Outgoing state Treasurer Shawn Wooden hugs Erick Russell, right, who won the Democratic primary for the seat on Tuesday. Ginny Monk / CT Mirror

New Haven attorney Erick Russell captured the Democratic nomination for state treasurer in Tuesday’s primary, easily outpolling Greenwich hedge fund manager Dita Bhargava and New Haven Housing Authority President Karen DuBois-Walton.

A partner with Pullman and Comley who specializes in public financing, Russell was on track to capture nearly 58% of the vote in a primary that generated a turnout of less than 15%, according to incomplete results. He will face state Rep. Harry Arora, a Greenwich Republican, in the general election in November. 

“This is the work that I do every day,” said Russell, who centered his campaign on a pledge to invest Connecticut’s nearly $45 billion in pension assets to expand economic opportunities for working families. “There’s a very natural transition there for me. People want to know how [these investments] impact them on a daily basis.”

Addressing supporters Tuesday night at The Trinity Bar & Restaurant in New Haven, Russell thanked his husband, former state Rep. Chris Lyddy, for his support, and promised to use Connecticut’s pension investments as a powerful force for change.

“We might be a small state, but when it comes to investments, Connecticut can punch above its weight,” he said. “We can ensure our dollars aren’t going to corporations that deny climate change, ravage our communities with addiction or fraud, or funding extremist organizations. We can push companies to live up to our values of inclusion, high ethical standards and common good.”

Though the campaign for treasurer traditionally receives much less attention than many other state contests, hefty gas prices and 9% inflation have Connecticut voters ready to listen to anyone attuned to the challenges they’re facing, Russell said.

“People know that this is going to be a tough election cycle and that there is more at stake than there ever has been,” he told the CT Mirror earlier Tuesday.

Russell could become the first Black LGBTQ candidate elected to statewide office in national history, according to the Atlanta-based nonprofit, The LGBTQ Institute.

“Erick has the perfect combination of political chops, deep policy experience and grassroots support to make an effectual state executive,” said former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the political action committee affiliated with the nonprofit institute. “Voters are clearly eager to support his policy agenda to address racial and social wealth gaps and ensure all of Connecticut’s residents have a fair shot at the American Dream.”

Russell said that’s humbling, “but it also comes with responsibility that I don’t take lightly,” he said. “But it’s also a reflection of our state’s commitment to picking the best person for the job, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love. Together we demanded that our government reflect our values and that work doesn’t have a finish line.”

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The New Haven attorney also said this potential breakthrough, though significant, isn’t the only diversity his campaign offers. The first member of his family to graduate from college or law school, he spoke often of his family’s working class roots and the values he learned as a child helping in his parents’ convenience store in New Haven.

People want to see themselves reflected in government, Russell said earlier Tuesday. “But I’m also talking about the real life experience and perspective of someone who knows the experience of struggling, of what it means to make ends meet.”

Erick Russell, left, won the primary for state treasurer on Tuesday; Stephanie Thomas, center, won the primary for secretary of the state, and Sean Scanlon was unopposed among Democrats for the state comptroller nomination. They posed for a selfie at the Trinity Bar in New Haven after the results were in Tuesday. Outgoing state treasurer Shawn Wooden is at right. Ginny Monk / CT Mirror

Russell praised DuBois-Walton and Bhargava for running campaigns “that elevated important issues, that spoke truth to power and that helped voters understand the importance of the treasurer’s office.”

A former vice-chairman of the Democratic State Party, Russell and his two rivals had to scramble in early April — one month before the nominating conventions — when incumbent Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden, a Hartford Democrat, announced he would not seek a second term because he wants to spend more time with his family. 

Russell won the state party convention endorsement in May with 47% of the delegate ballots.

Bhargava, who lost the a 2018 primary for treasurer to Wooden, made headlines last month when she battled with Hulu, eventually convincing the streaming service to air her ad responding to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Bhargava said she would press companies seeking Connecticut pension investments to provide health insurance that covers abortion services.

She also took aim at Purdue Pharma, the Stamford-based manufacturer of OxyContin, which filed for bankruptcy three years ago and whose questionable marketing practices sparked a national response to the opioid crisis.

And while Connecticut’s pension funds weren’t invested in Purdue Pharma, Bhargava said it typified the corporation “guided by short-term greed” that state treasurers must be vigilant against.

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The first candidate for treasurer to issue any position papers in the 2022 race, Bhargava said she would strongly consider a state panel recommendation to transfer lottery proceeds and other state assets to further bolster pension assets.

Though Connecticut recently used $4.1 billion in budget surplus to pay down more than $40 billion in long-term pension debt — most of which was amassed between 1939 and 2010 — Bhargava took pride in a campaign that hailed the debt payment but kept voters focused on the need for many more years of fiscal responsibility.

“When I look at 70 years of math, it clearly spells a picture of the lack of responsibility, of the lack of former leaders to do the right thing,” Bhargava said.

DuBois-Walton, 54, also had focused much of her campaign message on using public investments to expand economic opportunities for residents. She spent 25 years overseeing such investments with the housing authority and while serving in two administrative posts in the New Haven mayor’s office.

“It’s positive and upbeat, not bashing,” she said of her campaign Tuesday.

DuBois-Walton also said she was proud to use her campaign to lobby for more aggressive state action to expand affordable housing development, particularly in Connecticut’s affluent suburbs.

Staff writer Ginny Monk contributed to this report.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.