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Ritter, Formica, competing in 20th District state Senate election

Ritter, Formica, both well known and respected, square off to replace Andrea Stillman

Talk to the two candidates vying for 20th District state Senate seat and they each have an opinion as to why they're better suited to serve the sprawling eight-town district.

"I have a lot of experience in the House, and I expect that experience to be recognized and considered in the Senate," said state Rep. Betsy Ritter, a Democrat and five-term incumbent representing the 38th House District, which includes Waterford and Montville.

Her opponent, Republican Paul Formica, owner and operator of Flanders Fish Market for 31 years and four-term incumbent first selectman in East Lyme, believes change at the state Capitol is a healthy thing.

"Sometimes I wonder if legislators have been up there too long," he said, when discussing state problems that have gone unresolved for years.

Voters from Bozrah, East Lyme, New London, Old Lyme, Salem, Waterford and portions of Old Saybrook and Montville will make a choice between Formica and Ritter when they head to the polls Nov. 4.

The 20th District seat has been held by Andrea Stillman for the last 10 years. Her announcement that she wouldn't be running attracted two candidates who have grown accustomed to winning on Election Day. Formica defeated an incumbent first selectwoman in 2007, won handily in the next two elections and ran unopposed last year. In 2012, he failed to unseat U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney.

After leaving her position as Waterford tax collector to win her House seat in 2004, Ritter has won re-election four times with 60 percent or more of the vote.

Formica, 61, said he has no interest in becoming a career politician but believes his experience as a municipal leader and small business owner would be beneficial to the General Assembly. In addition to being first selectman, Formica served eight-year stints as an elected member on both the Board of Finance and Zoning Commission in his hometown.

He said he's "more of an implementing it kind of guy" than "a committee-it-to-death" politician and likes to look for solutions rather than allowing problems to fester.

For example, he said for 23 years there were mandatory conservation restrictions in East Lyme because of a seasonal water shortage, but under his leadership the town negotiated a regional agreement to share resources with New London via a connection that runs through Waterford.

"Conservation was a symptom of a problem, so why not address the problem, which is what we did," he said.

He was also active in the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments and its efforts to work with others, including Courtney, to upgrade the New England Central Rail line from New London to the Massachusetts border, as well as other initiatives. Working with the regional group has given him an appreciation of the influence local communities can have when they join forces, he said.

"And more and more happens at the state level that affects cities and towns," said Formica.

Ritter, 63, also has municipal experience, serving as both treasurer and tax collector in Waterford before first being elected state representative a decade ago. Earlier, after graduating from Denison University in Ohio, she worked in the private sector as a certified public accountant.

Some say the easy thing for Ritter would have been to stay in her "safe" House seat. But when her friend Stillman announced last spring that she would not be seeking another term, Ritter decided she could be "a greater voice" in the Senate.

If successful, Ritter said job growth in the state, and particularly in southeastern Connecticut, would be her top priority. She would also focus on preserving and improving the state's education system and consumer protection issues for senior citizens and continued implementation of the health care system.

"I can't tell you how many people have thanked me for running for Senate and not staying in my House seat," said Ritter, who lives in Quaker Hill and has visited more than 3,000 households during this campaign, including her August primary win over William Satti to secure the Democratic nomination.

Constituents appreciate the work she has done, said Ritter, deputy speaker of the House, and the alliances she has formed to better represent her community.

"I'm not a table pounder. I will not throw chairs. I'd rather find ways to work together to get things done. I think that is much more effective," she said.

If elected to the Senate, Ritter said she would advocate for making the legislature's Regulation Review Committee a clearinghouse for small business issues.

"Right now, the regulations are overlapping and conflicting. It's a complicated labyrinth," she said, explaining why business people need a forum to air their grievances and seek resolution.

Formica said he attributes his success in East Lyme to his philosophy of running the town like a business.

In the Senate, he said he would work to cut state spending 1 to 2 percent and use those savings for tax relief or to address pension liabilities.

Ritter, who supported the state's historic tax increase in 2011, said it is too soon to predict if another tax increase will be required in the next session.

