Three-way race in 46th state House District focuses on state spending

In this Oct. 4, 2016 Day file photo, candidates for the Connecticut 46th District House seat Republican challenger Rob Dempsky, center, and petitioning candidate Bonnie Hong, challenge each other's positions on raising the minimum wage as Democratic incumbent Emmett Riley, left, listens during the Lunch with the Candidates forum on TheDay.com in New London.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
In this Oct. 4, 2016 Day file photo, candidates for the Connecticut 46th District House seat Republican challenger Rob Dempsky, center, and petitioning candidate Bonnie Hong, challenge each other's positions on raising the minimum wage as Democratic incumbent Emmett Riley, left, listens during the Lunch with the Candidates forum on TheDay.com in New London. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Norwich — State budget issues and jobs have dominated the campaign in the three-way race for the 46th District state House seat that pits two-term incumbent Democrat Emmett Riley against his 2014 Republican challenger Rob Dempsky and a longtime city Democrat and civic activist Bonnie Hong, who seeks a return to politics after 30 years.

The 46th District serves the southern and urban sections of Norwich, including much of downtown and Greeneville. The traditionally heavily Democratic district as of Thursday had 5,282 registered Democrats, 1,847 registered Republicans, 6,577 unaffiliated voters and 216 voters registered in other, minor parties, for a total of 13,922 registered voters. 

Hong, whose attempted primary petition was disqualified on a technicality, could face an uphill battle as a petitioning candidate on a crowded Nov. 8 ballot. Hong is listed on line 5G, while Riley is at the top of the page as a Democratic candidate on line 5A and also on line 5C as the Working Families candidate. Dempsky is the Republican candidate on 5B and the Independent Party candidate on line 5D. Lines 5E and 5R for Libertarian and Green parties are blank in this race.

Hong, 69, a retired business manager for her husband's medical practice, said she turned down an invitation to join the Green Party and seek its endorsement, because she wanted to stick with her Democratic Party roots. Hong served one term on the Norwich City Council and one term as City Council president in the 1980s and said both times she won party primaries. She has remained active in Norwich Rotary and other civic groups.

Riley, 47, a state legislator and stay-at-home father, is seeking his third term in the seat that was occupied by his wife, Melissa Olson Riley, for 10 years prior. In 2014, Riley defeated Dempsky 2,461 to 1,657, including the 254 votes Dempsky received on the Independent Party line.

Riley cites his record of supporting more than $10 million in state financial support for the financially struggling Norwich schools and for several marquee city projects, including the renovation of the Ponemah Mill in Taftville and the Norwich Arts Center.

But Dempsky, 42, a poker dealer at the Mohegan Sun casino for the past eight years, said he feels confident that the fiscal conservative stances he took in 2014 and again in this campaign will carry more weight, because of projected state budget deficits. Dempsky called for cuts in state spending to services and oversight spelled out in the state Constitution.

He would support eliminating state legislative pensions and the Citizens Election Program that provides grants to candidates to run election campaigns — even though he and Riley each will receive grants of $28,150 for their campaigns. Hong was disqualified from the program by switching from her primary attempt to being a petitioning candidate.

Dempsky is the only candidate in the race who objects to the state increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour in January. He called it a payroll tax on Connecticut businesses, since it is 31 percent higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Hong and Riley both support the increase in minimum wage, Riley saying he twice voted for an increase and Hong strongly advocating for the increase to support struggling families in Norwich. But Dempsky said he is not insensitive to the issue, and he earned minimum wage when he first started at Mohegan Sun 11 years ago.

The minimum wage argument flared during a recent debate among the three candidates hosted by The Day, when Dempsky argued that the minimum wage is “un-American,” as it amounts to government dictating employment terms to businesses and employees. Hong countered that the minimum wage is a safeguard against “slave labor.”

Dempsky and Hong also are talking about the ongoing state budget crisis in their campaigns, but have different approaches on how to deal with the shortfall.

Hong strongly objected to the recent “corporate welfare” deals that included a $220 million bond to Sikorsky Aircraft to keep the helicopter manufacturer in western Connecticut.

Hong strongly opposes cuts to state human services programs, including the closing of 30 group homes and turning to nonprofit agencies to provide the services. Those agencies have been struggling with state budget cuts as well, leaving the state's most vulnerable citizens to suffer, Hong said.

Hong also criticized state officials for not implementing the proposed Sustinet Healthcare plan, a program she said could save millions of dollars by providing low-cost health care to state employee and would allow municipalities to join and cut their health care costs.

“It would have had an impact on Norwich as well as every other community in the state in helping to reduce our city's budget, because every municipal employee could have been included in Sustinet,” Hong said.

Riley said the state budget can be controlled through a continuation of the agency consolidations enacted in recent years, cutting back on overtime along with some spending cuts. Riley said the latest estimate for this year is that the budget could be in deficit by less than 1 percent.

“We have to sit down with the parties and try to develop the best plan,” Riley said. “There are some cuts that have to be made, across the board, fair and equitable cuts.”

While Dempsky proposed cutting taxes, Riley said he would be willing to discuss a tax increase for residents earning more than $300,000 or $500,000 — “I think there might be some appetite to discuss that,” Riley said.

Riley also supports highway tolls on interstates in Connecticut.

c.bessette@theday.com

Democratic state rep Emmett Riley gets a high-five from 3-year-old Dalens Saintil as he goes door-to-door campaigning along Alice Street in Norwich on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016.  Incumbent Riley faces petitioning candidate Bonnie Hong and Republican Rob Dempsky in the Nov. 8 election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Democratic state rep Emmett Riley gets a high-five from 3-year-old Dalens Saintil as he goes door-to-door campaigning along Alice Street in Norwich on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. Incumbent Riley faces petitioning candidate Bonnie Hong and Republican Rob Dempsky in the Nov. 8 election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Petitioning candidate for the 47th District state House seat Bonnie Hong chats with George Baton as she goes door to door in the Greeneville section of Norwich on Monday, Oct. 17, 2016. Hong faces incumbent Democrat Emmett Riley and Republican Rob Dempsky in the Nov. 8 election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Petitioning candidate for the 47th District state House seat Bonnie Hong chats with George Baton as she goes door to door in the Greeneville section of Norwich on Monday, Oct. 17, 2016. Hong faces incumbent Democrat Emmett Riley and Republican Rob Dempsky in the Nov. 8 election. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Candidates for the 46th District state House seat Republican challenger Rob Dempsky, center, and petitioning candidate Bonnie Hong, shake hands at the conclusion of their debate with Democratic incumbent Emmett Riley, left, during the Lunch with the Candidates forum on TheDay.com in New London on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
Candidates for the 46th District state House seat Republican challenger Rob Dempsky, center, and petitioning candidate Bonnie Hong, shake hands at the conclusion of their debate with Democratic incumbent Emmett Riley, left, during the Lunch with the Candidates forum on TheDay.com in New London on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. (Tim Cook/The Day)

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