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    Thursday, February 02, 2023

    Groton official helping state lawmaker who's considering secretary of the state run

    Wallingford — Hilda Santiago, a Democratic state representative from Meriden, announced the formation of an exploratory committee Tuesday as she considers a run for secretary of the state.

    In front of a crowd of about 25 local and state politicos, news media and friends — including Groton Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner — at the Wallingford Town Hall, Santiago said she was forming the committee to "consider seriously a run" for secretary of the state.

    She joined a potentially crowded race that includes five other candidates or would-be candidates, including three Democrats and two Republicans.

    Democrats Darryl Brackeen Jr., a New Haven city alderman, and Matt Lesser, a state Senator from Middletown, also have formed exploratory committees with the possibility for a secretary of the state run. Josh Elliot, a state Representative from Hamden, filed a general exploratory committee notice that could mean he seeks a third term as a state representative.

    Brock Weber, a Republican who has worked in political communications and currently works for the mayor of New Britain, and Dominic Rapini, a Republican who works in retail technology and once challenged U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy for a Senate seat, have registered as secretary of the state candidates.

    State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Mansfield, a co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee and viewed by many as a possible successor to current Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, has not publicly expressed interest in the position.

    Diversity, voting rights

    Bumgardner, who said he is helping to get Santiago's exploratory committee "off the ground," said Tuesday that he met her while serving as a state representative, from 2015 to 2017.

    "I was invited to join the Black and Puerto Rican caucus, and it was there that we cultivated a professional and personal relationship," he said. "Whether I had questions about legislation, or just finding my way around the building, as someone who is personally Latino, it was very important to have a mentor that had similar life experiences as my own."

    Santiago was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. She is the assistant deputy speaker pro tempore in the state House and was first elected as a state representative in 2012.

    She praised Merrill's time in office, highlighting her efforts to bolster cybersecurity and obtain federal money for election administration during the pandemic, as well as her support for no-excuse absentee voting and early voting.

    "Across the nation I see the Republican Party denying people the right to vote. I see a GOP that is denying access to the ballot and putting up barriers instead of protecting that sacred right," Santiago said. "Here in Connecticut, people think we are progressive leaders. We are actually behind the times when it comes to voting. We do not have early voting. We do not have no-excuse absentee voting."

    Bumgardner said he favors Santiago for secretary of the state over other Democrats because of her experience in the state House and other positions and because of her personal background.

    "Currently Denise Merrill, outside of Susan Bysiewicz, is the only elected state official who is a woman," he said. "There has never been a Latina elected statewide, and I think it's long past time that happened."

    During Tuesday's news conference, Santiago said she expects more candidates to come forward in the near future. She confirmed that she's spoken to other would-be candidates, some of them colleagues, who have formed exploratory committees.

    "I like the challenge, and I think it's going to be great," she said. "The convention in May is going to prove how hard you worked to get delegates."

    Merrill decided not to run for a fourth term. She has been secretary of the state for a decade. In her final term, she's become a leading advocate for making it easier for voters to cast ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

    In the first year of the pandemic, also an election year, Merrill, along with Gov. Ned Lamont, spearheaded sweeping changes to the voting process in Connecticut.

    Initially through executive order, and later with the approval of the legislature, the definition of "sickness," one of the legally mandated explanations necessary to cast an absentee ballot, was broadened to include the threat posed by the coronavirus.


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