of our elections and government administration,” Lamont said.

Kohler was promoted in 2011 as the unit chief by then-Attorney General George Jepsen, a friend and informal adviser to Lamont. The governor’s current general counsel, Nora Dannehy, was the deputy attorney general.

Attorney General William Tong, who succeeded Jepsen, said Kohler is well-suited to walk into the office in election season, calling him “the definition of calm under pressure.”

“He is an unflappable manager who oversaw the deluge of litigation defending our election laws and executive orders during COVID-19,” Tong said in a tweet. “He has been for many years one of the leading constitutional lawyers in our state.”

Kohler is a 1987 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law. He retired as the associate attorney general and chief of the government administration division.

“I am honored and humbled to be named by Gov. Ned Lamont to serve out the remainder of this term and continue my public service on behalf of the people of the state of Connecticut,” Kohler said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect, appreciation and admiration for the work Denise Merrill accomplished in this role, and I look forward to working with her dedicated team of professionals to ensure that our elections are carried out in an accessible, fair and transparent manner.”

Merrill, who announced a year ago she would not seek a fourth term, resigned effective at noon Thursday. Kohler will take office on July 11 and remain until the winner of the November election takes office in January.

“The circumstances surrounding the need to fill this vacancy are very unfortunate, but I am pleased that Mark has agreed to step away briefly from his retirement and return to state service,” Lamont said. “I am confident that this will be a smooth transition, and that the staff of dedicated professionals that Secretary Merrill has led during her nearly 12 years in office are ready to continue carrying out the office’s duties on behalf of the people of Connecticut.”

“I am quite familiar with Mark’s work and stellar career in the Attorney General’s office, as well as his commitment to public service,” Merrill said. “I have every confidence he will make sure that all the important functions of our office, as well as our upcoming elections are handled fairly and with integrity.”

Merrill announced her decision Tuesday. On Wednesday, Lamont said she had informed him some time ago of the possibility.

Bates would have been the likely successor prior to a controversy about purchases made to decorate the port authority offices by the former executive director while Bates was chairman. He resigned from the post in 2019, but remained as Merrill’s deputy.

At the time, Lamont praised Bate’s role in negotiating a deal to make the State Pier in New London the center of staging for a major offshore wind project. But he also ordered new financial controls.

Cost overruns have plagued the authority’s project to rebuild the pier.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.