HARTFORD, Conn. — A Connecticut state representative, considered a rising political star, was killed when a wrong-way driver crashed head-on into his vehicle early Thursday morning as he returned home from the governor's inauguration ball, state police said. The other driver also died.

Quentin Williams, a 39-year-old Democrat from Middletown, died in the crash that also happened just hours after he was sworn-in for a third term. His death came as a huge shock to friends and colleagues who had just seen the newly minted co-chairman of the General Assembly's Labor and Public Employees Committee on Wednesday, opening day of the 2023 legislative session. Williams had dreams of eventually running for higher office; he previously served as co-chairman of the legislature's Housing Committee.

"I was so proud of him and his incredible accomplishments and had so much hope for what he was yet to do," state Sen. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, told The Associated Press in an interview. Lesser had recruited his longtime friend Williams, known as "Q," to run for his old House seat.

"Just last night, with the governor's ball, he got pulled into a work meeting with his Labor (committee) co-chair and they were fiercely coming up with plans for the incoming legislative session," Lesser said. "So it's just, it's just gut-wrenching."

The committee was originally scheduled to hold its first meeting Thursday. But after news of Williams' death, legislative leaders announced they had closed the state Capitol and Legislative Office Building, postponing all legislative activities until Monday.

"I am in shock," said Democratic House Speaker Matt Ritter, who, along with House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, announced Williams' death on behalf of the late lawmaker's family in a public statement.

"Q was my dear friend and I am scarred by his sudden loss." Ritter said. "We will have time to reflect on Q as a legislator in the weeks to come, but right now I deeply mourn my friend and send all of my love to Carrissa, Queen and Q's family. We will all miss Q."

A collision, then a car bursts into flames

State police said Williams was driving southbound on Route 9 in Cromwell, heading toward Middletown, when he was struck head-on by a vehicle going the wrong way shortly after 12:30 a.m. His car then burst into flames, troopers said. Cromwell is about 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) south of Hartford, where the governor's inaugural ball was held.

Authorities identified the wrong-way driver as Kimede Mustafaj, 27, of Manchester, Connecticut, who also died in the collision. No other people were involved.

The cause of the crash, including whether alcohol or drugs were involved, was under investigation.

Gov. Ned Lamont directed flags to be lowered to half-staff.

"This is devastating news, and I am incredibly saddened by this tragedy," the governor said in a statement. "Quentin had an infectiously optimistic personality, and he absolutely loved having the opportunity to represent his lifelong home of Middletown at the State Capitol. Public service was his passion, and he was always advocating on behalf of the people of his hometown."

Condolences from both sides of the political aisle

There were similar expressions of condolences on Thursday from other Connecticut officials, both Democrats and Republicans, on the local, state and federal levels.

"Representative Williams was a young, emerging leader who deftly balanced forward-looking thoughtfulness with passion and charisma in his work at the Capitol and within his community," House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, said in a statement.

Williams, who leaves behind his wife and mother, was the first African American to represent Middletown in the General Assembly, according to a biography on his legislative web page. He grew up in public housing in Middletown, the only child of a single mother who worked at the state psychiatric hospital in town, Lesser said.

He attended Middletown schools and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Bryant University and had a master's degree in public administration from Villanova University. He was pursuing studies at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government at the time of his death.

"He was incredibly proud of his education, Middletown High School and him being able to succeed and graduate from college and then go on to graduate school," Lesser said. "He loved the community. He knew everybody."

Embodying the phrase 'larger than life'

Before being elected to the legislature, Williams served as Middletown's city treasurer after leading the city's planning and zoning commission.

"Representative Williams truly embodied the phrase larger than life," Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim said in a statement. "His laugh, smile, and presence were felt in every space shared with him. His passing is a true loss for our community. A light has been dimmed today."

Lesser recalled Williams expressing to him an interest in running for statewide office or Congress some day.

"These are all things that he would think about," he said. "We'll never know. He had big dreams and hopes ... I think he had a damn good chance of realizing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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