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The biggest change in the 19th state Senate District this fall isn't the redrawn lines on the map; it's the name that's not on the ballot.
Local Democratic icon and 18-year incumbent Edith Prague is not seeking re-election and will retire in early January when her successor is sworn into office.
The district lines have been redrawn, too, and now cover the towns of Ledyard, northeastern Montville, Norwich, Lisbon, Franklin, Sprague, Columbia, Lebanon, Marlborough and Hebron.
The race has proven to be one of the most hotly contested in the region, with state Rep. Christopher Coutu, R-47th District, facing five-year Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten, a Democrat. The two, who have sparred during several debates, differ on most major issues and have questioned the other's leadership ability.
"I'm glad we've had the debates," Osten said during a recent campaign stop in Ledyard. "The debates demonstrate the stark differences between us."
Coutu describes his platform as basic - cut state spending, limit bonding and stop making promises the state can no longer afford.
"I'm fiscally conservative. You want me to take your money and put it into a busway to nowhere?" Coutu said, referring to a controversial commuter bus project in New Britain. "I'm all about a balanced budget."
Fiscal issues have dominated the campaign. Coutu said he would revert state spending to 2010 budget levels and would let department commissioners and executives make the specific cuts. He has sharply criticized state economic development initiatives, proudly stating that he cast the lone House vote against the $1.1 billion jobs bill that has offered millions in grants and loans to businesses moving to or expanding in Connecticut.
Osten called Coutu's budget plan "a hatchet job" and said she would be more selective in cost-cutting but would oppose cuts in services to senior citizens and low income families.
A recent report ranked Connecticut as the state with the highest bonded debt per capita, a situation Coutu often rails against. He has proposed a bonded debt cap of 10 percent of the state budget.
Osten said the bonded debt is a function of the state's governmental structure. Without counties and alternative tax options, municipalities heavily reliant on property taxes must seek state funding for major projects such as schools, sewer systems, and dam, road and bridge repairs.
"If (the state) had not bonded that out, it would be a direct impact on property taxes in towns," Osten said. "I would review every project and make sure it's a need and not a want."
She uses that issue to criticize Coutu's four-year record as a state legislator. She said Coutu has offered no support for Sprague on major needs. She went to Hartford to testify on behalf of the town and to Washington to plea for help with a water system that was down to a 10-day supply and a local dam that was so deteriorated that the structural supports were exposed.
Double duty for Osten?
Osten told one debate audience that Coutu has attended only one Board of Selectmen meeting in four years - "to oppose a stop sign." At another debate, Canterbury Democratic First Selectman Brian Sear, now seeking the 47th District seat being vacated by Coutu, said Coutu hasn't been to any meetings in that town in four years.
In September, Coutu supported a group of Sprague and Canterbury residents who claimed Osten overstepped her local authority in putting up stop signs on Main Street in Hanover without informing residents and seeking their input. Coutu called it an example of Osten's autocratic, bullying style of government.
Coutu said he is not opposed to the state supporting certain projects in towns, especially for public safety and infrastructure, but he cautioned that towns cannot count on the same level of support they have had in the past.
"It's a different time," Coutu said. "If you look at the fiscal situation, it's going to have to be cut back."
He questioned how objective Osten could be in the state Senate on competing requests from towns for limited state funding if she retains her first selectman seat. Osten said she has not decided whether to remain as first selectman if she wins the Senate seat but dismissed the idea that she would be biased.
She said Preston's first selectman, Republican Robert Congdon, served a term in the state House, and 19-year Griswold Democratic state Rep. Steven Mikutel has been a selectman since 1994.
"You often see people recuse themselves because the legislation being considered has an impact on their regular jobs," Osten said.
While they differ greatly on the issues, Osten and Coutu have approached the campaign in similar ways. Both have crisscrossed the 10-town district doggedly, knocking on doors, attending events and speaking to people at veterans' clubs, senior centers and town dumps.
Along with 45 billboard-size signs Coutu rotates to different locations, he has turned his white, rusty Ford Taurus into a campaign platform. Kids write their names; adults write things like "Stop the Madness" or "Stop Malloy."
Tireless campaigning was Prague's trademark for decades in her state House and Senate races, along with relentless support of issues and programs for senior citizens. When Prague announced her retirement, she immediately endorsed Osten. That support helped Osten win the primary against party-endorsed Ledyard state Rep. Tom Reynolds, who is now campaigning for Osten.
Osten has adopted another of Prague's traits by promising personal attention to constituents' problems and concerns that have been brought to her during the campaign. Osten offers her phone number and asks the person to call her directly.
"I want to get the information out there," she said. "Call me anytime. Whether I win or lose, some of them have legitimate personal problems they need help with. … Sometimes to try to get through the maze is frustrating."
Coutu said he doesn't feel Prague's endorsement of his opponent hurts his campaign. Many supporters have told him they were glad Prague is retiring, either because they opposed her spending habits or they wanted others to have a chance.
"It was definitely time for her to get out," one man told Coutu in Lebanon.
"We have to respect her, because of her longevity," Coutu responded.