December 13, 2018

Dems tap Lt. Gov. Wyman party chair

HBJ FILE PHOTO
HBJ FILE PHOTO
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.

Gov.-elect Ned Lamont and Democratic State Chairman Nick Balletto introduced Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman on Thursday as Balletto's successor, bringing an upbeat conclusion to a drama that threatened to distract from Democrats' campaign victories and paint Lamont as politically inept as he prepares he takes office next month as Connecticut's 89th governor.

"I'm here to salute the great work that Nick did and also say it's time to turn the page and have a fresh chapter for the state party here in Connecticut," Lamont said. "That's why I asked Nancy Wyman if she would consider being our chairperson. Thankfully, she said, 'Yes.' "

The joint press conference a few blocks from the State Capitol at the Lyceum in Hartford was a show of unity that belied a month of tension between the governor-elect and state party leader, who initially was dismissive of Lamont as a candidate.

The dispute grew from missteps by both men: Lamont failed to extend Balletto the courtesy of a direct answer when the chairman asked for his support after Lamont's election; and Balletto misread Lamont's silence as indecision, a sign the governor-elect might back down in the face of a fight.

Elections of state party chairs are an insider's game, especially for the party that holds all levers of power in Connecticut: For the third time since 2010, Democrats won every statewide and congressional office and picked up seats in the General Assembly for the first time since 2008.

Balletto was elected unanimously by the Democratic State Central Committee in January 2015 as the choice of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Without a working relationship with a governor of his own party, Balletto would have had a title without influence, even had he had convinced the Democratic State Central Committee to re-elect him.

The last party chairman to survive a governor's desire for new party leadership was William A. O'Neill, who succeeded the legendary political boss, John M. Bailey, with the endorsement of Gov. Ella T. Grasso after Bailey's death in 1975. But the next year, looking ahead to re-election in 1978, Grasso backed Peter Kelly, a skilled fundraiser.

O'Neill refused to yield and won the showdown with his re-election by the Democratic State Central Committee, but he did so with a significant political base: At the time, O'Neill was the majority leader of the state House of Representatives.

The breach with Grasso did not stop O'Neill from becoming Grasso's running mate when she won re-election in 1978.

Wyman is faced with a decision about what roles she will fill as party chair. Will she be the party's lead fundraiser? Will she oversee a revamping of its infrastructure, such as management of a volunteer base the grew substantially during the 2018 election cycle?

At 72, Wyman had indicated to friends she was not read to become a full-time grandmother at after 32 years as a state legislator, state comptroller and lieutenant governor, though she she is close to her children and grandchildren.

She long as been Connecticut's happy warrior, being partisan without unpleasant. On Thursday, she already performed one great service for the governor-elect, ending an intra-party spat by accepting his invitation to become the second woman to lead the Connecticut Democratic Party.

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