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Hartford (AP) - In Connecticut's statewide elections, the races for governor or U.S. Senate are typically where the most political punches are thrown.
But in this year's contest, the Republican primary for lieutenant governor has become the race to watch. The hotly contested three-way battle has been stoked by claims of racism and personal attacks as the Aug. 12 primary approaches.
"It's an unusual and interesting race," acknowledged former U.S. Comptroller David Walker, one of the three candidates vying for a job that pays $110,000 and has only a few designated responsibilities.
According to the state's constitution, the lieutenant governor must preside over the Senate, break tie votes and take over should the governor die, resign or be removed from office. But with the availability of public campaign financing, more candidates are choosing to run for lieutenant governor, raising the stakes for the state's No. 2 job.
Walker and former Groton Town Mayor Heather Somers are both challenging the state Republican Party's endorsed candidate, state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi of Stafford Springs, vying for a place on the party's final ticket with the winner of the gubernatorial primary battle between GOP-endorsed candidate Tom Foley and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney.
"I'm disappointed that others have engaged in some inappropriate and questionable activities," said Walker, who served nearly 10 years as U.S. comptroller general and head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office. "I'm hoping that we can get past that soon because I think the people of Connecticut deserve to see all three candidates, side-by-side, discussing their credentials, abilities and the many challenges that face this state."
Walker felt one of the first blows in the election when Bacchiochi, without naming names, claimed one of her opponents was quietly making an issue of her being married to a black man. Walker denied the accusations of the possible whisper campaign, and he and Bacchiochi eventually issued a joint statement at the state Republican convention in May, saying there had been a misunderstanding. Bacchiochi apologized and Walker said he accepted.
But since the convention, Somers has picked up the matter. She ran a radio ad that refers to the controversy, accusing Bacchiochi of being "forced to retract her ugly comments." The ad also takes issue with Bacchiochi's support for medical use of marijuana and urges Republicans not to risk a "great chance to defeat Democrat Gov. Dan Malloy" by putting Bacchiochi on the ticket in November.
"We have to vet our candidates because at the end of the process we need to make sure we're putting the best candidate forward," said Somers, the former owner of a biotech company who contends all her ads and mailers are based on fact and contain no personal attacks. "We can't afford to put up a candidate who can bring our ticket down."
The issue of race was raised again this week when Bacchiochi severed ties with Regina Roundtree, a black consultant who posted a message on social media that was directed at Somers, urging her to help the party and not "plaster your complete sense of privilege," which Roundtree said is "sometimes phrased as "white privilege."'
Somers, who is white, called on Bacchiochi to disavow the comments, claiming "personal, divisive and defamatory assertions ... are becoming common from the Bacchiochi camp." Bacchiochi said the consultant's comments were unacceptable and "were in no way made with permission from my campaign."
But Bacchiochi, who said she's running a "strictly issues-based campaign" and letting people know about her record as a lawmaker, business owner and middle-class Connecticut woman, contends Somers' ads have been both untrue and personal.
"In campaigns, everyone knows that when you're losing, you attack the front-runner. That's exactly what's going on," said Bacchiochi, adding how she believes Somers wants to distract attention from her own decision to part ways after the convention with former Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Boughton. Somers and the Danbury mayor had originally said they would pool their campaign funds to qualify for public financing. Boughton has since dropped out of the race.
"That's raw political ambition," Bacchiochi said.