Progressive Democrat, centrist Republican vie for 20th Senate District seat
An aggressive 20th District state senate campaign by Democrat Martha Marx has put her Republican challenger, former state Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr., in the position of defending his moderate bona fides.
Allegations by Marx to the contrary have spurred Labriola to go on the record as a supporter of abortion rights and “common sense gun laws.”
“Despite what you may hear from my opponent, I am a pro-choice candidate,” he said in an interview at The Day. “I’m a husband and a father of four adult daughters, so we’re pretty much in unison on this issue in the family. We’re pro choice.”
He said he is not a member of any gun rights groups like the NRA or the Connecticut Citizen’s Defense League, and doesn’t own a gun.
“She’s trying to make me out to be a gun toting wild man,” he said with a laugh. “That’s politics, right?”
The race for the 20th District seat opened up in January with the news that state Sen. Paul Formica would be retiring from public service at the end of his third term. One of four senate seats up for grabs due to the departure of GOP incumbents, it has the potential to affect a balance of power already tipped heavily in favor of Democrats.
Formica’s announcement spurred Marx to declare her candidacy that same month, but the Republican contender didn’t enter until May. Labriola since then has fashioned himself as Formica’s centrist heir apparent.
Labriola noted Formica voted in favor of House Bill 5414, which provides protections for out-of-state people receiving or performing abortions in Connecticut and expanded which medical providers could perform abortions. The candidate said he would have supported the measure as well.
Interests in the district of roughly 96,000 people range from industrial to agricultural, from struggling renters to those with second homes on the shore. Spanning several small towns and one small city built along rivers feeding into Long Island Sound, almost a third of the population resides in the 6 square miles that constitute New London.
The district also covers Bozrah, East Lyme, Old Lyme, Salem, Waterford and parts of Old Saybrook and Montville. In all but the Democratic stronghold of New London, voter registration numbers from the last election show the voting majority doesn’t belong to either of the two entrenched parties. Instead, the majority is unaffiliated.
The progressive Marx, 59, is a registered nurse of more than 30 years and a two-term New London councilwoman. She ran unsuccessfully against Formica twice. This time, she’s capitalizing on Labriola’s status as a relative newcomer to Old Saybrook and a political operative.
Labriola, 65, was born and raised in Naugatuck as the son of a state senator. He and his wife, Barbara, raised four daughters in Wallingford before moving to Old Saybrook about six years ago. He is a partner at Labriola Law Group with his brother, state Rep. David Labriola, R-Oxford.
A recent Marx mailer with imagery evocative of fascist propaganda painted Labriola in black and red as an extremist on par with former President Donald J. Trump.
The ad outlined Marx’s 35 years of experience in roles including nurse, councilperson and community activist.
“During this time, her opponent was living halfway across the state, moving up the ranks of the Republican Party, ultimately becoming Chair and leading the Connecticut GOP to the furthest right it's ever been,” the mailer said.
It’s a characterization Labriola adamantly denies. He said the party under his leadership during those “pre-Trump years” ran the gamut of conservative philosophies.
As party chairman from 2011-15, he managed the Republican platform and candidates. He described a group ranging from “very moderate” former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides of Derby, to former Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano of North Haven, to “hard right” state representatives like Doug Dubitsky of Chaplin and Ann Dauphinais of Killingly.
“Everyone that has talked to me pretty much knows I’m a centrist,” he said. “I’m a middle of the road, common sense candidate.”
Labriola pointed to Formica’s election to the Senate under his leadership in 2014. Labriola’s own mailers have played up the incumbent’s endorsement.
Both candidates will appear on two ballot lines. Labriola has been endorsed by the Independent Party and Marx by the Working Families Party.
Healthcare and real estate
Marx’s priorities revolve around protecting a woman’s right to choose, making healthcare and housing more accessible, and promoting safe gun laws.
She said reproductive rights emerged as the number one issue over the course of 11,000 phone bank calls she’s made so far.
“Unaffiliated, 80-year-old men ask me where I stand on choice,” she said. “I tell them and they say ‘you have my vote.’”
