Coutu: A proud conservative

I caught up with state Rep. Chris Coutu on Friday, just as he and some other Republicans were preparing to take Gov. Dannel Malloy to court over his new budget.

Coutu, who also announced last week his plans to run for Congress, seemed a little energized by the latest state budget wrangles.

Connecticut Republicans, joined by some brave Democrats, may have lost the vote last week to kill the Malloy budget, with its near-historic tax increases. But a battle still looms.

And even if Coutu and the others lose in court and in the General Assembly, the Norwich lawmaker plans to take his fiscal restraint campaign on the road as he tries to steal the 2nd Congressional District seat from Democratic incumbent Joe Courtney.

If Coutu can't rein in state spending, he'll go after the federal budget.

"I don't know if Joe has ever voted against a tax increase in his life," Coutu said, sharpening a rhetorical sword he clearly intends to wield a lot in the year ahead.

Challenging a sitting House member in the 2nd District, where incumbents have a habit of establishing seniority, is not unlike beating one's head against a wall.

Weak candidates routinely come and go, like the former television anchor who tried to win the 2nd District in the last election and who started out by saying she wasn't sure if she had voted for Courtney or not the election before.

One had the impression that Courtney never even looked over his shoulder as he ambled over the finish line for that one.

Coutu, on the other hand, seems certainly to have the energy and stamina to keep Courtney focused in the coming year on his re-election.

Not short on self-confidence, Coutu will tell you this himself.

At 34, he said he hopes to "influence, inspire and motivate the next generation" with his conservatism.

"I am a confident, articulate, young guy . . . I will make it clear I'm a strong candidate. I have a lot of support," he told me. "I didn't just sit around the legislature for 13 years."

Some of the adjectives Coutu uses to describe himself include "spunky" and "optimistic." I would add enthusiastic, engaging, even charming. He has a big winning smile he uses a lot.

Coutu has a full and eclectic resume, one he said will serve his candidacy well.

He joined the Air Force at the age of 17, having to swear allegiance but wait until he was old enough to actually serve. He followed up his regular service by enlisting in the National Guard and is now a lieutenant in the New York Army National Guard. (He attended officer training school while campaigning for the General Assembly in 2008.)

He worked for two years with the federal government, doing research on how much government agencies should pay in wages. He has worked in family businesses as a trucker and a scallop salesman and has been licensed to do financial planning work. He also worked at Mohegan Sun.

He said he is now looking at buying some small businesses that offer financial services.

Coutu's education began with HVAC technical training in high school. He has a bachelor's degree from Eastern Connecticut State University and a master's degree in business from the University of Hartford.

His first political service was on the Zoning Board of Appeals in Norwich. Then he was elected an alderman on the City Council.

When he hasn't been working to support his family or serving in the legislature, Coutu has been dedicated in recent years to a nonprofit he founded, one that has sent hundreds of veterans to visit their war memorials in Washington.

In our conversation Friday, Coutu focused on budget issues, federal and state, and said that cutting spending and coping with the country's debt will be themes of his campaign.

He said the 2nd District is a very conservative place, despite voter registrations that skew Democratic. He admits to some conservative loyalty on social issues, identifying as anti-abortion, for instance, but he said people don't send someone to Congress to deal with issues other than the budget and taxes.

He is honest in suggesting that some painful reforms may be needed for entitlement programs.

"Social Security can't be a 40-year retirement plan for half the country," he said.

Coutu also surprised me by saying he doesn't expect to ever receive Social Security as we know it today.

"The only way I'll get it is if there is real reform, and I'm 80 or 85," he said.

On government regulation, Coutu is a classic Republican, suggesting that the government needs to get off our backs. On the future of energy, he thinks there is too much emphasis on ensuring that all new energy development is green.

Coutu is a natural campaigner. He appears frequently on morning radio shows, and he likes to comment on news articles on theday.com, using the name American and signing his posts.

He has raised a little more than $30,000, but he knows he needs a lot more to catch the incumbent.

You might expect him to come calling for some very soon.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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