In the 41st District, two candidates with fight

State Representative candidates for the 41st House District incumbant Aundre Bumgardner, (R), left, and opponent Joe de la Cruz (D), speak to one another moments before the begining of a debate at the New London Senior Center, hosted by Looking out for Taxpayers, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)
State Representative candidates for the 41st House District incumbant Aundre Bumgardner, (R), left, and opponent Joe de la Cruz (D), speak to one another moments before the begining of a debate at the New London Senior Center, hosted by Looking out for Taxpayers, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Groton — Both candidates for the 41st state representative district seat have had to fight hard, but in different ways.

Democrat Joseph de la Cruz grew up in the housing projects of New London, worked two jobs and went from welder to manager of a company. After he and his wife discovered their son had an addiction, they founded an organization that helped more than 100 people get into substance abuse treatment.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve started at the bottom,” de la Cruz said. “It’s been like an apprenticeship. I tell people, ‘I’ve had a 45-year apprenticeship.’”

Republican incumbent Aundré Bumgardner joined the legislature in 2014 at age 20, the youngest member of the Connecticut General Assembly. At age 21, he was diagnosed with a tumor under his skull. He told almost no one but underwent surgery in December, had it removed, and maintained a perfect voting attendance record.

“If that doesn’t teach you about life, I don’t know what does,” he said.

Both candidates offer their respect for one another, even if they believe they bring different strengths to the table.

De la Cruz served six years on Groton Representative Town Meeting and is serving his second term on the town council. That experience with local budgets will help him argue for needed funding, he said.

In April, the Appropriations Committee approved a $4.56 million cut to state education funding to Groton as part of its overall budget proposal. Most of the cuts were later rescinded, but de la Cruz said he realized the budget discussion must change.

“If that went through, that would have changed the complexion of Groton schools for years,” he said. “As someone who’s been through nine local budgets, I can actually defend why we get the money we get and why we should even get more money.”

De la Cruz also wants to help people with state insurance get substance abuse treatment, even if they must leave the state for it. He supports changing the labels of prescription drugs that contain opioids. Each would be ranked and labeled "heroin 1," "heroin 2," and so on.

In terms of life experience, he believes he'd bring a different perspective to the legislature.

“The guy that turns a wrench, we need to be included in this conversation, and we haven’t been,” he said. “I’m a wrench turner. It can’t all be real estate workers and lawyers. Maybe I can break the mold for the next guy, and he’ll say, ‘He was able to do it.’”

Bumgardner said he's learned more in the last two years than in his entire life. He won his seat in the last election by 39 votes.

“It forced me, quite frankly, to hit the ground running on day one, continue speaking with (people who) went from potential constituents to actual constituents and ask them what is working in Groton and New London and what is not working," he said.

It became clear to him that taxes are "out of control" and the state must eliminate red tape, especially for business, he said. General Electric’s decision to leave Connecticut represented an emormous loss to the state, he said.

“I think we need to take them leaving incredibly seriously,” he said. “It was a huge part of the reason why I voted against the budget last year. There were so many businesses and residents that came to me and said, ‘I cannot afford another tax increase. Why can’t the state learn to reduce spending and reform the business climate so we have more businesses coming in, which will increase the revenue in the long run?’”

Bumgardner said he's proud of the fact that he has never supported a tax increase, unlike the Democratic establishment. He believes Connecticut could also learn something from Massachusetts, which set a one-year goal to review every regulation affecting business to see which should be kept, thrown out or reformed.

De la Cruz said he’d like to see both communities take advantage of the growth at Electric Boat.

“Right now there’s this big wave of EB behind us, and we can choose to position ourselves to ride that wave or we can ignore it,” he said.

He also wants to encourage people. Whether it’s a story of recovery from addiction, or success after starting in the projects, people need to see a future, he said. "One of the big things we can do is reconnect people," he said.

Bumgarder said the state can't have more tax increases, negative business surveys and status-quo budgeting. It needs a different approach, and he's strong enough to bring it. He learned that especially in the last year.

"People are struggling, and they need a voice," he said. "I'm a fighter. I fought through it."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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