Coutu says win would aid 'rebalancing'

State Senate candidate Chris Coutu, left, laughs with Kathy Burkart, the owner of Dixie Donuts, as Coutu campaigns in the area along West Town Street Tuesday in Norwich.  Coutu is running for the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Edith Prague in a district including Norwich, Ledyard, Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon, Marlborough, Hebron, Columbia, Lebanon and the northeastern section of Montville.
State Senate candidate Chris Coutu, left, laughs with Kathy Burkart, the owner of Dixie Donuts, as Coutu campaigns in the area along West Town Street Tuesday in Norwich. Coutu is running for the seat vacated by retiring Democrat Edith Prague in a district including Norwich, Ledyard, Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon, Marlborough, Hebron, Columbia, Lebanon and the northeastern section of Montville. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Norwich - Chris Coutu's mindset toward Connecticut politics was shaped on a high school wrestling mat.

A mere 119 pounds in his senior year at Norwich Tech, he was often pushed into matches against bigger opponents for the sake of the team.

"They would always bump me up weight classes because we were short (on wrestlers)," Coutu, a two-term Republican state representative from Norwich who is running for the 19th state Senate district, recalled in an interview.

"There'd be times when you wanted to give up, because you're in a really bad hold and it hurts, but it teaches you how to fight," he said. Despite the size disadvantage, he ended the season with a 19-1 record.

Nearly two decades later, Coutu, now 36, is fighting as an underdog at the state Capitol from the side of the minority party. He is also the only Republican state legislator from all of southeastern Connecticut.

"That mentality of trying to fight from the bottom - that's my mindset in Hartford," said Coutu, whose years as the team runt ended with a late growth spurt. "You have a bunch of people on top of you, and you have to fight for all of the people who don't have a voice."

Coutu has experienced some legislative victories during his 3½ years in the General Assembly, including his co-proposal last year with Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, for a price cap on one of Connecticut's two taxes on gasoline. Caucus leaders picked up the idea this spring.

But being a Republican in a Democratic-majority legislature with a Democratic governor, Coutu, a fiscal conservative and an energetic lone wolf, has more often been on the losing side of votes and skirmishes.

His campaign's goal is to shift that dynamic.

Coutu said that if he wins the seat of the retiring Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, Republicans could be closer to "rebalancing" power at the Capitol and gaining a real check on controversial Democrat-pushed initiatives, such as the $567 million Hartford busway and the biennial budget that raised taxes by $1.5 billion.

The Senate is currently comprised of 22 Democrats and 14 Republicans, with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a Democrat, as tie-breaker. The House has 99 Democrats and 52 Republicans.

"I think it's important that we don't have one-party government," he said.

But standing between Coutu and the Senate's ornate chamber is Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten, the Democratic nominee. Although Coutu fended off Osten in 2010 when she challenged his House seat, Osten believes she has enough support in the larger Senate district to outpoll him.

A former prison guard supervisor and state employees' union president, Osten has the personal endorsement of Prague, a popular figure among senior voters. Osten beat Democratic state Rep. Tom Reynolds of Ledyard in the August primary after expending nearly all of her $54,000 in campaign cash and public financing grants. She is set to receive an additional $91,000 or so in public financing to take on Coutu.

Reynolds exited the race with nearly $15,000 still squirreled away, according to campaign filings.

The 10 communities in the district are Norwich, Ledyard, Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon, Marlborough, Hebron, Columbia, Lebanon and the northeastern section of Montville.

The 19th Senate district seat has been in Democratic hands for a quarter of a century. Its last Republican was Eric Benson, who was swept in in 1984 with President Ronald Reagan's GOP landslide. Benson served just one two-year term before losing to Democrat Kenneth Przybysz.

Prague won the seat in 1994 after upsetting Przybysz in a primary. Osten has been on an aggressive door-knocking campaign this summer in hopes of replicating Prague's first surprise victory.

"A good candidate like Cathy Osten will continue to be out there working hard, telling about her record as first selectman of keeping taxes down and working with people," said Jonathan Harris, executive director for the Connecticut Democratic Party, which is closely following the race.

Yet Coutu may well be the race's frontrunner.

Talking strategy one afternoon at his campaign headquarters in Norwich, Coutu pointed out that many Republicans in Republican-leaning Ledyard - the district's second-largest voting bloc next to Norwich - were ready to vote in November for Reynolds, their local Democrat. But Coutu hopes that with Reynolds now out these Republicans may now vote Republican.

Additionally, Coutu was just 63 votes shy of Osten out of the 1,181 votes cast in her own town of Sprague in the 2010 House race, a result that suggests Osten will need to find a large bloc of voters to counter Coutu's strengths in Norwich and Ledyard.

Coutu also questions the power of a Prague endorsement. The 86-year-old incumbent last won re-election by a relatively narrow 51 percent to 49 percent against Republican Sean Sullivan.

"Most people I've talked to, even in Columbia, say they are going to choose the person based on their character, not based on any endorsement," he said. "I can't control anyone's endorsement, but what I can control is I'm going to knock on everyone's door and I'm going to shake their hand and tell them how I'll fight for them in Hartford and keep their taxes low."

Coming from a different place

Coutu has one of the more unusual biographies in the General Assembly. A native of Norwich's Taftville section, he comes from a blue-collar background and is the only technical high school graduate currently in the legislature.

He is one of two state lawmakers currently active in the National Guard and among a handful of current or former volunteer firefighters.

He has held a variety of jobs from shucking scallops to running tool and die machinery to fixing hydraulics on military C-130 turboprops. He also washed dishes and tended bar at Mohegan Sun casino and was a personal care attendant for the disabled.

