Three candidates vie for 33rd District Senate seat

First Selectman Norm Needleman (D), candidate for the 33rd state senate seat, at work in his office in Essex Town Hall Friday, Oct. 7, 2016.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
First Selectman Norm Needleman (D), candidate for the 33rd state senate seat, at work in his office in Essex Town Hall Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

The three candidates for the 33rd District state Senate seat agree on one point: state spending and budget issues will be a major issue for whoever wins the election and gets to represent the district’s 12 lower Connecticut River valley towns in the General Assembly.

But after that, two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Art Linares and his two opponents, Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman, a Democrat, and Colin Bennett, owner of a Deep River bookstore running as a Green Party candidate, have many fundamental differences about how state government is being run. The district includes Chester, Clinton, Colchester, Deep River, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Haddam, Lyme, Old Saybrook, Portland and Westbrook.

“I’m in this to show voters they can have a voice, and that we don’t have to continue with politics as usual,” said Bennett, 37, a resident of Westbrook and father of a 17-year-old daughter.

Of the three campaigns, Bennett’s has been the least visible, running without donations to pay for lawn signs, brochures, an office or campaign staff. Bennett said he is, however, reaching voters through Facebook, public access television appearances, You Tube and other social media, as well as appearances in candidate forums and debates.

“I don’t have any funding for my campaign,” he said. “I know my chances of winning are very slim, but I provide a perspective from either of the other two corporate party candidates.”

Bennett made his first bid for the state Senate seat in 2011, motivated mainly by concern for the environment and state actions he believes are needed in response to climate change. While environmental protection remains a main reason he’s running again, he said, he is also motivated by state budget cuts enacted this year that he believes have been harmful for mental health care, social services and other areas that need to be restored. Too many residents, he said, are dealing with harmful reductions in services they depend on.

“The two other candidates want to continue the status quo, but the status quo is bad and getting worse for many people,” he said.

The remedy he proposes, he said, would require the state to bring in new sources of revenue from its wealthiest residents.

"We need to raise taxes on the wealthy in this state,” he said. “They haven’t been paying their fair share of taxes.”

Bennett, who said he is supporting Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the presidential race, has also been active on national environmental issues, including protesting the proposed expansion of the Keystone pipeline and donating a portion of revenues from his bookstore to those opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

Needleman, 65, wants to bring his experience as the successful founder and owner of a manufacturing business and town leader for the past five years to tackle the state’s spending and revenue problems, hoping to serve on the legislature’s Appropriations and Education committees, as well as work programs to spur economic development.

“I’m a numbers guy,” said Needleman, a college math major and owner of Essex-based Tower Industries, maker of pharmaceutical products that employs 225 people. “I’m a fiscally conservative, socially progressive Democrat.” Needleman said he is supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign.

As a state senator, he said, he would work to build relationships in both parties to tackle the state’s problems, from education spending inequities to the need to foster more small business growth and preserving the state’s high quality of life.

“Businesses of my size and smaller, where you have business owners who choose to live here are important for creating a stable base for the state,” Needleman said. “Our district has been deeply underrepresented by a highly partisan candidate.”

From his experience on the Essex Board of Selectman for eight years and first selectman for the past five, he said, he has developed an appreciation for letting local communities run their own affairs as much as possible, opposing a proposed state takeover of local health services and vowing to fight excessive state regulation of municipal affairs.

“The measure of my success as a senator would not be in how many bills I pass, it will be in removing some regulations,” he said. “In Essex, I’ve worked very hard to introduce no new ordinances and to get rid of ordinances we don’t need.”

Among major initiatives while first selectman, he said, have been starting a quarterly town newsletter and getting all municipal records digitized.

“We are putting all our information into databases,” he said, adding that the project will take another couple of years to complete. “My goal is to create a paradigm for the rest of the state.”

If elected to the Senate, he said, he would complete his current term as first selectman while serving in the Senate. In November 2017, when his current term as chief elected official of the town ends, he said, he would decide whether to run again. He also keeps up with duties as president of Tower Industries, though his grown children handle the day-to-day operations there. Needleman, who has lived with his domestic partner Jacqueline Hubbard for 17 years, has two sons and three grandchildren.

“When you’re first selectman you see what the state does differently,” said Needleman, who was endorsed by Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno, a Republican. “I don’t mind working a lot.”

His main motivation for running for the state Senate, he said, is that he believes he has a responsibility to serve because of the success he’s enjoyed.

“I want to make the state a better place,” he said. “Life has been good to me, and this community has been good to me, and if you’ve had good fortune in your life, you have to give back. It’s not optional.”

Linares, who will turn 28 on Election Day, said that if re-elected to a third term, he is hoping to be part of a Republican majority in the Senate.

In his current term, Linares served as assistant minority leader of the GOP caucus, one of 15 Republicans and 21 Democrats in the Senate. With Democrats also in control of the House of Representatives and a Democratic governor, Linares said, there is too much control by a single party that has not been good for the state’s fiscal health.

“If Republicans gain control of the Senate,” he said, “we can turn this ship around. Standing against Gov. Malloy and his tax increases and wasteful spending is very important to restoring balance.” Linares said he is supporting Republican Donald Trump in the presidential race.

Co-founder and executive vice president of human capital at Greenskies, a Middletown-based solar energy firm, Linares said he believes the climate for businesses in the state needs to improve. That, he said, would address a major concern he hears from constituents.

“Jobs and the economy are the number one concern I hear from my entire district,” he said. “Connecticut has the slowest growing economy in New England.”

He favors simpler tax codes for businesses, using any future state surpluses to “ratchet down” the income tax and state sales tax and making the first $100,000 of retirees’ income tax exempt to keep them from moving out of the state.

“We also need to adjust the size of our government, consolidate some agencies,” he said, adding that he also favors greater use of unpaid furlough days for state employees as a budget cutting strategy. “We should use technology to shrink the size of government.”

During the last session, Linares, who is single and lives in Westbrook, served on the Planning and Development, Judiciary and Education committees. If re-elected, he hopes to serve on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, as well as the Transportation and Education committees. Among issues the Education Committee is likely to take up is how the state will respond to Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher's Sept. 7 decision ordering lawmakers to fix Connecticut's formula for school funding within six months. Though the decision has been appealed by Attorney General George Jepsen, the legislature will certainly be asked to consider remedies.

“I do think the judge shouldn’t be legislating from the bench,” Linares said, “but he is bringing up important points. We need to take the politics out of how we fund education and agree on a bipartisan way to be fair.”

Linares said his main reason for seeking another term is to help provide a check on the Democratic control of state government.

“I’ll continue to work tirelessly for the people of Connecticut, and stand against Malloy’s tax increases and try to control spending, bring back fiscal responsibility to bring jobs back,” he said.

j.benson@theday.com

In this Sept. 22, 2016 Day file photo State Senator Art Linares debates with Democratic challenger Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman at Lyme/Old Lyme High School Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. (Tim Cook/The Day)
In this Sept. 22, 2016 Day file photo State Senator Art Linares debates with Democratic challenger Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman at Lyme/Old Lyme High School Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. (Tim Cook/The Day)

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