A former union representative, Marx characterized herself as an advocate for those who pay too much for healthcare and a thorn in the side of the hospitals and insurance companies that make too much.
“Do you know that our hospitals in Connecticut made $1.4 billion last year,” she said, energetic in her disbelief as she cited a report from the state Office of Health Strategy. “And they have $10 billion in assets. $10 billion! And they’re not-for-profits.”
Marx voiced support for the public option, which has failed to win approval in the legislature over several years. Conceived for businesses with 50 or fewer employees, it would leverage the state’s purchasing power and a large diverse risk pool to negotiate quality, affordable health insurance plans.
She blamed industry lobbyists for blocking the legislation.
“Well, they’re not going to get very far with me,” she said. “I’ve been fighting insurance companies for 38 years.”
Marx called for lawmakers to do more to promote affordable housing in a state where there are about 85,000 more households in search of a rent or mortgage they can manage than there are places for them to live.
“As a visiting nurse, I’m in homes everyday. I know what our housing stock is. The legislature has to incentivize for the suburban towns to build some workforce housing. We’re not talking low-income high-rises. We’re talking about starter homes like most of our parents bought,” she said.
Labriola, too, cited the lack of housing stock as a key barrier to affordability. The real estate attorney noted the current market has been frustrating for first-time homebuyers, but said things are starting to turn around.
“My hope is that the market forces – the free market – can return supply and demand into balance,” he said.
He’d also be willing to look at tax incentives for large employers like General Dynamics, Dominion Energy and Ørsted that the companies can use to provide housing assistance to new employees.
At the top of Labriola’s priority list is “broad-based tax relief” ranging from keeping real estate conveyance taxes and recording fees in check all the way to a reduction in the sales tax.
He said moving the sales tax from 6.35% down to 5.85% would result in savings to taxpayers that “would really add up over time.”
His other key priority, he said, is keeping the streets safe.
‘A knee-jerk reaction’
Marx was the New London Democratic Town Committee Chairman last year when voters rejected the all-Democratic City Council vote that would have repealed a 2014 ordinance mandating a minimum of 80 officers for the police department.
Critics of repealing the mandate characterized it as a step toward “defunding” the police department, though the council actually had slightly increased the police budget that year and approved hiring of at least six new officers.
Proponents of the repeal said it was a false narrative to call the move “anti-police” and the real issue was the city being tied to a fixed number when population figures and best practices change over time.
Marx was not a city councilor at the time but supported the repeal as the local party chairman. She was elected to her second, non-consecutive term on the council several months later.
“I will never, ever defund the police,” she told The Day this week. “I have only given the police what they have asked for.”
She described the repeal as “a benign act” to show young people of color in the community that the council was listening to their outrage and their calls for police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
“I’m not a young person of color, but I know as an American I was disgusted and I had to listen to the voices of New London that were asking us to do something,” she said.
Labriola disputed that the move was simply a symbolic gesture.
“She can say what she wants to say, but I think the record is clear that the DTC – and she was the leader of it – supported the repeal of the ordinance. If it wasn’t for the referendum that beat it back, there would’ve been a destaffing of the New London Police Department,” he said.
The department has never reached 80 officers even with the ordinance in place. There are currently 64 sworn personnel, according to the department.
The candidates also differ on their views of the sweeping police accountability law signed by Gov. Ned Lamont in 2020.
The law created a new inspector general to investigate police use-of-force cases, limited the circumstances in which deadly use of force can be justified, allowed more civilian oversight of police departments and allowed civil lawsuits against officers, among other things.
Marx recalled critics of the legislation said it would cause liability insurance rates in the municipalities to skyrocket. But it didn’t happen, and she called it another false narrative.
Acknowledging that the measure could use “tweaking,” she said that’s the case with many bills that become law.
But Labriola said he would seek “substantial modifications” to the law if he is elected.
“The police accountability bill, it was a knee jerk reaction. It went too far. There was no input from the law enforcement community. It was voted on at three in the morning. It has been a net negative for police retention, police recruitment and the crime rate,” he said.