Rotella, Donahue seek Democratic nod for 43rd District seat in Aug. 14 primary

Chris Donahue, left, and Kate Rotella, Democratic candidates for the 43rd District state representative seat, stand outside Stonington Town Hall on Friday, July 27, 2018.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Chris Donahue, left, and Kate Rotella, Democratic candidates for the 43rd District state representative seat, stand outside Stonington Town Hall on Friday, July 27, 2018. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Stonington — Sitting in the kitchen of Stonington Selectwoman Kate Rotella’s Mystic home in February, nine-term Democratic state Rep. Diana Urban announced she would not be seeking re-election this fall and enthusiastically endorsed Rotella to run for her seat.

Typically, the endorsement of a popular 18-year-incumbent, who often ran unopposed, would secure the party’s nomination for a chosen successor.

But when it came time for the party caucus in May, Rotella had to fight off a challenge from 29-year-old newcomer Chris Donahue of Pawcatuck, whose family has a long involvement in the Pawcatuck Fire Department and town politics and who is being supported by a group of longtime Stonington Democratic Town Committee members, including former First Selectman Donald Maranell.

Donahue, however, received enough votes to force an Aug. 14 primary with Rotella to determine who will be the party’s candidate for the 43rd District seat and face Republican Shawn Mastroianni of Stonington borough in the November election. The district encompasses Stonington and North Stonington.

Discussing her campaign Tuesday in the same kitchen where Urban endorsed her five months ago, Rotella, 54, said she was shocked by the caucus challenge.

Pointing out that anyone has a right to run, Rotella said she wished Democrats could have come together and come up with a solution about who should run instead of the process being adversarial.

In 2015, after being nominated by Stonington Democratic Town Committee’s Nominating Committee to run for selectman, Rotella stepped aside at the party’s caucus when the late Jim Sisk expressed interest in running. Rotella later replaced Sisk on the ticket when he became ill.

She said she never set out to run for state representative but, having been part of the town’s recent fight to restore state education aid, she thought it was a logical next step, considering her experience in government and budgeting.

“I thought I could do a good job for our towns,” she said.

Since last fall, Rotella has worked as the purchasing manager for the Capital Region Education Council in Hartford. Previous to that, she worked for 10 years as the purchasing agent for the town of Waterford and before that was the director of finance and purchasing for Mitchell College in New London. She has an associate degree in public administration and business from the former Mohegan Community College, a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance from Eastern Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in public administration and a certificate in human resources from the University of New Haven. She serves as the legislative liaison for the state’s association of purchasing managers.

In addition to serving the past three years on the Stonington Board of Selectmen, where she is known for asking detailed questions on financial and contractual issues, she serves on the town’s K-12 School Building Committee, which is in the midst of renovating Deans Mill and West Vine Street schools. Rotella’s husband, Peter, a local attorney, died from cancer in 2016. The couple has a teenage son.

As for why she is a better candidate than Donahue, she said it's her experience in government that makes her a good candidate.

“But whatever happens, the Dems will have a good candidate. I do hope I have the honor of representing our district,” she said.

In what may come as a surprise to some Democrats, Rotella praised Republican Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons for his help over the past three years, saying she has been lucky to work with him.

“He’s been a mentor. He really cares about this town. He’s been generous in his knowledge and his trust in his fellow selectmen and their knowledge. That’s a great leader,” she said. “I’m a Dem and he’s a Republican but we have to work together. These are different times.”

Working together with members of different parties, unions and management and listening to their views is a theme with Rotella, whether she's talking about dealing with the state’s pension problem or implementing tolls.

“I hope to bring a different level of civility to working together. “I’ve always worked across party lines. That’s what we have to do,” she said. “You have to think of it as a business. You go in the boardroom and talk and everyone has to give a little."

Rotella on the issues

Rotella said she supports electronic tolls to pay for infrastructure improvements but only if the revenue is placed in a “lock box” so they are only used for that reason and to create a plan about how the money will be spent. She said that it's possible the tolls could begin with trucks while state residents would get a break.

“We are bordered by other states that have tolls. We can figure out how to do this,” she said.

Rotella said she does not have a “magic solution” for dealing with the state pension crisis. She proposes forming a task focre not of legislators but oustside experts, such as accountants and retirement advisers, to talk through the possible solutions, something she said will engage the community. She added that with any plan, there will have to be “give and take” among everyone involved.

“It not going to be painless, there’s going to have to be an agreement to do this,” she said, adding lawmakers need to understand the cost and benefits of various solutions. She said she does not favor taking away pension benefits from existing employees but she is in favor of changes such as not letting overtime during an employee's last three years determine pension amounts.

Rotella said that, going forward, all state budgets need to be fully funded instead of running deficits.

