Democrats fight for nomination in hunt for 38th District seat

Waterford — The three progressive candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in a fight for the 38th state House of Representatives seat largely agree with one another on crucial issues facing Connecticut.

Where Baird Welch-Collins, Patrick Murphy and Nick Gauthier differ is on background and approach, with each touting their visions for improving state government as they answered questions at a packed Community Center on Tuesday night. Hosted by the Waterford Democrats and the Southeastern Connecticut League of Women Voters, the forum came one week before a primary to see who will challenge two-term incumbent Kathleen McCarty, a Republican.

The 38th District encompasses all of Waterford and part of Montville.

Visitors submitted written questions on energy, taxes, education and ways to build state revenues throughout the 90-minute session moderated by Judy Dolphin of the League of Women Voters.

Each candidate pushed for tax reforms they said would benefit the middle class, including eliminating tax loopholes and hiking taxes for the state's wealthiest residents. All three back Waterford's top employer, Millstone Power Station, while supporting a transition to renewable energy. And each called for single-payer health care, stronger background checks for gun owners, and greater investment in education and infrastructure, as opposed to what they described as Hartford's gutting of public services to cover budget deficits.

Welch-Collins, endorsed by the Democratic Party in May, said he was the best equipped to defeat McCarty and get things done in Hartford, in part because he was the only candidate with municipal experience and knows how "our local government will interplay with the state government." He's served on Waterford's 22-member Representative Town Meeting since 2017 and has been treasurer of the town's Flood and Erosion Control Board for almost three years.

Murphy, a nurse manager for Community Health Center Inc. who earned enough convention votes for a primary ballot spot, said his background in nursing and leadership has enabled him to work on complex issues in which residents often feel the impact of public policy. Whether public education, state budget crunches, the asthma epidemic or the opioid crisis, Murphy said he would use his "scientific knowledge to fight for workers and families" and the state's "most vulnerable residents."

Gauthier, who gathered more than 460 signatures to petition his way on to the ballot, said his experience as a grass-roots organizer and activist could help galvanize support for progressive stances and move the state forward. Gauthier is the field and engagement coordinator for the Eastern Connecticut Area Labor Federation in the state branch of the AFL-CIO. He said he'd push to protect worker's rights and raise the minimum wage, as well as press for free tuition at public colleges and progressive taxation "so we're not cutting from public schools, human services and our public services."

Gauthier attended the University of Connecticut and earned a master's degree in public administration. He previously served on the campaigns of U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Murphy graduated from Three Rivers Community College and earned a master's degree in nursing science from Sacred Heart University. He leads teams of nurses and medical assistants at three shoreline clinics.

Welch-Collins has served as a substitute teacher in Montville and will soon be a history teacher at Norwich Free Academy. He also was recently appointed to the town's Long Range Fiscal Planning Committee. He earned a degree in government and education at Connecticut College.

State budget, pensions, health care

Addressing the state budget deficit and public employees' pensions, Gauthier urged lawmakers to eliminate corporate subsidies rather than slash state employees' benefits.

"We need to focus on bringing other people up, not tearing people down," he said. "How is it we can say we can cut from public employees and middle-class workers but we can afford to give $250 million to the most profitable corporations in the world?"

Welch-Collins said lawmakers "have a responsibility to be honest" with state workers that Connecticut is facing a pension crisis. He pushed for shifting to a 401k system because "our state is billions of dollars in debt."

Welch-Collins also pushed for regionalizing services to save money and investing in students and a high-tech workforce to draw more industry and business to the state.

Murphy said the state should push for better benefits in the private sector, "not taking good retirement benefits away from our public sector." He also urged the General Assembly to legalize cannabis and stop sweeping funds from transportation, the lottery and energy efficiency funds.

"We need to stop doing a year-to-year Band-Aid," he said. "We need a 10- to 20-year plan."

All three candidates support a national single-payer health care system.

Murphy pushed for investments and education in prevention, vaccination and cancer screenings, saying residents couldn't "rely on the invisible hand of the market to keep our families healthy."

Gauthier called for codifying provisions in Affordable Care Act at the state level, such as letting young people stay on their parents' plans until the age of 26 and not letting insurance companies throw people off plans due to pre-existing conditions.

Welch-Collins noted that "we have no power to touch" a national single-payer system, which he would support. But he said lawmakers "have to put pressure on insurance companies. We need to bring those prices down ... and we have to make sure we protect the Affordable Care Act from any attacks from Washington."

Tolls

The candidates were mixed on implementing road tolls, saying they'd support tolling under specific conditions.

Gauthier said overall, he was against tolls, which he described as "an inherently regressive tax" hitting middle-class working families the hardest. But he noted other states charge tolls and Connecticut travelers are partly paying for those states' road maintenance.

Welch-Collins said he was "tentatively in support" of camera tolls.

"We need to make sure the money is only going into infrastructure funds paying for the roads," he said. He acknowledged it was a "flat tax" but said out-of-state drivers "are doing just as much wear and tear."

Murphy said it was inevitable that Connecticut would have tolls.

"We have an opportunity to figure out how to implement tolls so they don't hurt commuters," he said, suggesting the state could focus on out-of-state trucks.

b.kail@theday.com

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