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Keep an eye on Coutu and Osten, duking it out in the 19th

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published September 12. 2012 4:00AM

If I were Tom Foley, polishing my 2014 gubernatorial ambitions when the state election returns come in this November, I would pay close attention to the numbers in the 19th state Senate District.

It is shaping up as the most contentious General Assembly race in this part of the state.

And the outcome might be an interesting barometer for someone like Foley, who would probably like a good litmus test on voter reaction to Gov. Malloy's first two years in office.

At stake is a seat long held by an icon of the Connecticut Democratic party, uber-liberal Edith Prague, who, at 86, decided this year to retire from politics.

Going against Prague's hand-picked successor, Democrat Cathy Osten, a former Army sergeant and prison supervisor who serves as the first selectman of Sprague, is Chris Coutu, a feisty state representative from Norwich, who likes to identify himself as the only Republican in the eastern Connecticut delegation.

A debate this week between the two, sponsored by The Day, made it clear that Coutu is running against the Malloy record and doing his best to paint Osten, who once helped organize prison supervisors, as a union stalwart and a foot soldier in the governor's political army.

Osten did her best to fend off the Malloyist label, but I thought you could practically see her during the debate hiding a rubber stamp behind her back.

She said she wouldn't blindly follow the governor's directives if elected. But then she didn't offer one example of how she disagrees in any substantial way from the governor.

"I am not a follower. I am always a leader. I will never follow anyone," Osten said during the debate, in one of her characteristic bursts of confident bluster.

Of course it makes you wonder how someone who worked in the Army and in prisons all those years got by without doing some following.

For his part, Coutu issued a full-throated condemnation of the Malloy years, from aggressive spending and borrowing to tax increases he said cost the average Connecticut family from $600 to $1,000, in just the last round of hikes.

"Connecticut's one-party government is leading us down the wrong path," said Coutu, who also talked a lot about the state's oppressive debt load and pension obligations.

Surely Coutu's rhetoric foreshadows the likely Foley campaign of 2014.

It was clear during this week's debate that Coutu and Osten don't like each other, a lingering animosity, perhaps, from the last race they fought, the one in which Coutu kept his House seat and beat back her challenge.

Coutu was generally amiable and smiled a lot during the debate, opening and closing the event by offering up a convivial handshake.

Osten visibly sighed and rolled her eyes often when her opponent was speaking.

A charming Ronald Reagan used to get away with that little smile of his and a shake of the head, when debate opponents said something he didn't like. I thought Osten's eye-rolling came off as simply rude.

Curiously, it was the sunny Coutu who was suggesting deep cuts to services and programs. Osten, who seemed much more sour in disposition, was defending the need for programs to protect children, the needy and the working poor.

During the closing handshake, with the debate formally over, Osten continued to correct her opponent, saying he had served in Hartford the last four years, not her.

Even before the handshake, she tried to get the moderator to interrupt Coutu's closing remarks, which followed hers.

Osten's most surprising attack came when she talked about "the vitriolic tendencies my opponent is exhibiting here today."

Vitriol? Coutu is loud at times and can practically bang the table when making a point. But I didn't see anything resembling vitriol.

About the only thing I noticed in the way of personal attack by Coutu came after the vitriol remark, when he suggested his opponent seems to treat everyone like a prison inmate.

So far, the cantankerous exchanges make for one of the most entertaining political shows in Connecticut.

The fun will continue tonight, when Coutu is expected to show up at a Sprague Board of Selectmen meeting, to take up the cause of a town taxpayer who claims Osten sicced police on him when he tried to collect petition signatures protesting some new stop signs he claims she had installed in violation of traffic regulations.

Be sure and tune in to the 19th District race.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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