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Connecticut Republicans choose new party chair

The Connecticut GOP has elected Ben Proto, a lawyer and longtime Republican politico, to be its new chairman.

Southeastern Connecticut Republicans were supportive of the choice, though some would have preferred Gary Byron, a former state representative turned talk radio show host.

Former Chairman J.R. Romano, a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, resigned earlier this year. Republicans were ready for a change, as Republicans have not held statewide office since Jodi Rell was governor in 2006, nor has a Republican been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2008 or won a Senate seat since 1982.

Controversy arose on Tuesday when it became apparent that Jennifer Cusato, a Florida resident, had a shot to win the state party chair race. She was ultimately disqualified since she is not registered to vote in Connecticut, but she had the support of the state House’s Conservative Caucus, including state Reps. Mike France, R-Ledyard, and Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin.

Eddie Aledia of Waterford, GOP state central representative for the 20th District, and Kat Goulart, chair of the New London Republican Town Committee, both originally supported Byron, though they said they’d throw their support behind whomever was chosen. Both said they liked Byron, and Proto, for that matter, because the two have been proponents of unifying the Republican Party.

“I don’t like a lot of the RINO talk that’s going around, and I think that Gary wants to create an environment where all shades of red are accepted,” Aledia said.

Goulart agreed, saying that the new chair should “reach out to everybody throughout the Republican spectrum, and the independents and unaffiliated as well, which is really important in Connecticut in order to win a general election.”

Aledia said he hopes moderate voices aren’t drowned out of the GOP going forward. The rest of the state Republican Party can take a cue from southeastern Connecticut Republicans, he said.

“I think that our district, the 20th District, serves as a model that our party should go down,” Aledia said. “We have legislators like Paul Formica, Kathleen McCarty, Holly Cheeseman, Devin Carney, who are all moderate Republicans and winning in liberal areas, tough areas for them as Republicans. They’re still winning elections. We provide a blueprint for the party.”

Goulart spoke of tribalism in both the Democratic and Republican parties between more liberal and more conservative factions of each party.

“On the Republican side, there are people a little bit further right, more conservative folks who tend to shun the more moderate Republicans and vice versa,” she said. “Really, we’re all under the same tent. We all have an ‘R’ after our name. If we can set aside, ‘You’re a little bit more conservative than me,’ ‘I’m a little bit more liberal than you,’ and understand we all have the same general conservative values, we’ll have an easier time of winning.”

Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said he used to work alongside Proto in Hartford when Nystrom was a state representative and Proto helped craft a number of pieces of legislation each year as an attorney for House Republicans.

Nystrom was adamant that Proto and Republican Party leadership need to focus on issues and not get swept up in the political polarization playing out on the national level.

“Ben has got to lead from the center, he has to talk about the issues, how they affect people,” Nystrom said. “He’s got to bring the party to govern from the center. He has to go out and recruit good, solid candidates who are willing to do the hard work. There’s no freebies in this business. He will have to earn a strengthened party in the state, but that can’t be the end-all. It’s not about helping the party — it shouldn’t be — whether you’re a state party chairman or an elected official, you’re there to make the state of Connecticut a much better place for everybody to live. If you don’t carry those concerns to that job, that’s a problem.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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