Democratic candidate drops out of East Lyme first selectman race

East Lyme — The Democratic candidate endorsed to run against First Selectman Mark Nickerson in this year’s election announced she has dropped out of the race due to health reasons.

Debbie Jett-Harris, a political newcomer to East Lyme, was unanimously endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee in July to vie with Nickerson, a Republican, for his seat as the town's top executive. A newly appointed member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, Jett-Harris also has served as president of the Pine Grove Niantic Association, which oversees a beach neighborhood on the Niantic River, for the last year after serving as one of its board members for a year prior.

“I’m dropping out for health reasons,” Jett-Harris said by phone Friday. “It was a very tough decision, but due to a recent surgery, I am not effectively able to campaign. It’s heartbreaking. I thought that after my most recent surgery, I would have been further along in my recovery and able to do it, but I can’t.”

“The DTC has been extremely supportive,” she continued. “They have all reached out to me and they have been nothing but kind and understanding. I’m so thankful for the community and the DTC who have supported me.”

Democratic Town Committee Chair Sharon Hansen said Friday that she and members of the committee were more than understanding of Jett-Harris’ decision and that they will soon post another candidate to run against Nickerson, stating that it’s important for the morale of the Democratic Party to have their top spot on the ballot filled.

“For the past 20 years, it’s been rough to run someone against a Paul Formica, for example, or someone with name recognition. But it always helps to have someone at the top," Hansen said. "The rest of the slate has momentum from that person and that helps, it helps make us more of a team. Mostly, it’s just having that leadership, that push, that person who is the driver and the others follow. If you have an empty spot at the top, it’s easy to lose the voter.”

Hansen said that the DTC held a meeting to discuss the matter Thursday and a campaign committee will interview interested candidates Monday, selecting someone to run by Labor Day weekend. Hansen said that there are several interested candidates who have stepped forward.

Assistant Town Clerk Brooke Stevens confirmed Friday by phone that the DTC is allowed, according to state statutes, to elect another candidate to run in Jett-Harris’ spot, since the party endorsed a candidate for the position in July. Stevens also added that ballots have not yet been printed and that the DTC has time to file the name of its candidate to appear on the ballot.

The registrars of voters announced this week that they plan to hold a public lottery on Tuesday, Sept. 3, to determine the horizontal placement of candidates on the ballot.

"We are feeling really good. All the background work is done," Hansen said. "It was a sad thing, and I think a couple people panicked. But there is always a solution to something."

Jett-Harris, who recently spearheaded an initiative banning the use of Monsanto's Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides within all areas of her Pine Grove neighborhood, including on the properties of its private homeowners, has not served on any town boards or commissions prior to her current position on the ZBA.

As part of her campaign announcement, Jett-Harris said she actively has volunteered throughout her community while also working for the Department of Developmental Services "taking care of disabled individuals" over the last 28 years. She also has worked on the campaigns of former Democratic state Sen. Edith Prague and U.S. Rep. John Larson — experience she argued would have suited her to serve as town executive.

“I was very supported in my decision to step down with the DTC,” Jett-Harris said. “They support me 110 percent and they are continuing to do so. I want to thank them for giving me such a wonderful opportunity. It's always been my dream to run for public office, and they gave me that opportunity.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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