Published August 26. 2012 4:00AM
Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten was always known as tough.
The eldest of six girls and one boy, she was cooking, cleaning and waitressing at her family's former restaurant in Norwich throughout high school. Three days after turning 18, she joined the U.S. Army.
"My parents taught us to be strong women," she said.
More recently, Osten dealt with maximum-security inmates during her 21-year career in the state Department of Correction. She led a successful effort to unionize the prison guard supervisors, sacrificing promotions and invoking the ire of higher-ups.
Now the Democratic nominee for the 19th state Senate District, Osten, 56, is energized from her Aug. 14 primary victory over state Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, and charging hard against Rep. Chris Coutu of Norwich, her Republican opponent this fall.
The winner on Nov. 6 will replace the popular Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, 86, who is retiring for health reasons.
Osten is presenting herself as a "tough-as-nails" tribune for the people with a record of managerial successes. Her campaign literature touts her "no-nonsense" work ethic and "rough-around-the-edges style."
"I'm a fighter," Osten said in an interview last week. "When people tell me it cannot happen, I make it happen. I never let an issue go until it's resolved in its fullest."
She's certainly in for a fight. Coutu handily defeated Osten in 2010, 57 percent to 43 percent, when she challenged his House of Representatives seat.
This year, Coutu believes that he can turn one of Osten's trumpeted accomplishments - directing more than $10 million in aid to her small town - into a liability by portraying her as a spendthrift Democrat responsible for Sprague's own "bridge to nowhere."
"The reason some of that money is coming in is because she was a union president and she helped Joe Courtney and Dan Malloy (get elected)," Coutu said last week. "They're basically paying her back."
Osten, a former president of both the 3,900-member CSEA/SEIU Local 2001 and its 400-member correction supervisors' union, took issue with that characterization. "We don't get any more help than anyone else, it's writing good grant applications," she said.
She is confident about their rematch, pointing out how Coutu won't be the incumbent this time and must appeal to voters outside his native Norwich. Coutu also lacks Osten's potential trump card: the Prague endorsement.
"I don't know if you've ever door-knocked in the 19th District, but you can't go to a house that doesn't know who Edith Prague is," Osten said.
Prague, who convinced Osten to enter the race, wrote a districtwide letter to seniors this spring urging support for her preferred successor. She also appears on Osten's campaign brochures and did a robocall for her before the primary.
Prague, whose eldest daughter Susan recently died unexpectedly, was unavailable to comment.
Still, Reynolds was commonly seen as the frontrunner going into the primary. He had the legislative experience, the convention endorsement and was the first to qualify for public campaign financing. And while he didn't have Prague's support, he had endorsements from 12 state legislators from the region.
But Osten pushed herself through an exhaustive door-knocking campaign across the district - Norwich, Ledyard, northeastern Montville, Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon, Marlborough, Hebron, Columbia and Lebanon - similar to what Prague did in 1994 in her first run for the seat. Osten also had endorsements from two of the state's biggest public-sector unions.
She had so many blisters on her feet from walking the district that on primary night, she wore flip-flops.
"I fought my own party to win this election and I won because it's important to me to represent the people," Osten said. "I'm not about the organization - I'm for the people."
Sprague 'so much better'
Osten is proud of her work in Sprague, an old mill town of about 3,000 residents. She was first elected first selectman in 2007 following a stint as town treasurer. In the nearly five years since, the town's tax rate has increased a modest .75 mills.
She has been an outspoken opponent of water and sewer rate increases by Norwich Public Utilities affecting Fusion Paperboard in Sprague and Atlantic City Linen Supply Inc. in Norwich that, according to Osten, threaten the local jobs there. The town has joined the businesses in suing the city's sewer authority.
By Osten's count, Sprague has received $10 million to $15 million in state and federal grants since she took office, including funds for senior housing and upgrades to sidewalks, bridges and water systems.
"I think Cathy's one of the best things that's happened to Sprague in quite awhile," said Vincent Chrzanowski, former member of the town's finance board and a registered Republican. "If you look at the town before her tenure and look at it now, it's so much better."
But other Republicans in town are unconvinced that Sprague really needed all that money, courtesy of state and federal taxpayers. One of the more controversial projects was a $400,000 rebuilding of rural LaCroix Road Bridge over Beaver Brook, out of service since the 1980s.
Republicans also claim that Osten has commandeered control of most of the town's governing boards, a claim she denies.
"It's a joke around here, we call it Ostenville not Sprague," said Deb Deschamps-Baker, a Republican on the finance board whose husband, Warren Baker, unsuccessfully challenged Osten for first selectman in 2011. "Cathy does what Cathy wants to do."
Deschamps-Baker once filed a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission that resulted in Osten being fined $200 for improperly using the town's newsletter in 2010 to highlight her accomplishments during her campaign to unseat Coutu.
Osten stands by her capital projects and noted that town voters approved the LaCroix bridge project three times.
"None of the infrastructure in town had been updated in 40 to 50 years," she said. "I could have chosen to ignore it all or address it all, and I addressed it all."
She keeps 'getting back up'
Osten was brought up in Norwich, where her dad Jim owned Jim's Ten Pin Restaurant for 28 years until his death in 1986. Her mother, Pat, then started the former Patti-o's Restaurant, also on West Town Street.
Osten's grandfather was Ed Kelly, a area state representative in the 1950s. Kelly once unsuccessfully challenged then-state Sen. Bill Stanley.
She graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1973 and enlisted in the Army. There, she learned Chinese and was stationed in Japan for Chinese translation work. She enrolled in what was then Mohegan Community College after leaving the service in 1978.
She went on to work a variety of jobs, including unloading UPS trucks, before becoming a correction worker in 1989.
"I can handle tough situations, always have been able to," Osten said. "You need to have a common sense approach to things and just do what needs to be done."
Osten came to Prague's attention in the late 1990s as she sought a change in state law that would allow herself and fellow prison supervisors to unionize.
"It was a tremendous undertaking on her part because there was a tremendous amount of resistance from the department," Mark Verdone, a captain in the department, recalled last week. "If you knock her down, she's going to keep getting back up. And it took someone like that to get the job done."
Osten was later a plaintiff in an early 2000s class action lawsuit against the department alleging sexual harassment. The lawsuit was eventually settled, resulting in a new process for reviewing harassment complaints.
On a hot afternoon last week, Osten went door-to-door in her old Norwich neighborhood along West Town Street to ask for support in November. She carried a stack of brochures with photos of her with Prague.
"This woman here who I've been endorsed by, how she always ran her campaigns was going door-to-door, and that's how I do mine," Osten explained on one front porch.
She came upon a rebuilt property where she once lived in the 1980s with her now-grown daughter and her sister, Mary, and her two boys before the house was destroyed by fire.
Osten, who is divorced, casually mentioned how the sister happened to be home when the old house's gas range blew up. Miraculously, the only injuries were singed eyebrows.
"She's fine. She survived," Osten said. "She's tough, too."