Published July 15. 2012 4:00AM
East Lyme - It was nearly three decades ago that Paul M. Formica, then a direct salesman for his uncle's restaurant, drove by a For Sale/Lease sign in front of an old sea captain's house along Chesterfield Road.
He glimpsed an opportunity. At the time there were fish markets in New London and Old Lyme, but none here. That December of 1983, he and his wife, Donna, went into business together as Flanders Fish Market, a popular local restaurant.
"I called the guy, wrote him a $50 deposit check and went home and said, 'Hey, Donna. Guess what we're doing. We're opening a fish market,'" Formica, now 58, recalled. "She said, 'Do we know anything about fish?' And I said, 'No, but we'll learn.'"
Later on as the fish market expanded, Formica's exasperation over a new zoning regulation led to his 1991 run for a seat on the East Lyme Zoning Commission - his first elected position.
He became more involved in local government and politics, chairing the Republican Town Committee and serving on East Lyme's Board of Finance. He is now in his third two-year term as first selectman.
"Any time you try something new you're intimidated, but having a healthy fear and respect for growth is good," he said.
This spring, Formica came across another life-altering opportunity when Norwich state Rep. Chris Coutu, a fellow Republican, abruptly ended his challenge to U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, to instead pursue a state Senate seat.
That departure created an opening in the race for a Republican who might appeal to the district's large number of unaffiliated voters. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 10 percentage points. But Formica needed to act fast because the GOP nominating convention was just a week away.
After many phone calls and some hours of introspection, Formica formally declared his candidacy May 13. "How many times in your life do you get that opportunity?" he said.
Five days later, he won the convention's endorsement. He is viewed as the frontrunner in the Aug. 14 primary opposite Daria Novak of Madison.
But to be more than a Republican ballot filler this November, Formica needs to get his name and his message out beyond the southern handful of towns in what is Connecticut's largest geographic congressional district.
He knows he faces a formidable challenge. Courtney has been in office for nearly six years, grabbed big headlines for securing two-per-year submarine production at Electric Boat, has a substantial fundraising advantage and handily defeated his last opponent, Janet Peckinpaugh, by 21 percentage points in 2010.
"I'm a long shot," Formica said in an interview inside Flanders Fish Market and Restaurant. "But you know what, when you get down to the point where there are two people in the race, anything can happen. And the more I do this, the more I sense an undercurrent of discontent with the economic policies of this administration, and I think we can provide an alternative to that."
His campaign has set up headquarters in East Lyme and Vernon, and he is attending parades and Republican town committee events across the district. He intends to knock on doors in all of the district's 64 towns. His minimum fundraising goal is
$1 million. "That is a number that would make us very competitive," he said.
Jerry Labriola Jr., chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said the believes Formica has a shot at returning the district to the GOP. The last Republican in the seat, Rob Simmons of Stonington, lost to Courtney by just 83 votes in 2006.
"The 2nd District has historically been a swing district, and clearly with a well-orchestrated campaign from the top of the ballot down it could swing back our way," Labriola said.
Formica believes that Congress needs more of the pragmatic sense and fiscal discipline practiced in many towns and cities, which unlike the federal government, must pass balanced budgets. He is for investment in infrastructure - "we ignored that in this country on a national level" - and for protecting small businesses from unnecessary regulations and taxes.
"Every government should have a balanced budget," Formica said. "While the national budget is a little larger, maybe a couple more commas in it, the principle is still the same."
Formica is in favor of extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire, including those for families making over $250,000 a year that President Obama and Courtney want to reinstate. He said he would vote to repeal the national health care law, and wants it replaced with a more "free-market approach" to health care reform without an individual mandate.
Formica's chief criticism of Courtney is his Democratic voting record.
"It's the voting record that I want to give the people of the 2nd District a choice on," Formica said. "If they're happy with how things are going, they'll vote for Joe. But if they think we can do better with jobs and the economy and these other problems that we have, perhaps they'll consider me."
In response, Courtney pointed out that he and other Democrats were responsible for legislation such as the 2009 stimulus bill that was crucial to propping up the finances of state governments and towns and cities.
Stimulus funds are responsible for much of the $125 million going toward the new Niantic River railroad bridge between East Lyme and Waterford.
