In June, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced that she would not be running for reelection, opening the door to a slew of candidates expressing interest in the seat.
One of those is Democratic State Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown. Three other Democratic candidates, State Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden, State Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden, and New Haven Alder Darryl Brackeen Jr., have also formed exploratory committees.
In 2018, Merrill won reelection with 55.9 percent of the vote to her Republican opponent’s 42.5 percent.
A Republican has not served as Secretary of the State since 1995. But this election, 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 who declined to participate in a candidate interview.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Lesser about his campaign and priorities if elected.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Why are you exploring a run for Secretary of the State?
The work of protecting our democracy and voting rights is the most important job we face as a country, and secretaries of the state are on the front lines of that fight. In just the last few years, foreign meddling, the pandemic, and the wholesale attack on our system of democratic governance have shown that protecting voting rights is the most important job in our democracy.
Why do you feel qualified to serve as Secretary of the State?
I’ve served in the legislature for 13 years, and on the elections committee for a large portion of that. I worked closely with Secretary Merrill on just about every voting initiative and voting reform. I would be ready to hit the ground running in a way that I think is so important, because this is simply too important of a job for on the job training.
Are there ways in which you would handle the role differently than Secretary Merrill?
I think she did a fabulous job. We saw record participation in the 2020 election, which we held in the middle of a global pandemic with the threat of foreign meddling and one candidate who refused to accept the outcome. Connecticut held the election successfully, and did so without any significant irregularities and record participation, which is a credit to her extraordinary leadership. She leaves big shoes to fill.
Legislatively, we got an awful lot done this year. There are certainly other things I would have liked to do, but this really was a record year for election reform. A lot of credit goes to the Government Administration and Elections Committee and Secretary Merrill, who has been a really incredible champion for voting rights.
Where do you feel like more work is necessary?
There is more work to be done on some of her initiatives like early voting and no excuse absentee. A lot remains to be done on implementing automatic voter registration in other state agencies. The Secretary of the State implemented it for the Department of Motor Vehicles and it was a huge success, so now it’s a question of doing the hard legwork and building those systems so people are registered to vote when they interact with state agencies.
I also feel very strongly about passing a state-level voting rights act, which we got out of committee this year, and I’d like to make sure that the folks who run our elections, our registrars and town clerks and moderators, feel they have a champion in Hartford. If I were to run for the position, I would want to make sure we reversed some of the underfunding from the last few years. They are the unsung heroes of our system of democracy, Democrats and Republicans who step up for little or no pay to administer our elections.
It’s unfortunate that some of these issues in recent years have become needlessly partisan, and I credit our former president for some of this. When I was first getting into the state legislature, good government voting reforms were an area where the two parties could work together. Republicans can’t necessarily block things, but they do have the ability to slow things down, and that is one of the reasons why it’s taken so long to modernize our systems.
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. Is voter fraud an issue in Connecticut?
If you want to cherry pick an isolated incident once in a blue moon, then perhaps, but I think our elections are conducted with an incredible amount of integrity. The folks who are most vocal about the boogeyman of voter fraud are continuously long on rhetoric and short on facts. Close scrutiny shows that voter fraud is the most over-hyped threat in the country right now. There are definitely issues that I think are concerning, and in the town you mentioned, the legislature appointed an election monitor to address those issues.
Still, the bigger issue is supporting a Connecticut voting rights act, which could help ensure a more uniform system of elections, and make sure that voting rights are protected whether you live in Bridgeport or Burlington or Bridgewater. I think we can work with chief elected officials, local town clerks, registrars and moderators to ensure that the highest standards apply absolutely everywhere.
What differentiates you from your potential Democratic opponents?
They’re all wonderful folks, and this is a process – each of us will be making a case, testing the waters, gauging support, and if someone else can make that case as well as I can, all power to them. As far as what differentiates me, I think I can demonstrate without a question that I’m ready to hit the ground running. If folks are really concerned about who is best prepared to protect our democracy and who can build on the successes of Secretary Merrill on day one, I would be it.
In the legislature, I have worked with the office of the Secretary of the State to an extent that I think not too many other folks can cite. I have immersed myself in the work of the office of the secretary of the state, and I’ve worked closely with Denise on a huge number of legislative initiatives. I’ve also shown a record of being able to get things done and tackle problems on everything from voting rights to the environment to financial reform to healthcare.
What specifically from your legislative record shows that you’re ready to be Secretary of the State?
A lot of people talk about what they’d like to do, but I have a record of actually getting progressive policies through both chambers and onto the governor’s desk. I really deliver meaningful reform, sometimes reform that has repercussions not just in Connecticut but nationally. Our student loan bill of rights in 2015 became a framework that was adopted around the country.
I also championed the national popular vote for a decade until we were able to get it passed, ensured that all women could access prenatal care and one year of postnatal care, passed the Cover Connecticut program covering over 40,000 residents with health insurance, ensured that all young kids have access to health care regardless of immigration status, wrote the mental health parity law, capped insulin prices, regulated the student loan industry, and banned fracking waste from coming to Connecticut.
What do you say to people who think the 2020 election was stolen, and how would you work to restore trust in elections systems?
That’s a real challenge, because we have to sell people on our democracy, and show the people that our democracy is something that is worth defending. There are folks out there who are giving up on democratic governance, and that’s really sad. Some of it’s been going on for some time, but obviously the 2020 election was a bit of an inflection point. The candidate who lost really tried to sow doubts about the integrity of the election, and I think it really did some damage to the country. It’s a real challenge, but it’s one we’ll get through, because we’ve faced bigger challenges in our history.
How does the Secretary of the State help shepherd Connecticut through that crisis?
The next Secretary of the State really needs to use their bully pulpit to show that our systems are robust, and that this is not some sort of partisan operation. Democrats and Republicans in every single town in this state are administering fair elections conducted with integrity and without fraud. We need to strengthen the hands of the folks on the ground in each one of our 169 towns who really make democracy work.
My fear is that around the country, we are going to see secretaries of the state who bow to political pressure and state legislatures that are tempted to do that. It will present a new challenge to our system of democracy, and whoever holds that office is going to have to wrestle with it. I don’t have a magic answer, because this is a crisis happening all across the country, but local candidates and elected officials have an obligation to sell not only their own candidacies, but our democracy writ large. That’s the job of all of us in public life.
The Secretary of the State not only administers elections, but also serves as a state government liaison to the business community. What experience do you have with those aspects of the job?
That is part of the office that is often overlooked, and I believe my experience as insurance committee chair and banking committee chair has prepared me to work with businesses in the state. The office does a vast amount of work, particularly with small businesses, collecting data on our business environment and making it easier for our businesses to interact with state agencies. A lot of important data on the state’s economy can be gleaned from that office.