Assessing a rematch in 19th Senate race

Two years ago Rep. Christopher Coutu and Sprague First Selectwoman Catherine Ann Osten faced each other in the race for the 47th House District seat, with the Republican Coutu winning a second term.

Now the two are going at it again, but much has changed.

Rep. Coutu decided to leave his House seat for a bid at higher office, originally campaigning for the U.S. congressional seat held by Rep. Joe Courtney. In May, Rep. Coutu pivoted away from that long-shot challenge when Sen. Edith Prague, who had held the 19th District state Senate seat since 1994, announced she was retiring.

Rep. Coutu seized this more realistic opportunity to move up the political ladder. In Ms. Osten he faces a formidable challenger, a candidate who has the strong backing of the fellow Democrat she seeks to replace - retiring Sen. Prague. The strength of that single endorsement, and Ms. Osten's own skill as a candidate, became evident when she defeated Rep. Tom Reynolds of Ledyard, a popular and respected lawmaker, in the Democratic primary.

Rep. Coutu, 36, and Ms. Osten, 57, now find themselves competing across the large state Senate district that begins in Ledyard and northeastern Montville and runs north through Norwich, Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon, Marlborough, Hebron, Columbia and Lebanon. Both are driven individuals, ready to fight for what they believe, which helps explain why this has been a particularly feisty contest.

Two years ago Rep. Coutu won this newspaper's endorsement. But things have changed in that regard as well. As an incumbent, Rep. Coutu got some benefit of the doubt as to whether he deserved rehiring. There is no incumbent in this race.

Both candidates have records that are two years longer. Rep. Coutu's knock on his opponent, a retired Department of Corrections lieutenant and a union leader, is that she will blindly back the demands of state labor unions to the detriment of taxpayers. In simple terms, he seeks to paint her as a tax-and-spend liberal.

But Ms. Osten's performance as a first selectwoman says otherwise. Under her leadership, taxpayers have seen only a small tax increase. By all accounts, she seeks to stretch tax dollars with a frugal Yankee temperament. While she has a deep-seated belief that workers deserve fair treatment and a living wage, she does not strike us as someone who will spend recklessly.

Rep. Coutu, on the other hand, has shown slavishness to his ideology of fiscal austerity. In October 2011 Democrats and Republicans joined in passing a massive $626 million jobs bill. In the best tradition of political compromise, both parties got some of what they wanted and settled for much that they didn't. The bill included tax credits for small and large businesses, the streamlining of permit processes, state financial inducements to attract new businesses and expand existing ones, along with funds for job training and critical infrastructure improvements.

The bill passed the House 147-1, with Rep. Coutu casting the lone no vote. Rep. Coutu characterizes it as a courageous vote. The bill, he said, was too expensive and unfairly makes government the arbiter of which businesses deserve help to succeed and which do not. But if Rep. Coutu could not bend his ideology to compromise on this, a jobs bill with overwhelming bipartisan support, on what legislation will he compromise for the good of his district?

And now that the bill is law, who will be best suited to fight to make sure the region gets its fair share of this stimulus help? Ms. Osten, a member of the likely Democratic majority who believes the state should play an active role in stimulating economic growth, or Rep. Coutu, who believes the government should cut taxes and regulations and leave matters up to the free market? The answer appears obvious.

At this time, in this district, The Day believes Catherine Ann Osten is the better choice and endorses her for state Senate.

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