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19th Senate District: Rivals can disagree, but 'keep it clean'

The 19th District state Senate race is a bit calmer this year, with both candidates agreeing to "keep it clean" this fall, and with the specter of replacing popular political icon Edith Prague behind them.

The two candidates bring several similarities to the race in both political background and stances on some issues.

First-term incumbent Democrat Catherine Osten is the first selectwoman in Sprague, while Republican challenger Steven Everett is a selectman in Columbia. Both are military veterans, and both will appear twice on the ballot - Everett on the Independent Party line and Osten as the Working Families Party's endorsed candidate.

The district covers Columbia, Franklin, Hebron, Lebanon, Ledyard, Lisbon, Marlborough, Montville, Norwich and Sprague.

On the issues, both candidates say they can work well and effectively with legislators of either party or any ideological stance.

Unlike in many races, the state's controversial gun control law that passed in 2013 following the Sandy Hook School shootings, won't be a contentious point for Osten and Everett.

Osten voted against the law that bans certain assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines and requires registration of existing weapons. She said the new law is "very cumbersome and expensive" and she would seek changes, especially to better address services for people with mental illness.

Everett opposes the law as well and would favor either repeal or a meticulous review of the law to change what doesn't work. But Everett said addressing the state's economic woes and cutting spending should be the next session's top priorities.

"I know this (gun control bill) defines the whole first session," Osten said of her two-year freshman term, "but it didn't define me."

Osten, 59, cited several key bills she successfully championed that addressed less publicized issues, including Erin's Law aimed at educating children and caretakers to the risks of sexual abuse by relatives, friends or acquaintances.

Several issues were brought to her by constituents in 19th District towns, she said, such as the 3,000-person waiting list for residential beds for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. A law Osten pushed for adds funding for 100 new beds, which she calls "a start."

Another bill supported by small and large local corporations addressed the costs of worker's compensation medical coverage, and another successful bill expanded services for people with traumatic brain injuries to allow them to remain independent - saving on nursing home costs.

"In every one of these cases, I worked with people across the aisle in a bipartisan effort," Osten said.

Everett, a pharmaceutical sales representative, said he entered politics when his daughter ignored his advice to move out of state and decided to settle in Connecticut. She now is an elementary school teacher in Willimantic.

"I figured I should be part of the solution," Everett said.

Everett, 54, originally wanted to run for the 19th District seat in 2012. But when Prague announced her retirement and former state Rep. Christopher Coutu jumped into the ring, Everett backed out and became involved in Columbia town government, first as a member of the Financial Planning Allocation Board and in 2013 as a successful candidate for the Board of Selectman.

"I'll work with anyone I can to get this done," Everett said of turning the state's economy around. "I'm not a career politician."

He said first, the state has to "get out of the way" and eliminate the business entity tax and cut the state's controversial high gas tax. He said he is "leaning against" the idea of installing tolls in the state, and definitely would be against tolls on interior state roads. He would consider border tolls, as neighboring states have, to focus on through traffic.

Everett said state spending can be cut. He said some offices are pressured to spend their full budgets at the end of the year to ensure they don't receive less money next year. He also would explore whether the state would be better off hiring more workers to cut high overtime costs.

"There's a fine line between overtime and hiring new people to put people to work and to cut back on overtime," Everett said.

Everett wants to read the entire state budget to mark it up for possible cuts.

Osten agreed that some spending can be cut - and some cuts already have been made - without hurting services. She pointed to recent consolidations of agencies, cutting positions by retirements and attrition and the closing of some state prisons.

Osten said she definitely would not favor raising taxes in response to an expected budget deficit next year, and would want solid figures on the projected deficit before making recommendations on cuts.

Osten would not cut the education reforms Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put in place that have brought millions of dollars to Norwich schools to fund improvement plans. But Osten wants to address some education spending reforms, especially relieving towns on special education costs.

Osten used a phrase Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley has used in his education reform plan - "funding follows the child" - but she would apply it to special education costs so that towns are not hit with the burdens of paying for high-cost school placements.

Everett said he has many questions about education reform, including "follow the child" funding. He hopes to sit down with Foley after both Republicans are elected and discuss the plan in detail. Everett said in discussions with his daughter and other educators, he has learned that school choice can be problematic because it's often the families with high-performing students who move out of a troubled school.

Everett said he has tried to learn more about whether the controversial Common Core standards to define student achievement are good for the state, but the messages are too mixed to decipher.

"The people I talk to muddied the waters even more," Everett said.

The two candidates will participate in a debate sponsored by The Day at at 8 p.m., following a debate by candidates in the 46th House of Representatives race at 7 p.m. at the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich. Members of the public can submit questions for the debate to elections@theday.com or arrive early and submit questions to debate moderators.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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