In race for 13th term, Ryan faces challenge from Navy vet who says 12 terms is enough

In this Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, Day file photo, candidates for the Connecticut House of Representatives 139th District seat, Incumbent Democrat Kevin Ryan, left, and Republican challenger Joseph Mark C. Taraya shake hands after taking questions during The Day's Lunch with the Candidates forum at The Day's office in New London. (Tim Cook/The Day)
In this Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, Day file photo, candidates for the Connecticut House of Representatives 139th District seat, Incumbent Democrat Kevin Ryan, left, and Republican challenger Joseph Mark C. Taraya shake hands after taking questions during The Day's Lunch with the Candidates forum at The Day's office in New London. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Few people in the state General Assembly’s 38th District know who Joseph Taraya is.

The 31-year-old Navy veteran only moved to Montville from Groton a year ago, and he’s never run for political office before.

But, he argues, not everyone voting next month knows a lot about his incumbent opponent, Kevin Ryan, who is running for a 13th term, especially since the district's lines were redrawn in 2012 to include a sliver of Norwich.

"A lot of people in Norwich don't even know who the state rep is or what the state rep does," Taraya said. "They say, 'Kevin Ryan, oh I don't know who that person is.'"

But Ryan, 64, isn't banking on recognition as much as voters' trust that he'll keep up his more than two-decade record of working in the policy weeds on behalf of the district.

The 139th General Assembly District includes Bozrah and parts of Montville and Norwich.

Ryan first ran for the seat in 1992, when he was the chairman of the Montville Board of Education. Democrats in the district saw that he had a state-level view of education issues in Montville, and was involved in health policy as a volunteer at a Bridgeport health clinic.

"People asked me to run, and I did, to help serve people," he said.

Ryan said he has continued to focus on health and education during his 24 years in Hartford. He has been a deputy speaker — one of eight people who serve in that role under the House Speaker — since 2011, and is now also a member of the Public Health, Environment and Appropriation committees in the House.

The list of other committees Ryan has served on or chaired is long. A fast talker, Ryan rattles off the names and dates of legislation he's sponsored or supported over the years, sometimes mixing them up in his haste to show what he's accomplished.

Most recently, he championed legislation that would expand access to medical marijuana to children in Connecticut.

He said Susan Meehan approached him after she left her home in Oakdale with her daughter Cyndimae in 2013 to move to Maine, a last resort to get access to cannabis oil to treat Cyndimae's rare form of epilepsy.

"We had a parent that was very upset about not being able to provide her child with the kind of medication that this child needed," he said. "She had to leave the state to be able to do that."

Susan Meehan lived around the corner from Ryan's Oakdale home, he said, and she came to him personally as she became more fed up with Connecticut's restrictions on medical marijuana.

"Quite honestly, I wasn’t aware that it was an issue," he said.

Since he sponsored a bill establishing paid sick leave at organizations with 50 or more employees, Ryan said he has taken on the issue of paid sick leave as an area that the state still can improve upon.

"The legislature has dealt with that for a number of years – and over the years we've made a little more progress,” he said.

As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he said he has focused on securing grants and funding for education and infrastructure in the three towns in his district.

In recent races for re-election, Ryan has easily defeated the Republican candidates who ran against him, winning against Jonathan Gilman in 2014 with 57.7 percent of the vote. In both the 2010 and 2012 races for the seat — which was redistricted between those two years — he faced Navy veteran Leon Moore twice and won handily both times.

“I think, hope, that I’ve worked across the aisle and worked to accomplish the goals that we need in the district,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ve been effective.”

Before last year, Taraya said he never envisioned himself running for office.

The 31-year-old was stationed as an electrical technician at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton when he started getting headaches and feeling dizzy and nauseous, and later was diagnosed with a small tumor at the base of his brain.

The surgery to remove it was successful, but it made him ineligible to stay on active duty with the Navy, so he was medically discharged last year.

Taraya now commutes twice a week to New York University, where he's finishing a bachelor's degree in human resource management. He says he's running for the General Assembly seat because he craved a way to serve once he had to leave the Navy.

Taraya's grandfather was a Democratic City Council member in Hercules, Calif., a suburb of San Francisco.

Taraya said he was an unaffiliated voter until he decided to run against Ryan as a Republican, a party he identifies with on fiscal ideology but not social policies.

"It’s not that I don’t want government around," he said. "It’s a great place for people to meet and come to consensus ... but government shouldn’t be in every aspect of your life. It should give you a helping hand when you need it."

After a year at Sacramento City College, he followed his father into the military. He joined the Navy and served for six years aboard the USS Virginia, then was stationed as an electronics technician at the Naval Submarine Base and later as a Defense Department medical technician.

In the Navy, Taraya said he learned a sense of respect for authority and leadership skills that would serve him well as a state representative.

"Whether they’re junior sailors or senior officers, the best (people) I ever worked with were ones that always took advice from everyone, or at least ... heard what they wanted to say. They knew they weren’t the smartest one in the room,” he said.

Taraya acknowledges that he doesn't have the relationships and decades of experience in Hartford that Ryan boasts.

"I don’t belittle his career at all," he said. "Being elected for so long, that says something."

But, he said, Ryan usually votes with his Democratic colleagues in the House, and Taraya thinks it's time for a new face.

"I'd be surprised if you see me in there for two or three terms," he said. "If I'm in the office for six years ... and I'm not doing anything, and the state's not turning around, I think that's how I would just step aside. I'm going to find a hole to crawl into."

m.shanahan@theday.com

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