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Lawmakers mull ending party conventions

March 25, 2019

HARTFORD — Connecticut’s colorful, sometimes-emotional political conventions are antiquated and would become quaint, gaudy memories under a bill aimed at allowing so-called direct primaries for governor, lieutenant governor and other top-of-the-ticket posts.

The state is one of only about eight in the nation that still have party conventions, which date back to the early years of the 20th Century and now cost between $60,000 and $100,000. The political rituals started losing popularity in the 1970s, and last year, might have cost candidates who participated in the conventions their party nominations.

State Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, the bill’s chief proponent, said Monday that while the current system stresses meeting and focusing on the 1,200 Republican delegates or 2,400 Democrats, candidates would be better off raising money and meeting rank-and-file voters around the state.

“Wheeling, dealing and insider baseball has little to do with getting the best candidate,” O’Neill said Monday, stressing that Connecticut is the last state in new England with party conventions.

O’Neill noted that the irony of the issue for Republicans, is that last year, their eventual candidate, Bob Stefanowski of Madison, avoided the convention and won the August primary as a petitioning candidate.

While only O’Neill and J.R. Romano testified on Monday before the legislative Government Administration & Election Committee, the issue became controversial last year, when Stefanowski, a former Democrat and political newcomer, ran a successful primary campaign by investing in TV ads in January, and avoiding the GOP May convention entirely.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who won last year’s Republican State Convention, but lost the primary, said that he might have defeated Stefanowski if he had spent more time raising money and meeting voters throughout the state, rather than wooing the 1,200 convention delegates.

“I’ve certainly made the argument over the years for direct primary,” Boughton said in a phone interview. He envisions an election year calendar in which the state party adopts rules in January; candidates circulate petitions in time for a May or June primary; and candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, comptroller and secretary of the state have the summer and fall to campaign.

“There’s too much time spent on the convention, trying to woo delegates, when it’s primary voters who decide on nominees,” Boughton said. “There has been a lot of energy and time spent on the convention when you should be out talking to voters.”

State Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the committee, wondered about how the mechanics of a primary might change without the traditional conventions.

“How would ballot order be determined?” Fox asked O’Neill. “I guess I would do whoever files their petitions first,” O’Neill replied. Earlier in the day, during an interview, O’Neill said ne believes his party would like to revise history. “If the Republicans had their option, I believe they would have gotten rid of conventions a long time ago,” O’Neill said. “I think it’s worth having a discussion.”

“This is just something that would allow the parties to choose their own destiny,” Romano, the party chairman, said in an interview outside the legislative meeting room. He likes the idea of a runoff primary election, with the two top vote getters in a final head-to-head primary in May. “It’s a longer window and I just feel it would be better for the public in general.”

Also last May, Democrats selected Ned Lamont to be their standard bearer in their convention, and in the primary, he defeated Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who failed to reached the 15 percent threshold of delegate support at the convention. Lamont defeated Stefanowski by about 40,000 votes.

The committee’s deadline for action is April 3.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT