Norwich — Four candidates vying for the open 46th and 47th District House of Representatives seats shared their views with voters Monday before a packed house at Otis Library during the first political forum for the races.
The 46th House District covers the urban and southern sections of Norwich alone. Democratic candidate Emmett Riley is the husband of the 10-year incumbent, Melissa Riley, who is giving up the seat. Republican Mikel Middleton has been active on the Republican Town Committee, but like Riley, has not sought political office in the past.
The candidates differed on some issues, but mostly offered similar positions and priorities they would try to achieve in Hartford.
Riley, 43, director of fund development and marketing for Madonna Place in downtown Norwich, cited his top three priorities as reducing state spending, creating jobs through small business tax credits and supporting strong education.
Middleton, 61, a retired 21-year Navy veteran, talked about the need to balance the state budget, job creation and supporting the education system if he were elected as one of the city's three state representatives.
The 46th House candidates differed the most on their views of the controversial state early prison release program for non-violent convicts, but still did not differ greatly. Middleton said state prisons are overcrowded, but the program has no "checks and balances" on who qualified for early release credits.
"You need to review this," Middleton said. "You need to hold this in abeyance."
But Riley said Middleton was insinuating that correction workers were letting prisoners out the door without checks and called that claim "insulting." Middleton quickly denied that claim and in a brief rebuttal said he wants better checks and balances.
Riley supported the early release program, but agreed it needed better controls.
The newly expanded 47th House District has a strange composition, covering the rural towns of Hampton, Chaplin, Scotland, Sprague, Franklin, and Canterbury and sections of Lebanon, Lisbon, along with the northern tip of Norwich, with the city's urban needs.
Republican Noah Enslow, a Coast Guard veteran and Electric Boat dockmaster and Planning and Zoning Commission member in Sprague, faces Democratic Canterbury First Selectman Brian Sear for the seat being vacated by Republican Christopher Coutu.
Again, the candidates differed little in stances on the state budget, taxes and regionalization. One question concerned whether they would have supported the tax increases enacted to try to bring the state out of a budget crisis with shrinking revenue and growing deficits.
Sear, 57, said the state was in a unique situation in a crisis that took courage to address. He said he would have supported the plan, because deep cuts in state services would have been worse than the broad tax increases enacted last year.
"If there were severe cuts to be made, we would be digging out of that trough for a long time," Sear said.
But Enslow said a better plan would have been smaller tax increases along with some spending cuts. He also complained that the governor forced state labor unions to accept concessions with threats of job cuts.
"We're still in a deep hole," Enslow said. "We haven't climbed out yet."