Norwich race pitting husband of incumbent against Navy veteran

For Democratic candidate Emmett Riley and Republican candidate Mikel Middleton, the motivation to run for the 46th District House seat can be boiled down to this: Doing what's best for Norwich families.

Riley, 43, is the husband of 10-year incumbent Melissa Olson-Riley, who is giving up the seat. Middleton, 62, has been active on the Republican Town Committee and is a 21-year veteran of the Navy. Neither has sought political office in the past. The district covers the urban and southern sections of Norwich.

Riley said running for office is sort of a family calling. His father, Dennis Riley, was involved in politics since he can remember, working in various state and local offices, including that of former U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-2nd District.

His late mother, Winnifred, was a Norwich school teacher for 30 years.

"My parents instilled in me that being part of a community means being involved," Riley said.

Riley said one of his main priorities if elected would be to focus on early childhood education.

"You have to get them when they are young," he said. "It's hard to reach them when they are teenagers and get them refocused back on their education."

Middleton, who has lived in the city for 19 years, said he joined the Norwich Republican party because he felt it had lost momentum. He said Norwich needs a state representative to be the city's voice and fight to bring businesses back.

Both Middleton and Riley favor giving tax credits to small businesses to revitalize the downtown.

Middleton said if he is elected, his wife, Linda, will play an integral part in his decision-making.

"She's my confidant, a sounding board if you will. We're a tag team," he said.

The Middletons were foster parents for eight years and helped more than 70 children. They still keep in contact with many of them.

The candidate said he is in the struggling middle class, understands the need to help the poor, but also to balance that with realistic spending.

"You can't spend what you don't have," Middleton said. "You have to cut waste and unnecessary spending."

Riley said he is familiar with the needs of the poor as director of development at Madonna Place, a city agency that works with the neediest. He would like to focus on job training and helping veterans readjust to civilian life.

Police station supporters

Voters in this election will have to decide at a referendum whether to build a proposed $33.4 million downtown police station. Middleton said he supports the proposal but is torn on whether it's the right move at this time. He also questions whether officials have looked at all grant and revenue sources to help pay for the project and make it less of a burden on the taxpayers.

"We need it but can we afford it right now?" asked Middleton. "If we wait, the interest rates will go up. It's really a Catch-22."

Riley, too, supports the proposal but said it's ultimately in the hand of voters. He says the projected cost for the project is a "bit high" but believes once bids come in it will be much lower.

Middleton said he supports reopening the state's compact with the casinos to make sure that local towns like Norwich get a larger share of the slot revenue.

"Why should cities like Bridgeport get more when it's towns like Norwich that deal with the direct impact of the casino?" asked Middleton.

Riley said the idea of reopening the compact is nothing but a pipe dream. He said Middleton would have to convince major cities like Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford to agree to less money.

"That's not going to happen," he said. "The key is to form coalitions, do your homework and read legislation and figure out more ways to get more money for Norwich. Also, we need to ensure that Norwich doesn't lose any municipal and education aid."

Middleton said Riley is a good man but if Riley gets the seat it will be more of the same since his wife held the seat - "another two more years of the same attitude."

Riley countered that he felt the city was well represented and will continue to be if he is elected.

"I'm a lifelong native of Norwich," he said. "I have a lot of contacts in Hartford and will make the transition as smooth as possible."

i.larraneta@theday.com

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