Matt Lesser drops CT secretary of state race after missing Democratic endorsement

State Sen. Matt Lesser said Tuesday he would step down as Connecticut’s state race secretary and instead run for re-election in his senatorial district.

The Middletown resident lost the Democratic party’s endorsement at the state convention on Saturday, finishing second to state Rep. Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk. Although he qualified to face Thomas and other candidates in a primary for the Democratic nomination, he chose not to.

“For a variety of reasons, the best decision for me is to run for re-election to the state senate,” Lesser told Hearst Connecticut Media Group. “I think it’s going to be a tough year for Democrats, and I think a primary this summer would necessarily be divisive, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily what we need right now.”

Lesser’s exit from the race leaves Thomas, New Haven Health Director Maritza Bond and State Representative Hilda Santiago of Meriden as the remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state. State Representative Josh Elliott, of Hamden, did not receive enough support at the convention to qualify for a primary.

Bond, who finished fourth at the convention with 17% of the vote, plans to issue a main challenge, according to Roy Occhiogrosso, an unpaid campaign adviser. Bond could not be reached for comment.

Santiago has yet to decide whether she will continue to seek the nomination for secretary of state or step down to run for re-election to the State House, campaign spokesman Trip Holtgrewe said. Santiago has more time than Lesser to decide, as Meriden’s Democratic City Council won’t meet until later this month to approve its State House nominee.

Whoever emerges from the Democratic field will face one of several Republican candidates, led by Hamden’s Dominic Rapini, who won the party’s endorsement last weekend.

At the Democratic convention on Saturday, Lesser battled Santiago for second place in the race for secretary of state. With Thomas leading on the second ballot and Lesser and Santiago separated by a few delegates, Thomas freed up some of his delegates to support Lesser, propelling him into the final ballot.

Before the end of the final round, and with Lesser still far behind Thomas in the delegate tally, he pulled out, saying he was “proud” of his performance and promising to take the fight to a primary.

Prior to the convention, some Democrats had lobbied for the party to endorse women and people of color for treasurer and secretary of state positions to increase diversity on the ticket. Lesser’s campaign drew criticism after it called for the secretary of the state race to be decided first, not last, at the convention, ostensibly to avoid a scenario in which delegates reacted to a list of male candidates for other positions by endorsing a woman for that one.

Lesser said Tuesday that the Democratic ticket’s emphasis on diversity was one of the factors in his decision to quit the race.

“Ultimately, I think it was that dynamic that kept me from winning,” Lesser said. “I understand and recognize people’s desire to have a woman on the ticket, and I [want that] also. … I think it’s important that we have strong gender diversity on the ticket.

Lesser said Tuesday he was not ready to endorse Thomas or any other nominee.

In the Democratic race for state treasurer, two candidates who received enough support for a primary both said at the convention that they plan to run in a primary. The candidates are Dita Bhargava, an investment firm executive from Greenwich; and Karen DuBois-Walton, president of the New Haven Housing Authority.

The approved candidate is Erick Russell, a New Haven attorney working in the securities field. Both Russell and DuBois-Walton are black candidates; Democrats have nominated a black candidate for treasurer in every cycle since 1962.

Bhargava lost in a 2018 primary to Shawn Wooden, the one-term treasurer who is not seeking re-election. Both Bhargava and Russell are former vice presidents of the Democratic State Central Committee.

Writers John Moritz and Julia Bergman contributed to this story.

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