"I don't want to see another tax increase, but without seeing the numbers, I can't say," she said, adding, "I'd far prefer budget adjustments."

Constituent service

Formica said he understands firsthand the frustration small businesses in Connecticut have with state government and questioned a bill introduced by Ritter in January 2013.

The bill, An Act Concerning a Hoarder's Tax, proposed instituting a small tax on the liquid assets of companies, with the proceeds going to job creation programs.

Ritter said she submitted the bill at the request of a constituent and "it was not one I necessarily supported."

Lawmakers routinely introduce legislation that constituents propose even when they personally do not favor the measures, she said.

"This is just not something I saw as a pro-growth initiative," she said of the Hoarder's Tax.

Constituent service is important, said Ritter, who tried to help a woman she met while going door to door on Montauk Avenue in New London Thursday.

The woman's home is in foreclosure, and she complained to Ritter that her calls to state agencies have gone unanswered. Ritter provided her with numbers to call and cautioned her that she could not guarantee what the outcome would be but assured her someone would respond.

Formica says he can work with those on both sides of the aisle. Early on in his tenure as first selectman, Formica said he visited the East Lyme Democratic Town Committee to discuss his plans and invite their participation.

"That led to appointments," he said. "I've probably appointed more Democrats than Republicans."

Whether at his business or Town Hall, Formica said his style is to empower people he works with to make decisions in areas where they have expertise.

But Formica is not always in agreement with the other party.

While he attended Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's Sept. 30 announcement that he was terminating a contract with a private developer and would instead make the former Seaside Regional Center in Waterford a state park, Formica said he thought it was "a purely political play."

Whatever the ultimate fate of the state-owned Seaside, Formica said it is a local issue that should be decided by all of the citizens of Waterford.

Ritter applauded the Seaside decision and said once the developer tweaked his proposal to include commercial development, converting the waterfront property to a state park was "the best disposition of the property."

Formica questioned how the state will fund the state park project, and Ritter conceded "that is a fair question."

"But as the governor and his agencies work on Seaside planning, I'm looking forward to participating in that process," she said.

Candidates meet the voters

Ritter's door-to-door campaign has helped her to understand what voters are concerned about, and oftentimes, it's education and economics, she said.

She's pedaled her bicycle down rural roads in Old Saybrook and padded city sidewalks in New London, introducing herself, handing out campaign literature and asking voters to support her.

"I'm a hard-core Democrat, so you're in great shape with me," said a man at a home on Sherman Street.

For Ritter, that one-on-one connection with voters is invaluable.

"It's most effective when you can speak directly and frankly face to face," she said.

Formica is hitting the campaign trail, too.

On Friday night, he attended a living room chat at the home of Deborah Gray on Bayshore Drive in New London.

"Voters in the state all want the same thing," said Formica. "Good schools, safe streets, a government that's not wasteful and a government that serves us."

Gray, a member of the city's Republican Town Committee, invited 10 of her neighbors to meet Formica and hear his ideas and ask him questions.

"I believe in Paul as a small businessman and in the way he's raised his family," Gray said. "We need more people like him who are not so Hartford-entrenched. We need people who have more of an outlook towards small businesses in Connecticut. We can give a helping hand, but we can't always be giving things away.

"I think Paul has a better way of streamlining government and walking across the aisle," she said.

Formica also spent 30 minutes one morning last week reading the book "Miss Rumphius" by Barbara Cooney to first-graders at the Winthrop Elementary Magnet School in New London as part of a United Way effort.

It was a good way to refocus on what is really important, he said after reading to the students in the library.

A widowed father of four grown children, Formica easily bantered with the youngsters and led a group rendition of "Happy Birthday" for a boy celebrating his seventh birthday. He also engaged the students on a theme of the book - making the world a more beautiful place - telling them he has 45 rose plants in his yard.

Ritter is a parent, too, of two grown daughters, and said her ability to serve the community that embraced her family when she moved here decades ago has been a pleasure and a joy.

"To do this right you have to get up every day and do the best work you can with the information you have at the time," she said. "Some people in this business talk fast and wave their arms, but for me, a lot of work is done quietly."

a.baldelli@theday.com

Twitter: @annbaldelli

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