"East Lyme is a terrific town, but I would hope that Mr. Formica and his opponent would acknowledge the fact that three years ago, if it hadn't been for the Recovery Act, they would be in an absolute total free fall," Courtney said.
As for Novak, whom he will face first, Formica considers her unelectable in this district.
"If a Republican is going to be successful, he is going to have to appeal to a constituency that reaches beyond the Republican Party, and I have a history of appealing to people," Formica said. "In East Lyme, we have about 792 more Democrats than Republicans, and I've won with a fairly good majority the last few times."
Novak considers herself the frontrunner in the primary.
"He's campaigning as a moderate and people, I think, don't want Republican-lite," she said.
Novak was the convention's endorsed Republican in 2010, but lost in that year's primary to Peckinpaugh.
Formica trounced his last two opponents for first selectman, getting 85 percent of the vote last fall against Mark Princevalle and 98 percent of the vote in 2009 against Philip Delaney. He defeated Beth Hogan in 2007 with 60 percent of the vote to win the first selectman's office.
Small budget increases
The only election Formica ever lost was his 2006 attempt to unseat state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme. Jutila triumphed 55 percent to 44 percent. It was a tough race, but the two men remained friends.
Jutila was a lead co-sponsor this winter of a state bill crafted specifically for Formica. The legislation, later incorporated into the Sunday liquor sales bill, ended an old state law that prohibited a first selectman who acts as town police chief from holding a liquor permit.
To avoid problems after he became first selectman five years ago, Formica had transferred his half of the Flanders Fish Market and Restaurant to his wife.
But in December 2009, Donna Formica died of a heart attack. They had been married 27 years and brought up four children, now all in their 20s. As the executor of her estate, which included the corporation that owns the restaurant, Formica was able to keep the restaurant's permit until Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the liquor law bill this spring.
Formica grew up in Cheshire and is a 1971 graduate of Cheshire High School. He moved to the area in 1980 to work at his uncle's restaurant, the former Waterfront Cafe on Rope Ferry Road in Waterford.
The town of East Lyme has a population of 18,118 and an annual budget of $62 million. Formica says East Lyme kept its average budget increase to 1.2 percent annually over four of the previous five years, and restored $3.5 million to its rainy-day fund.
Formica, whose first selectman salary is $106,135, introduced health savings accounts for town employees' high-deductible plans. The accounts have resulted in annual health care cost increases of less than 2 percent over the past four years, he said.
Holly Cheeseman, a Republican member of East Lyme's Board of Selectmen, said Formica is the hardest-working first selectman she has ever seen and praised his budget-balancing skill and good relations with municipal employees.
Rose Ann Hardy, one of two Democrats on the six-person board, said Formica is a "hands-on manager" who most people in town would agree has done a good job. "There are people who say that they like what he's done for the town, and don't want to vote for him for Congress because it would be a loss for the town," Hardy said.
A run for governor?
Her one criticism is what she described as Formica's tendency to exclude board members from some matters of business until the matter is well along.
For instance, Formica worked with Waterford First Selectman Dan Steward on a controversial proposal to place East Lyme public safety dispatchers in Waterford's new dispatch center to save money.
But East Lyme board members didn't learn about the project until they read a January news story on how Waterford approved its side of the preliminary agreement.
"He (Formica) apologized, but his apology was that Mr. Steward should never have released the document - not that we were blindsided by it," Hardy said. "It was very high-handed."
Formica said it is a first selectman's job to pursue opportunities for the town. The dispatch proposal has yet to come to a vote in East Lyme. "It was unfortunate that that came out the way it did," he said.
Ed Morris, chairman of the East Lyme Democratic Town Committee, believes that Formica would have a better shot at Courtney if he didn't have such a time-consuming job.
“He would have been a real formidable candidate if he could have spent 18 hours a day campaigning," Morris said. "But he's not the type of person to neglect the job he's elected to."
Morris offered an alternative theory: Formica's real goal is the governor's office in 2014.
"I don't think he really thinks he can make the congressional race. He's there to expose himself for the gubernatorial race," he speculates.
Formica batted down most of the Morris hypothesis. But he left himself an opening.
"If I get halfway through my term in Congress and they need somebody to run for governor, I might consider it," Formica said. "But my eye is on the 2nd (district) congressional seat. I totally plan on winning."