Coutu, Osten clash as they fight for Prague's Senate seat

Norwich - Candidates in the 19th state Senate District race continued their contentious campaigning Tuesday, often disputing the other's statements on taxes, state spending and services to constituents in answering questions from local high school students.

Republican state Rep. Christopher Coutu, R-Norwich, and Democratic Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten are seeking to succeed popular state Sen. Edith Prague, who will retire after the election. The two faced questions in a debate from members of Youth in Democracy Challenge, the Norwich Free Academy Young Voters Society, the NFA Debate Club, NAACP youth council, the Bully Busters, and students from Norwich Regional Technical School.

Issues of state spending, taxes and leadership ability dominated the debate, and the candidates rarely agreed with each other on the major issues, sometimes ignoring the question in rebutting the opponent's answers.

Coutu repeated his campaign stand that he is proud to have been the only House member in Hartford to vote against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's $1.1 billion jobs bill. He said the bill is a "disaster" and hasn't worked, as evidenced by the rising state unemployment rate. But asked how he would bring "21st century jobs" to the state, Coutu said he would support funding to stimulate clean energy companies and jobs.

Osten jumped on that statement, saying the state jobs bill included funding for clean energy jobs, and Coutu voted against it. She said the jobs bill helped fund a solar power project for the town of Sprague, for example. She said it's detrimental for Coutu to say he supports clean energy jobs but then to vote against funding for them.

Coutu responded that it was difficult to vote against the bill but repeated that the $1 billion has not worked to improve the state's economy. "Government intervention doesn't always work," he said.

Osten disputed Coutu's attempt to characterize her as a tax-and-spend candidate who supported Malloy's tax increases. She said she presented four years of town budgets in Sprague with no tax increase and no cuts in services.

She said as a state senator, she would support funding for towns in the 19th District, saying Coutu has only been to Sprague - one of his House district towns - once during his four-year tenure, "to protest a stop sign."

The 19th District covers Norwich, Ledyard, northeastern Montville, Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon, Marlborough, Hebron, Columbia and Lebanon.

She said she would continue to support state subsidies for local school construction projects, while Coutu proposed cutting those payments, a move that would have led to local property tax increases.

"The funding needs to continue for seniors," Osten said. "The funding must continue for education."

Osten then said Coutu voted against a bill to improve services for domestic violence victims, showing "he doesn't support women and children."

Coutu called that statement "offensive," especially since his infant daughter faced major surgery soon after she was born.

c.bessette@theday.com

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