Carney, running unopposed, says 23rd House District is his 'special interest'

Republican Devin Carney, left, state representative in the 23rd District, who is running unopposed for a second term, stops into the Lyme Youth Services Bureau and speaks with prevention coordinator Karen Fischer while campaigning  in Old Lyme Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Republican Devin Carney, left, state representative in the 23rd District, who is running unopposed for a second term, stops into the Lyme Youth Services Bureau and speaks with prevention coordinator Karen Fischer while campaigning in Old Lyme Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Old Lyme — State Rep. Devin R. Carney has the luxury of listening to his constituents in the towns of Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Westbrook this campaign season without having to vie for their votes.

The 32-year-old Republican is running unopposed for election to a second term. He finished his fundraising early, spending $6,000 for a mailer and cards to hand out to voters, and recycled his signs from the 2014 campaign.

He said he didn't accept money through the state's public campaign financing program because he doesn't think unopposed candidates should be able to use those funds.

One morning in late September, a Day reporter and photographer accompanied Carney as he stopped in to speak with constituents about important issues facing the district. Carney, who wore a green necktie with the Hartford Whalers logo, said he's a lifelong resident of Connecticut and considers himself lucky to live in and represent a "cool" district with so much to offer.

The 23rd District towns, located on or adjacent to Long Island Sound, have natural beauty, tourist attractions, good schools and a number of healthy small businesses. And the people are friendly and well-informed, Carney said.

But a few dark clouds are looming here and statewide, including a proposed railroad bypass that would alter the character of the district, a perception that the state is not business-friendly and a deadly heroin/opioid cisis that is claiming lives daily.

Stepping into the Lymes' Youth Services Bureau on Lyme Street, Carney greeted staff by name and asked about their families, then listened as Karen Fischer, prevention coordinator for a local coalition called Community Action for Substance Free Youth, ticked off a list of things lawmakers and communities could do to address the opioid/heroin crisis.

Carney co-sponsored last year's legislation that put tighter controls on prescriptions and made Narcan more widely available.

Fischer said there is much more to be done. She started with prevention grants to stop children from trying alcohol and marijuana, and followed up with educating doctors about addiction. She was saying that treatment needs to be available immediately for those who want it when Carney chimed in that he wants to propose a bill to address that problem.

"A family member of ours is an alcoholic/addict," Carney said. "When we brought him in (for treatment) they breathalyzed him and said, 'You can't get in. You're not drunk.'"

Fischer told Carney he is serving as a role model by admitting he has a family member with a problem.

"Some people think communities like Lyme and Old Lyme don't have to deal with it, but they're beginning to speak out," Carney said.

During his first term, Carney served on the legislature's committees on Environment, Transportation, and Higher Education and Employment Advancement. He voted against the budget that included the second-largest tax hike in state history, worked to eliminate a "burdensome" tax on residential propane and was named an "an Environmental Champion" by Friends of Westbrook Barrier Islands. He said a proposed dredging project, widely supported in Connecticut but opposed in Long Island, is important to his shoreline constituents in Westbrook.

Carney grew up in Old Saybrook and returned there after attending Brandeis University. Recently, he moved across the Connecticut River to Old Lyme, his girlfriend's town. His famous grandfather, the actor Art Carney, had lived in Westbrook for many years before his death in 2003.

Carney, who speaks with confidence and projects approachability, appears to have inherited his grandfather's vocal talent. As one of six grandchildren, he also received one of Art Carney's six Emmy Awards — his is for the Jackie Gleason show, he said — and an uncle lets him borrow his grandfather's Oscar (for the 1974 film "Harry and Tonto") for the annual Kate's Oscar Party at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center. Carney serves on the board of trustees at "The Kate" in Old Saybrook.

In addition to his part-time job as a state representative, he works as a residential Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Old Saybrook and Old Lyme.

Stop the rail

Carney's district has rallied in opposition to a proposal by the Federal Railroad Administration to build a 30-mile bypass for Amtrak Acela trains between Old Saybrook and Rhode Island. The project would cut through the heart of Old Lyme's historical district, drastically altering — and many say, destroying — the beauty that brought a colony of artists here more than 100 years ago and kept the area a vibrant center of the arts.

As a state representative, the federal rail project is not directly within Carney's purview, but he spoke against the project at a recent hearing, has been working with a newly formed opposition group and said he is ready to rally should the bypass be included in a plan expected to be released soon.

"What I can do is get information out there, organize my colleagues and speak with Courtney and Blumenthal and the Federal Rail Administration," he said. "If this bypass is in the next plan, we'll have another public hearing."

Carney stopped at the Florence Griswold Museum, where Jeffrey W. Andersen, executive director, led him on a quick tour of an upcoming photography exhibit and said Carney has been "absolutely stalwart" in helping the community fight the rail proposal.

"These small towns are fragile," Andersen said. "At the meeting, Devin talked directly to the FRA. He said, 'Look, this is a dark cloud.'"

Carney said just the threat of the bypass is harming the region, and that he knows of one real estate deal, on Lyme Street in Old Lyme, that fell through as a result.

At the Old Saybrook Chamber of Commerce, the talk turned to lost funding for tourism, too many mandates, regulations and taxes, including the highest hotel occupancy tax in the nation. Carney has proposed limiting the business entity tax, a $250 biannual fee, saying it would make the state more business friendly.

His district, he noted, is home to two of the state's biggest resorts — The Saybrook Point Inn & Spa and the Water's Edge Resort and Spa in Westbrook. Judy Sullivan, executive director of the chamber, and Karen Pintte, member services manager, said the state no longer prints maps for distribution to tourists and does not advertise its amenities in other states.

"You want a perception that Connecticut is open for business, that Connecticut generates tourism," Carney said. "We're not going that way now."

He suggested there are simple things the state could do, such as put ctvisit.gov on its license plates to market itself.

Before parting ways with The Day staff, Carney listed several other of his priorities in Hartford, including local control of schools, housing and the job market.

"I go up there, I put party aside," he said. "I represent 24,000 people in my district. I represent four towns. That is my special interest."

k.florin@theday.com

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