With Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s announcement that she will not be running for reelection next November, a slew of candidates have expressed interest in the seat.
One of those is Rob Simmelkjaer, chairman of the Connecticut Lottery’s Board of Directors and a former sports media executive.
Five other Democratic candidates, State Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown, State Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden, State Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden, Maritza Bond, the director of public health for the city of New Haven, and New Haven Alder Darryl Brackeen Jr., have also formed exploratory committees. State Rep. Stephanie Thomas, D-Norwalk, formally entered the race on Nov. 30.
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 Simmelkjaer 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?
Governor Lamont asked me to lead the CT Lottery in May of 2020, and when he did that, he asked me to do two big things. First, to turn around a quasi-public agency that had been troubled by scandals for years, and second, to help him and his administration find common ground with the state’s Native American tribes to try to pave the way to modernize the state’s gaming economy. Here I am, 18 months later, and both missions have been to a large degree accomplished. The lottery is now delivering record revenues to the state with $1.5 billion in sales last year, and we have now legalized sports betting and online gaming. Through that process, I learned a lot about how to get things done.
I’m exploring a run for Secretary of the State because I see what we just did with modernizing gaming, and I’ve realized that we need to modernize our elections and some of our business systems. I think we should make it as nearly easy to vote as we just made it to place a bet in the state of Connecticut. I also want to make Connecticut a better place to do business. That experience, of being able to do that in my career in the private sector and here in Connecticut, is what makes me interested in this role.
What experience in the private sector do you think led the Governor to ask you to serve as chairman of the board for CT Lottery?
I’d been an executive at NBC Sports, and my job was to create and run new businesses, and I’d been in charge of exploring sports betting at NBC Sports and looking into how the company could potentially enter that space. With my knowledge of that industry, it made sense to tap me to come in and help the state of Connecticut with the lottery. My legal background also made me attractive to the Governor. I went to Harvard Law School and practiced at a couple of big New York City law firms, and that prepared me to help CT Lottery as an organization move past some of its previous issues.
Are there ways in which you would handle the role differently than Secretary Merrill?
Secretary Merrill is widely respected in our state, and for good reason. I think I would come in with somewhat of a different background, and therefore I would probably take a somewhat different approach. With my background working as a media and tech executive, I would want to ensure that this state takes advantage of the best possible technology for both voting and business systems. Secretary Merrill and the Governor have made some strides there, and I congratulate them on the recent announcement about integrating the digital offerings of the Secretary of the State’s office to make it easier for businesses to interact with the state. Still, there are steps that need to be taken to improve the state’s technology, and my background would prepare me to do that.
What changes would you make to improve how businesses in Connecticut interact with the state government?
When I last checked, our state was ranked 43rd in Forbes Magazine’s ranking of the best states for business. Lamont and Merrill have made great strides in making it easier to run or start a business in Connecticut, but there is still a long way to go in taking the burdens of fees and busy work off of the backs of people trying to build businesses and create jobs in our state. It’s still challenging to get companies to move here. It should be cheaper to incorporate and launch and maintain a business in Connecticut. The fees and reports currently required should be lowered, and it should be a simpler process.
Most of your opponents for the Democratic nomination are state legislators. Why do you feel that you could succeed as Secretary of the State without that legislative experience?
Secretary of the State is not a legislative position, it is an executive position, and I have a lot of experience as an executive. I’ve run large and small businesses, and I’ve been a senior executive at two Connecticut-based Fortune 100 companies, ESPN and NBC Sports. That management experience is a big part of why I have had some success leading CT Lottery, experience that would also translate to the office of the Secretary of the State. I do think executive experience would be a significant benefit for someone in this role.
Another thing that differentiates me is my legal background. I practiced law in private practice and as a voting rights attorney for six presidential campaigns going back to Al Gore. Both of the last two Secretaries of the State were practicing lawyers, and it’s an important part of the job. I also think my tech experience as an entrepreneur sets me apart. I consider myself to be a Ned Lamont Democrat, and look at him as a model for what I would do should I run and try to be elected. He came in with business experience as a senior executive and used that background to govern.
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?
Voter fraud is a largely false talking point that has been used for many years to justify attacks on voting rights, especially the rights of people of color. This is nothing new. Voter fraud has been used as a justification for denying voting rights to African Americans going as far back as reconstruction. Incidents of actual voter fraud are few and far between. They’re not nonexistent, but they are rare. We must always be vigilant and enforce our election laws, and should prosecute fraud when it does happen to the fullest extent of law, but the use of voter fraud as a boogeyman cannot be the justification for large-scale restrictions of people’s voting rights.
What do you say to people who think the 2020 election was stolen, and how would you work to restore trust in elections systems?
What I would respectfully say to someone who thinks the 2020 election was stolen is that they need to stay away from fringe right-wing media outlets, because they are being sold a bill of goods. The dissemination of false information is one of the biggest problems that our democracy is facing right now, and we need to do a better job of educating people not to believe anything they read on the internet. It’s particularly troubling when the president of the United States is spreading these types of lies. Democracy cannot function when people have no idea what the truth is, and at this point there is no reason for someone to still believe, given all evidence to the contrary, that the 2020 election was compromised.
As someone who worked for two of the biggest media companies in the country, what do you see as the relationship between the media and elections?
Media writ large, including social media, is unquestionably one of the biggest problems we have in our democracy right now. It’s a very challenging problem to solve given the first amendment and the protections it gives to people to disseminate information, even if it’s false information. I am hopeful given some of the recent legal actions we’ve seen taken by companies like Dominion Voter Systems, which has had some success in bringing defamation lawsuits against media organizations that have been disseminating false information about them. Those lies damage the very underpinning of our democracy, and while I believe in free speech, I believe our democracy must be protected from the unfettered spreading of big lies, and I’m hopeful that the legal system will start to play a more active role in protecting truth from people in organizations that undermine it for the purpose of profit.
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to include the candidacy Stephanie Thomas and the exploratory committee of Maritza Bond.