"I bring a background that is really different than a lot of them up there," he said.

Coutu was the first in his family to graduate from college (Three Rivers Community College, then Eastern Connecticut State University) and obtained an MBA from the University of Hartford.

He is currently doing tax and accounting work, and on weekends serves as a lieutenant in the Army National Guard. He says he is looking into starting or purchasing a tax and accounting franchise office.

Coutu considers himself the right candidate to combat the influence of what he calls the "special interests" in state government, particularly public-sector labor unions. Connecticut's Independent Party recently endorsed him for a potential second line on the ballot.

"I'm the lone independent voice of southeastern Connecticut," he said. "I bring this different perspective, where I don't follow the normal rules and I don't fall in line."

Inspired by the World War II service of his grandfather and great uncles, Coutu in 2006 founded AmericanWarrior, a nonprofit organization that organizes free trips to Washington for veterans of WWII and the Korean War. The organization has made eight trips, sending more than 800 veterans from the region to see capital monuments.

Coutu was elected to Norwich City Council in 2007. The following year he challenged 14-year Democrat incumbent Jack Malone for the 47th District state House seat. "I thought it was only right that people had a choice," he said.

Coutu managed an upset of 8 percentage points. He became the first Republican in the region's delegation since former Mystic state Sen. Cathy Cook's retirement in 2006 and North Stonington Rep. Diana Urban's switch to the Democratic Party.

Cook said she hopes Coutu pulls off another victory this November and brings more political balance to the Senate.

"Chris is a hard worker, that's one thing you learn about him. He is Mr. Energy, and he will be out there fighting hard," she said.

Coutu generally votes with the Republican caucus. He devotes considerable energy to opposing legislation favored by Democrats, including the $291 million Jackson Lab project, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budgets and an early-release credits program for prison inmates.

But Coutu set himself apart last October as the sole House member to vote against a bipartisan package of jobs growth incentives for businesses. His chief criticism was the bill's $626 million in bonding.

Osten believes there was nothing courageous about Coutu's vote. A business in the northern part of the Senate district, Marlborough Plastics, recently received a $100,000 matching state grant for new machinery and equipment via that jobs package.

"People, whether Republican or Democrat, want [their representative] to work in a bipartisan fashion, and that is not Chris's forte. He is an ideologue," Osten said.

Coutu stands by his "no" vote. He noted how the bill expanded Malloy's "First Five" incentives program, which recently gave $115 million in "forgivable" loans, grants and tax credits to the world's largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, to expand from Westport to Stamford.

"The result has been disastrous, especially with public perception," he said. "You raise taxes on thousands of businesses and you give out a couple billion to 10 companies."

Making waves

Coutu made waves again this year when he appeared to question human-caused global warming while criticizing the final report of a state panel that assessed Connecticut's response to Tropical Storm Irene and last fall's freak snowstorm.

The Two Storm Panel's report called for examining the impact of climate change on rising sea levels that could produce more damaging storm surges. Coutu declared that the panel's membership, which included Osten, had been "blown off course into politics."

"Storm surge has nothing to do with global warming," Coutu said last week. He was reluctant to say whether he believes human activity is causing global warming.

"I'm not saying I deny anything," he said. "What I'm saying is there will always be climate change - it will get colder, it will get warmer."

One fight Coutu lost was an effort to halt the unionization of thousands of day care workers and personal care attendants who are paid through state programs.

Proponents argued that the workers are low paid and would benefit from collective-bargaining rights. But Coutu and other opponents said the unionization effort was really about strengthening the public-sector unions, as not all the workers wished to unionize and pay the mandatory dues.

That debate resonated deeply with him, he said, as he worked part-time for three years as a personal care attendant.

This spring Coutu helped organize a veterans-led protest rally outside the People's Center in New Haven. The community center, affiliated with leaders of the state's communist party, was to receive $300,000 in state bonding funds for renovations. Announcing his opposition, Coutu told how his wife, Nergina, was forced to live under communism when growing up in Soviet-era Lithuania.

The Malloy administration ultimately withdrew the funding request as controversy grew.

"I've fought against every single thing that people have asked me to fight against," Coutu said. "They're not the biggest things, but to the normal citizen they mean a lot."

Unhappy with the fact that all five of Connecticut's congressional representatives are Democrats, Coutu last year challenged U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd for his seat this November. But once Prague announced that she would retire, he backed out of that race to instead run for state Senate.

Coutu said he has spent much of this summer returning to donors the unspent $35,000 to $40,000 from his congressional war chest. He also managed to salvage his large cache of COUTU 2012 yard signs by placing hundreds of adhesive vinyl strips with the word "SENATE" over the word "CONGRESS."

For this state Senate race, Coutu said, he has raised more than the necessary $15,000 to qualify for the state's public financing program and is preparing to submit the paperwork.

Coutu is one of the few Republicans in the legislature who openly champion the Citizens' Election Program.

"It gave me an opportunity to compete against an entrenched incumbent," he said, referring to his 2008 upset over Malone.

j.reindl@theday.com

State Senate candidate Chris Coutu hits the campaign trail Tuesday along West Town Street in Norwich.
State Senate candidate Chris Coutu hits the campaign trail Tuesday along West Town Street in Norwich. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
State Senate candidate Chris Coutu, center, helps his father, Dan, right, and family friend Jim Cowell place a campaign sign Tuesday at the intersection of West Town Street and Otrobando Avenue in Norwich.
State Senate candidate Chris Coutu, center, helps his father, Dan, right, and family friend Jim Cowell place a campaign sign Tuesday at the intersection of West Town Street and Otrobando Avenue in Norwich. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
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