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Howard challenging incumbent Rotella in 43rd District race

Stonington — Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Kate Rotella of Mystic is being challenged by Republican Greg Howard of Pawcatuck for the 43rd District seat on Nov. 3.

The 43rd District is composed of Stonington and North Stonington.

Rotella, who previously served two terms as a selectwoman in Stonington, sits on the legislature's powerful Appropriations Committee and has a long career in finance and budgets. Howard, a Stonington police detective, initially had announced plans to run as an independent candidate. But then Shaun Mastroianni, who had been endorsed by the Republican Party to challenge Rotella, dropped out of the race and Howard replaced him on the Republican ticket.

Rotella said she is seeking reelection because she has a passion to represent her constituents and has proven herself over the past two years.

"I’ve gained a lot of experience over these past two years and I want to continue to fight for my community," said Rotella, who listed first-term accomplishments as co-sponsoring a bill that led to the protection of health insurance for those with preexisting conditions, capped the costs for diabetic medicine and equipment and obtained $600,000 in state funds for the long-planned sidewalk extension along Route 1 in Pawcatuck.

Howard said that while he is running as a Republican, he is "not a fan of the two-party system and I'm even less of a fan now."

"There's a tribal mentality on both sides and a lot of people like me feel homeless in the current system. I'm not far right and I'm not far left. There's things I'm conservative about and things I'm liberal about," said Howard, who offered support for Black Lives Matter protesters in Mystic this spring but has criticized aspects of the state's new police accountability law. 

Rotella cites first-term accomplishments

Rotella, a New London native, has lived in Stonington for 25 years. She graduated from St. Bernard High School and earned degrees from the former Mohegan Community College, Eastern Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of New Haven. She is widowed and has one son.

She currently works as the purchasing manager for the Capital Region Education Council in Hartford, which she said has given her the flexibility to work in the morning and then head over to the Legislative Office Building for committee meetings and votes. She said she also can work remotely.

She said being a freshman legislator has been a learning experience but said her experience in finance and politics helped her navigate the sessions.

She said she learned a lot about forging relationships and working on bills with members of both parties and in the three committees she sits on: Appropriations, Education and Internship.

Rotella said she went to the legislature wanting to improve health care and health insurance and lower prescription drug costs. She said she experienced the challenge of insurance and drug costs when her late husband, Peter, was battling cancer before his death in 2016.

"I’ve taken a tragedy and turned it into a passion for helping people with health care," she said.

Rotella said she and state Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, introduced a bill that eventually was merged into another bill that became the law that protects preexisting health conditions.

She said she also co-sponsored a bill that capped insulin costs at $25 and equipment at $100 but added much more needs to be done to lower prescription drugs costs. She also co-sponsored a vaping bill that requires people to be 21 to buy tobacco products.

Rotella says she wants to make sure all students have access to affordable college and that passage of a bill that ensures free community college was a start. But she said she wants to make sure young people who are not interested in college can get training they need through apprenticeships and other programs.

"I want kids to be able to find a job and keep living here in Connecticut," she said.

If reelected, she said she would continue to work on health care and education issues, including ensuring that Stonington and North Stonington continue to get their fair share of state education funding. She said she also wants to work on helping small businesses, especially those that are owned by women and minorities.

Rotella pointed out that she also helped obtain state funding for the Stonington Free Library, worked to get the long-stalled Boom Bridge Road bridge project in North Stonington completed and reopened and expanded workers' compensation coverage for police and firefighters with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Howard touts community connections

Howard grew up in Westerly and graduated from Westerly High School. He is married with two children. He attended the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College before being hired by the Stonington Police Department, where he has worked for the past 18 years. He first worked for six years as a patrolman, then six and a half years as the K-9 officer and the past five as a detective. He is also president of Stonington Youth football.

Howard said friends often have suggested that he should run for the legislature, including this year when the police bill was passed. He said that after former independent gubernatorial candidate Oz Griebel, with whom Howard said he had frequent conversations, died in July, Howard took it as a sign to run. When he began collecting the signatures needed to get on the ballot, he said he called both Mastroianni and Rotella. He said Mastroianni told him they would split the vote and Rotella would get reelected. Howard called Mastroianni, who then withdrew from the race, a "class act."

Howard, though, said he did not really want the Republican endorsement because of his problems with the two-party system. But he said the law makes it almost impossible for a petitioning candidate to obtain public campaign financing.

"If I had to choose between Republican and Democrats, I'd have to choose Republican because what the Democrats did to the police bill was atrocious," he said.

Howard said one of his main objectives if elected is to change aspects of the law, which he said eviscerates the ability of officers to do their job, such as by ending qualified immunity from lawsuits.

No one wants "more bad cops out of this job than I do. I hate coming to work and hearing about the stigma of cops doing bad things," he said. "But the politicians did not want to hear what police had to say about the bill."

Howard said having mental health checkups and more drug testing for officers, and mandating officers intervene when another officer is violating the law, should have been law years ago.

He said increasing taxes is the result of spending and the legislature's unwillingness to do the hard work needed to ensure money is being spent wisely. He said he supports ideas such as results-based accountability, a budgeting method championed for nearly two decades in the legislature by Democrat Diana Urban, who held the 43rd District seat before Rotella. It requires state agencies to provide data that shows a program is successful before receiving funding.

Howard said he also would work to help small businesses. He opposes standardized education and testing, saying teachers should  be allowed to do their jobs.

He touted his connections in the community, saying he has a long list of business and organization leaders who will take his call.

"I have a proven record of dedication to this community," he said. "I just want to get things done. It's the way I'm wired."

Asked if he would support bills introduced by Democrats, Howard said, "You bet your ass I will if it makes sense for the people. I'll listen to both sides and make a decision."

Howard said he took a lot of criticism from fellow officers for his support of Black Lives Matter protesters. "It's not Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. Racism is wrong but we should also support good cops. It seems like you have to be either anti-police or pro-police. There are guys like me in the middle."

As for how he would handle the demands of being a detective and a legislator, in which sessions can stretch late into the night, Howard said he would work at the police department on weekends and then three mornings during the week before heading to Hartford and then returning to work at night. He said he also has accrued months of time off that he could use.

 j.wojtas@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects Greg Howard's actions at the Black Lives Matter protests in Mystic this year.

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