State Sen. Mary Daugherty Abrams’ announcement last week that she would not be seeking re-election has local party leaders huddling to find candidates who can win in what has become a swing district over the last decade.
Abrams, a two-term Democratic incumbent, has been absent from the legislative session due to an unspecified illness.
The 13th Senate district, which covers all of Meriden and Middlefield and parts of Middletown and Cheshire, has been represented by two Democrats and one Republican since 2011.
Republican Len Suzio won the seat in a special election in 2011. Democrat Danté Bartolomeo unseated him in 2012 then lost to him in 2016. Abrams unseated Suzio in 2018 with 52.4% of the vote and was re-elected in 2020 with 52.75%.
The 2020 election increased the Democratic majority in the Senate from 22-14 to 24-12 that year and it now stands at 23-13. All 36 seats are up for election in 2022.
Abrams is the sixth senator to opt against a re-election campaign. Four Republicans and two Democrats are not seeking re-election, most in districts that are competitive, according to The Connecticut Mirror.
Before changing hands three times in the last decade, the 13th Senate seat had been a Democratic stronghold, with Republicans last holding the seat in the 1970s, prior to Suzio’s victory in 2011.
Suzio could not be reached for comment, but state and local party leaders said he was not expected to run in 2022. With both Abrams and Suzio out of the race, party leaders on both sides in four towns are screening and recruiting potential candidates before next month’s party conventions.
“I think the opportunity is very good,” said Republican state chairman Ben Proto. “It’s a seat that has swung back and forth over the years. I think the opportunities for the Republicans are excellent.”
Candidates have traditionally come from Meriden, where the Democratic party is not only interviewing candidates for the 13th Senate district but also the 83rd House seat being vacated by Democrat Cathy Abercrombie. The newly redistricted 83rd now includes part of Cheshire in addition to parts of Meriden and Berlin. Meriden Democrats may also have to fill the 84th House seat should state Rep. Hilda Santiago win the party’s endorsement for Secretary of the State next month.
“In my memory, the Democrats have not had three open seats,” said Meriden Democratic Town Committee Secretary Jeff Freiser in an email.
After checking with former Democratic Speaker of the House Chris Donovan, Freiser said the last time the Meriden Democrats did not have incumbents in three races was 1994. Donovan was running for his second term. Thomas Gaffey ran and replaced retiring Democat Amelia Mustone in the Senate. Emil “Buddy” Altobello ran and replaced Tom Luby in the 82nd House district and James W. Abrams — Mary Daugherty Abrams’ husband — ran and defeated Republican incumbent Jim Tavegia in the 83rd House district.
The vacancies could mean the traditional four-member “Meriden delegation” could be made up of candidates from other towns. However, the city does have a weighted number of convention delegates to vote on candidates. In the 13th Senate district, Meriden has 28 delegates to Middlefield’s two, Middletown’s 12 and Cheshire’s 12, according to Meriden Democratic Town Chairwoman Millie Torres-Ferguson.
The party is not making official candidate announcements as discussions are ongoing, Torres-Ferguson said.
In Cheshire, the Democratic Town Committee met Tuesday night to discuss potential candidates for House and Senate races but made no announcements.
Cheshire Democratic Town Councilor Jim Jinks said there isn’t an accepted belief that candidates from Meriden are favored to win. Jinks, who lost a nailbiter race in the 90th House district to Republican Rep. Craig Fishbein in 2020, said the 13th Senate district requires a strong candidate who can appeal to the electorate.
“It’s a district that has changed hands often,” Jinks said. “It’s going to be someone focused on wanting to get things done and move these communities forward.”
On the Republican side, Meriden resident and activist Gwen Samuel has filed papers with the Secretary of the State to begin an exploratory committee. Samuel is known in the community as an advocate for education and parent rights.
“For me, as an activist who is organizing, it always comes down to politics,” Samuel said. “We have a one-sided government. There needs to be more diversity.”
Samuel said she’s discussing issues and evaluating support with GOP leaders in the district. Samuel was a Democrat who became unaffiliated in 2016. She later became a Republican because Republicans at the state level were talking accountability, something desperately needed in the state, she said. She should have a final decision in a week or two.
Proto called Samuel a well-known candidate for her work on parent and education issues statewide.
“Gwen is at the forefront of education and parenting,” Proto said. “Across the state, it comes down to how the voters see Biden and Lamont have handled the economy, parent rights, violent crime. There are a lot of issues out there that are going to impact the election.”
Torres-Ferguson said Proto’s assertion that Republicans have an excellent opportunity to pick up the Senate seat is premature given the Democratic candidate hasn’t been named yet.
Reporter Mary Ellen Godin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.