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19th Senate race is one to watch

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published August 19. 2012 4:00AM

A great race is shaping up in the state Senate's 19th District, the seat long held by Sen. Edith Prague, a progressive Democrat who decided not to seek re-election. This was a seat Democrats expected to hold as long as Prague kept running, but health issues forced her exit.

In Tuesday's Democratic primary Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten handily defeated state Rep. Tom Reynolds of Ledyard.

Some saw it as an upset. Rep. Reynolds was a well respected legislator in Hartford and seen as an up and comer in the party. He was the party's nominee and had secured most of the high-profile endorsements.

But Osten, a former president of the supervisors' union for state prison guards, had a strong organization and the most important endorsement of all - Sen. Prague's. Osten has also proved to be an extremely popular first selectman, balancing fiscal prudency and a pragmatic approach to spending, while remaining loyal to her pro-labor routes. Demonstrating her popularity in Sprague was the size of her win there, 268-26. That's impressive.

Now she faces her ideological opposite, Republican state Rep. Chris Coutu of Norwich, a proven vote getter. Rep. Coutu is a staunch fiscal conservative who contends Connecticut spends too much and taxes too much. He is convinced that the road to economic recovery is greatly reducing the size of state government and cutting taxes. Coutu cast the lone vote in the House against a bipartisan jobs bill, unhappy that it included tens of millions of dollars in business subsidies. Coutu contends it is not the government's job to be picking winners and losers.

Osten, in contrast, could be expected to follow the path set by Prague. She would be an ardent defender of labor rights, could be expected to resist any attempts to cut human services for the needy and appears on board with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's approach to reviving the economy.

Both can draw on wells of good will, Osten with her connection to organizaed labor and her popularity in Sprague, Coutu in the veterans community where he has been an active volunteer, including arranging trips to Washington for veterans to visit their war memorials.

Wrestling this Senate seat from the Democrats would be a significant victory for Republicans and Coutu has a viable chance to do just that. He also may see it as a stepping stone to higher office. Coutu was in fact preparing to challenge Rep. Joe Courtney for his 2nd District seat in the U.S. Congress when the Prague seat opened and he switched races.

It is a rematch of sorts, Rep. Coutu having defeated Ms. Osten in the 2010 race for his 47th House District seat. But this is a much larger district - Norwich, Ledyard, northeastern Montville, Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon, Marlborough, Hebron, Columbia and Lebanon - and neither candidate has the advantage of incumbency.

As for Reynolds, I hope he reconsiders his election night comments, in which he suggested he might be done with politics after eight years as a state legislator. Reynolds was a bright light in Hartford, particularly when the state was sinking deep into debt during the last years of the Gov. M. Jodi Rell administration. A moderate, he pushed for a cominbation of spending cuts and tax increases to get the budget back in balance at a time when the governor and own party's leadership didn't want to listen.

At 45 there is ample time for Reynolds to take a break and later get back into politics, perhaps after his boys, ages 8 and 12, have grown some.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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