Local high school students grill political candidates in Norwich

Norwich - Eight candidates vying for the four legislative seats that cover Norwich answered questions posed by local high school students Wednesday in the 12th annual Youth in Democracy Challenge candidate forum.

Students from Norwich, Sprague and Griswold asked questions about education, the state's economy, budget and concussions during the two-hour forum.

Asked about increasing jobs in the region, incumbent 19th District Democratic state Sen. Cathy Osten cited several grants received by local companies to hire workers. She touted the recent $1.3 million federal grant received by Three Rivers Community College to create a sheet metal manufacturing program as a great boost to the region's job market.

"Whenever anyone talks about grants, that's taxpayer money," Steven Everett, Osten's 19th Senate District Republican challenger, countered. "I'd rather have people have more money in their pockets."

Everett said a lower gas tax would save companies money on transportation costs, perhaps allowing businesses to hire more workers. And it would allow workers to spend a bit more each week for groceries and other needs.

Democratic 46th District state Rep. Emmett Riley said the key to reducing education costs is expanding preschool slots to increase students' chances of success in later school years. Regarding the high cost of college, Riley said state legislators must work with the state's congressional delegation to reduce the high interest rates on student loans.

Riley's Republican opponent, Rob Dempsky, said the cost of college is the result of too much government subsidy. He said that allows colleges to raise tuition costs higher and higher because they know students can obtain government subsidies. If those were cut, he said, tuition would drop dramatically.

Questions on the state's gun control law enacted following the Dec. 12, 2012, Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown went to candidates in the 47th District state House race. Incumbent Democrat Brian Sear, who voted for the bill, said a "yes" vote was an attempt to curb violence. He said the bill was "a start," and it can be improved upon in the future.

But Republican opponent Doug Dubitsky called it "a terrible bill, horribly written obviously by people who know nothing about firearms."

Dubitsky said even he as an attorney with firearms experience couldn't understand it. He said that essentially, the Democratically controlled legislature and governor reacted to the actions of one mentally ill young man by infringing on people's rights.

The two candidates in the 139th state House District race disagreed on little during Wednesday's forum, especially when asked about a new state law mandating youth and high school sports take better precautions when athletes experience potential concussion injuries.

Students asked if the bill should be strengthened further, but incumbent Democratic state Rep. Kevin Ryan said more time is needed to see how well the law works.

"It's an important bill, and it's something we need to continue to watch," Ryan said.

Republican challenger Jonathan Gilman agreed. Gilman, whose family owns a business that makes football practice dummies, said he played Division III football in college. Some of his teammates have physical problems today dating back to their playing days. Gilman said the state needs to pay attention to the issue.

Few of the candidates had an answer for the final question of the night posed by 12-year-old Adam Freeburn of Sprague: "Because you are supposed to be role models, why are candidates so mean and disrespectful to each other?"

The vitriol that has marked the state's governor's race and many other campaigns across the country was not evident among the eight candidates Wednesday. Osten told the youngster that polls have shown that negative campaign ads supposedly work, and that's why they are so prevalent.

But Osten and Everett announced last week that they would abstain from personal attacks, sticking instead to their positions on issues.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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