In June, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced that she would not be running for election, opening the door for a slew of candidates to express interest in the position.
One of those candidates is New Haven Alder Darryl Brackeen Jr. Three other Democratic candidates, State Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown, State Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden, and State Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden, have also formed exploratory committees.
A Republican has not served as Secretary of the State since 1995, but two GOP candidates have thrown their hats in the ring: Dominic Rapini, a senior account manager at Apple, and Brock Weber, an aide to Mayor Erin Stewart of New Britain, has declined to participate in an interview.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Brackeen about his campaign and priorities if elected.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Why are you considering a run for Secretary of the State?
I started an exploratory campaign to run for statewide office because while I personally believe that while we’ve made a lot of progress in the state, there’s still so much more we can do to make things fairer and more inclusive surrounding our economy and our democracy.
My focus for this exploration will be around voting rights. I am the founder and chairman of a voting rights organization called Generation Change CT, and that has been my life’s work. This past legislative session, myself, my team, and a coalition of community justice rights organizations all came together around issues of universal voter registration. We were deeply involved in the passage of automatic voter registration, and while we have same-day and election-day registration, I want to ensure that we are able to allow eligible persons to register in a more accessible way.
What kinds of changes would you want to put in place to make that happen?
In particular in our larger cities, I often find that the resources for training and equipping polling places to actually handle the number of folks registering is lacking, and there is a strong need for better collaboration between state and local municipalities. I also believe that there should be a state holiday in November to allow for folks who are working to get paid time off to come out and vote. I am also in favor of looking into lowering the voting age for all local and state elections. I was a social studies teacher, and I believe that to cultivate the next generation to be civically minded, we should allow for young people to exercise their right to vote. At the age of 16, you pay taxes if you’re working a job, so why should you not be allowed to vote on how those taxes are spent?
I also believe in modernizing voting options, providing an option in particular to our disabled citizens in this state to allow for the possibility of smartphone, tablet, computerized voting just for them. Active military members overseas also have a pretty hard time engaging in voting because they may not necessarily be in the safest or most successful place to email absentee ballots. Most recently, I was part of the fight to end prison gerrymandering, which was absolutely an issue of vital importance for me. With redistricting, I strongly believe that Connecticut needs an established, nonpartisan, truly independent redistricting commission that’s really empowered to draw fairer maps for the state.
What differentiates you from your potential Democratic opponents?
My personal story is what sets me apart from my opponents. I often talk about one of my great-great-grandfathers by the name of Dempsey Coats, who was enslaved but got his freedom in the state of Georgia, and was able to access the vote a few years later. We have the actual registration form, and I look at that sheet of paper, which shows his mark because he wasn’t able to write, but he was able to mark a checkmark on that sheet of paper. Voting was important to him, and voting is important to me. No one in this race has that experience.
I also serve as northeast regional director for the Young Elected Officials Network, where I mentor young progressives in elected office around creating progressive legislation and supporting them in finding out how best to serve their constituents.
I also served as a surrogate to Harris and Biden across the nation, and served as a precinct captain in Iowa, where I was exposed directly to polls, so I’m aware nationally of what works and what doesn’t. It’s one thing to talk the talk in the state legislature, and it’s another to actually do the work with poll workers. I’ve participated in trainings for every position you’ll find in a polling place. I also served as a nonprofit executive of large and small organizations with multimillion dollar budgets, so I have a strong management and executive skill set.
Your opponents for the Democratic nomination are all state legislators. Do you feel that you have the experience to hold statewide office?
I believe that my life has prepared me for statewide office. For many years, the voices of average working people have often gone unnoticed, especially at the statewide level. I want to be the working class champion candidate in this exploratory field. As an alder in New Haven for the last eight years, I have proven to be an upstanding elected official. As a local elected official, I can’t hide in the ivory towers of Hartford. I represent the community I literally grew up in. I represent my family, my mom, my dad, my cousins, and my aunt. I can’t hide. New Haven is also one of the most diverse cities in the state of Connecticut, and I’ve made many changes and passed many proposals that have changed the trajectory of the city for the better. I’ve worked on voter engagement, economic justice, climate change, and any issue that any major city has to be involved in.
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?
In the context of Connecticut, I would say that statistically, based on information that is public, voter fraud is not a big issue in this state. For me, I’m more concerned about the barriers that people face to accessing voting. As for Bridgeport, I’m not there, so I don’t know the details of that specific occurrence, but to me, it sounds like that was a specific situation. I don’t think anyone is saying democracy is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Voter fraud is a rare, very marginal occurrence. A lot of kudos goes to Denise Merrill in her efforts to ensure safe and secure elections.
Are there specific things you would’ve handled differently than Secretary Merril?
She deserves many accolades for the great work she has done in her role. I think I might’ve suggested a few platform ideas already that are different from hers, but I’m mainly different in that I’m exploring statewide office to provide a different point of view based on my story and experience.
What do you say to people who think the 2020 election was stolen, and how would you work to restore trust in elections systems?
Despite what anyone may say, the facts are the facts. I strongly believe in the state of Connecticut’s voting system, which is a reflection of the registrars and clerks in our towns and cities. They are the professionals, and I personally know that many of them want to be as transparent as possible so they can build trust with the community surrounding any concerns they may have.
How would you work to get more people engaged in elections, especially at the local level?
It’s not a hypothetical, because that’s something I’ve already done. I’ve worked with voter registrars across the state and nation, and our city and town clerks, on how to develop year-round community engagement programs like the voter registration drives that happen at high schools throughout the state. I was inspired to get into voting rights work at the tender age of fourteen or fifteen years old at James Hillhouse High School, through the inspiration of a teacher that helped me start voter registration drives, even before I was registered to vote.