In June, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, announced that she would not be running for re-election, opening the door for a slew of candidates to express interest in the position.
One of those is Democratic State Rep. Hilda Santiago, who announced the formation of an exploratory committee in late August. Santiago has represented Meriden in the General Assembly since 2012.
Three other possible Democratic candidates, State Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown, Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden, and New Haven Alderman Darryl Brackeen Jr., have also formed exploratory committees.
A Republican has not served as Secretary of the State since 1995. But two possible GOP candidates have thrown their hats in the ring: Brock Weber, an aide to Mayor Erin Stewart of New Britain, and Dominic Rapini, a longtime Apple executive.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Santiago about her campaign and priorities if elected.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Why are you considering running for Secretary of the State?
I am the highest ranking Latina in state government, and I represent a group that deserves a voice in these conversations. There are still a lot of progressive issues that we need to tackle with voting rights and participation. We need to continue the great work Denise Merrill has started, and bring a few issues like early voting and no-excuse absentee voting to the finish. I don’t think we should make it harder for people to vote, we should make it easier. She’s done a wonderful job, and I don’t think there is anything I would have done differently, especially with the circumstances of the pandemic.
What differentiates you from your potential Democratic opponents?
I believe that I have more governmental experience. I was a city councilor for eight years in the city of Meriden. I also have almost ten years of experience as a state representative, where I worked on paid leave and was one of the biggest supporters of raising the minimum wage, along with bringing more municipal aid and ECS money to the city of Meriden. That kind of background will be well-suited to an office like Secretary of the State.
Have you worked on legislation related to voting in the state legislature?
Early voting and no excuse absentee were issues that were forwarded by the Secretary of the State that she championed to make sure the legislature would be able to change that in the constitution, but other than that, no.
Why do you think some of the major voting legislation discussed in the last session wasn’t able to get passed?
Voting legislation has been very difficult. On the Democratic side, of course, we had the support, but the other side was trying to change or micromanage the bills put in by the Secretary of the State. We had the majority, but we needed two thirds to change something in the constitution, and that’s where the difficulty comes in, because we needed bipartisan support.
Voter fraud has been a political flashpoint nationally, and there have been allegations of fraud in Connecticut, particularly around the federal indictment of a Bridgeport city council member for forging signatures on absentee ballots. Do you see voter fraud as a serious issue here?
I’m trying to do some more research on that, and I follow whatever is in the newspapers, but I think that in considering this run, that’s something I would have to work with the City of Bridgeport on.
From what I’ve heard, voter fraud is one in a million in the state of Connecticut. We’ve run a really tight ship, and I give credit to the registrars in all the cities and towns. There are issues sometimes with absentee ballots, but issues that the Secretary of the State has been able to work with and make sure things like that don’t happen like that again. I do think we may need more accountability for registrars by maybe having more of an intense training about how to deal with voter fraud.
What do you say to people who think the 2020 election was stolen, and how would you work to restore trust in elections systems?
I don’t believe that voter fraud is a large issue in the state of Connecticut. It’s a very, very small problem here. If there are one or two people who might have tried to vote if somebody was dead, I know that’s an issue across the country, and that might be something I’d work on once I got into office, but I would only work on voting issues in the state of Connecticut. Legislators try to bring national issues into the state of Connecticut that don’t pertain to the state of Connecticut, and they have to be careful about how to compare what happens in the state with national issues.
How would you work to get more people registered to vote?
I would spend more time out there in the community, really stressing how important it is for people to register and vote at the grassroots level. I also think that seeing a woman on the ticket who looks like me might be an incentive for people to vote. Being a role model for young people has always been one of the reasons I got involved in politics, because people need to see somebody who is reflective of who they are. With the census, I was part of Complete the County in the city of Meriden, working to get the voices of Black and brown communities included.
State Sen. Will Haskell proposed a bill that would lower the voting age in municipal elections to 16. Is that something you’d support?
I would have to really look into that. I don’t know if at 16, young adults know what politics is really all about unless they are really immersed in it. I would want to put a task force together to really study that issue, and see if people are interested in voting at that age. Do we think that at 16, young folks are worrying about voting?
This is just an exploratory committee, and you may not decide to launch a campaign. What are the things you’re considering as you make that decision?
I declared an exploratory committee because it gives me the option to decide if this is an office I really want to seek. When running for Secretary of the State, you’re dealing with the whole state, with 169 towns and cities. In contrast, when I’ve run for state representative, I only represent the town of Meriden, and it’s all in the downtown area of one city. This is a different kind of election, and that’s what I want to get a feel for by talking to people and going to events across the state.