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19th Senate voters face stark choice in diverse district

How voters in the state's 19th Senate District perceive Rep. Chris Coutu's lone vote against the massive jobs bill approved by the General Assembly last October could go a long way in determining whether Coutu or his opponent, Sprague First Selectwoman Cathy Osten, will be representing that district come next year.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made it a point in reaching out to the General Assembly's Republican minority in getting the bill approved. It was not because he needed them - the Democrats had the votes to pass anything they wanted - but because he desired the legitimacy a bipartisan vote would provide. It was an astute political move.

In return for joining hands with the Democratic governor, Republicans got things they wanted - more assistance programs for small businesses, making the Business Entity Tax payable every other year rather than annually, and expanding use of tax credits to encourage investment in businesses.

Thus the $626 million jobs bill became everyone's bill, its success or failure owned collectively, the ability to criticize it muted because all signed on. Everyone, that is, except Rep. Coutu from the 47th District, encompassing Norwich and towns to the north. When the bill passed the House of Representatives, the vote was 147-1, and Coutu was the 1. (There was also one no vote in the Senate, Sen. Kevin Witkos, Republican from Canton.)

Coutu, the only Republican lawmaker from southeastern Connecticut and now a candidate for a Senate seat, wears this lone vote as a badge of courage. He argues that while there were some good things in the bill, the idea of the state borrowing more money to pay for tax credits and government investment in selected private businesses made no sense to him. The better option, he argues, is to cut government, lower taxes and make Connecticut more attractive to all businesses.

His Democratic opponent, Osten, contends that lone vote makes the case for why voters should reject Coutu's bid to move from the House to the Senate. As Osten sees it, casting the no vote was not an act of courage, but the act of an ideological extremist who does not recognize politics is the art of compromise. At every opportunity she tries to make the case that Coutu was too busy railing against the size of government and taxes to do the basic task of bringing funding back to the district and assisting its small businesses.

Which depiction the majority of the voters in the politically and culturally diverse district find most revealing and appealing could very well determine the outcome of the race. The sprawling district includes all or parts of Norwich, Ledyard, Montville, Franklin, Lebanon, Columbia, Hebron and Malborough. The seat became vacant with the retirement of popular Democratic Sen. Edith Prague, elected to nine straight terms.

There may be no other race in Connecticut that offers a clearer choice between such strong candidates.

While Osten has shown she can control a budget as first selectwoman of Sprague, she is at heart an unapologetic progressive. Osten is a former president of the supervisors' union for state prison guards and a strong defender of labor rights. She supports the Prevailing Wage Law, which requires the state, towns and cities to pay union-scale wages on most every construction project, but which she argues assures quality construction and living-wage paychecks. Osten backs the move to provide personnel care-givers the authority to unionize as a way of raising their compensation and benefits. She sees a significant role for the state government in providing seed money, loans and other forms of assistance to encourage business growth and development.

Coutu opposes all these things. He contends the hand of the unions is too strong, particularly in government, at great cost to taxpayers and businesses and to the benefit of the Democratic Party. Coutu decries that care-givers who don't want to be part of a union may be forced into one. He does not see it as the role of government to select which businesses to underwrite. He argues that Malloy is using the grants and loans provided by the jobs bill as a slush fund to boost his own standing and play favorites. One example, notes Coutu, is the $115 million in incentives the state will provide to a hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates of Westport, to convince it to build a $750 million headquarters in Stamford, where Malloy long served as mayor.

The woman who says she will go to Hartford to cooperate for the betterment of her district or the man who says he will fight the growth of government at every opportunity, even if it means casting the one lone no vote. That is the choice in the 19th Senate District.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.


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