“It may hurt in the short term but it benefits us in the long term,” she said.

On one of her recent campaign mailings, Rotella said the state needs to lower prescription drug costs and guarantee coverage for existing medical conditions, needs to pay its fair share of municipal aid and must address college affordability.

She said she would defend women’s rights, enact pay equity and help seniors retire comfortably in the state. She said she would protect the environment and invest in solar energy.

Asked how she would do these things, Rotella said she was personally affected by the high cost of drugs during her husband’s illness. She said she would seek to be appointed to the legislature’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee to address the issue, as well as support maintaining Access Connecticut health insurance for residents.

As for the formula that determines state education aid, Rotella said she would work to ensure that the state does not use outdated or incorrect data to determine the level of aid for Stonington and North Stonington, something that has happened in the past. She added the legislature also has to address the probe of increasing special education costs but did not have any specific reforms in mind. While she is not sure about funding, she said the state has to look at free college education, possibly beginning with community college, something that recently was enacted in Rhode Island.

As for pay equity, Rotella said she would support a measure to bar employers from asking what a person earned at their previous job and said she is in favor of a $15 minimum wage if it works for small businesses.

She said that to help keep seniors in the state, the legislature should look at taxing pensions and Social Security at a reduced rate, possibly phasing in such a plan to offset its impact. In exchange, she said there would have to be a guarantee that people taking advantage of the plan would remain in the state.

As for the environment, she pointed to her plan to identify and promote businesses that are taking measures to protect the environment, something she said is especially important along the coastline. She said she does not yet have specific bills she would introduce to address environmental issues.

Rotella said she also would fight the implementation of new unfunded state mandates and work to get rid of existing ones.

Donahue looks to continue family tradition of public service

Donahue’s father, Steven, a former Pawcatuck fire chief and longtime chairman of the Stonington Board of Finance who once ran unsuccessfully for the 43rd District seat, died from cancer just a few months before Chris graduated from Stonington High School in 2007.

Donahue, himself an 11-year member of the fire department, said he then juggled three jobs to help his mother care for their family, and then went on to work for Fiberlite Corp. in Pawcatuck and then three years as the sales manager at Thavenet Machine Co. in Pawcatuck. For the past year, he has worked as a sales consultant at Valenti Auto Mall and has been taking business management classes at Three Rivers Community College.

Over an iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts while taking a break from door-to-door campaigning last Sunday, Donahue explained what led to his campaign.

He said that as he worked with the town committee on the 2017 municipal election, in which he was elected a constable, Donahue said he realized he has a passion for politics. More recently, he said people from various parts of the community began to encourage him to run for Urban’s seat.

“A lot of people in my age group are not involved in politics but we’re the ones who will be most affected by the decisions that are being made now. So I wanted to get involved,” he said.

So why is he a better candidate than Rotella?

“I don’t think anyone will work harder for people’s quality of life than I will. I’m a hustler. I’m a listener. I feel like I can be a voice for people. I feel like I can bring people together,” he said.

Donahue on the issues

Donahue said that he would support the implementation of tolls but he does not want them to create “a parking lot” on routes 1 or 2 and does not want them to impact contractors who drive all day. In addition, he said he also would have to be assured the revenue would go into a "lock box" to pay for transportation needs.

As for the impact of state pensions, Donahue said he would want to honor all existing union contracts but would look to renegotiate them as they expire. He said he would be willing to explore 401(k) plans and not pensions for newly hired employees.

On one of his campaign mailings, Donahue said he would work to get a fair deal on state school funding, advocate for small business, work for pay equity and a livable minimum wage, develop affordable college and secondary education programs, fight the opioid crisis and keep the state affordable for seniors.

Asked how he specifically would do these things, Donahue said he would vote against any budget that cuts funding for the two towns, even if it's supported by his party. Donahue said that after examining the state’s education aid formula, he thinks a revised version going into effect next year will benefit the two towns.

Donahue said he would like to incentivize small businesses to train apprentices and would look at rolling back regulations that hold back small business. But he said he had no specific regulations in mind at this point. He added that he would be in favor of ensuring pay equity by penalizing businesses for wage discrimination.   

Donahue said he supports a $15 minimum wage and a lesser amount for those under 18, as those employees then will spend the money in the community. He said, though, he does not want it to place a burden on small businesses.

Donahue also supports additional funding for the state’s community colleges for vocational and technical training to prepare students for the jobs of the future.

“That gives us a good return on our investment,” he said, adding that revenue from sports betting could be used to help fund those improvements.

Donahue said that since he does not have any family responsibilities, he will be able to work full time in Hartford and pledged to have “the best constituency services bar none.”

“I’ll be heavily involved in the community, so people are heard up there,” he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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