New Londoners have options with three-way race in 39th District

In this Sept. 20, 2016 Day file photo, candidates for the Connecticut House of Representatives 39th District seat, from left, Democrat Chris Soto, petitioning candidate Andrew Lockwood, and Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller take questions during The Day's Lunch with the candidates forum at The Day's office.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
In this Sept. 20, 2016 Day file photo, candidates for the Connecticut House of Representatives 39th District seat, from left, Democrat Chris Soto, petitioning candidate Andrew Lockwood, and Green Party candidate Ronna Stuller take questions during The Day's Lunch with the candidates forum at The Day's office. (Tim Cook/The Day)

New London — There was a time during the heated Democratic primary campaign for the 39th House District seat when it appeared the winner might have an unopposed path to Hartford.

Democrat Chris Soto emerged with a convincing win in the primary, defeating longtime incumbent state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, by a nearly 2 to 1 margin.

Soto now finds himself in a three-way race facing some familiar New London faces — New London Green Party Chairwoman Ronna Stuller and Republican Andrew R. Lockwood Sr.

No matter who wins at the Nov. 8 election, the city is not only guaranteed a new state representative but also a first-time legislator.

Soto, 35, said while he doesn’t have a legislative track record, “I have a track record in the community.”

A U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate who later spent five years on active duty, Soto helped manage a dance company in Boston before returning to New London to become the assistant director of diversity at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

After earning a master's degree at Brown University, Soto in 2011 founded Higher Edge - an organization ushering young people into and through college. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Connecticut College in the Holleran Center for Public Policy and Community Action and was appointed to the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.

While he raised some Democratic eyebrows when he decided to challenge Hewett, Soto said he has since collected a wide and diverse backing from city residents.

“I think people have the confidence I’m going to hit the ground running no matter what I do,” Soto said.

Stuller, 67, is a retired pre-school teacher, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission and former member of the Board of Education. She has made two unsuccessful attempts at a seat on the city council. She is also the founder of the Riverside Park Conservancy and hosts the public access show, “Thinking Green.”

She said she is delighted in the public discourse forced by emergence of two challengers for Soto.

Stuller said it was concerning to her that the winner of the Democratic primary, because no one else had announced they were running for the seat, might run unopposed.

“Even though it’s a Democratic town I think that it’s important to talk about the issues before the election and not just get a pass,” Stuller said.

Lockwood, 56, is no stranger to the political arena but has found little success to date in gaining office. He has run and lost against Hewett twice. In 2009 he ran unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket for City Council and in 2011 was a petitioning candidate for mayor.

This time around, Lockwood did not initially garner a Republican endorsement and petitioned his way onto the ballot. He has since gained the endorsement of the Republican Town Committee.

“I don’t consider myself unsuccessful because I haven’t given up,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood said that people are itching for new leadership in Hartford and Democrats have shown they are not able to curb the state’s growing budget deficit.

“People cannot think that going to polls and voting for the same ol’ thing is going to get us any change in Hartford.

Lockwood was the only one of the three candidates who owes back taxes from the July 2016 tax bill. Lockwood owes $604.03 on four vehicle tax bills, according to the tax collector's office. Lockwood was unable to comment Monday but his campaign manager, Dan McSparran, said Lockwood was unaware he owed money but would be paying the bill as quickly as possible. He said Lockwood owns just one vehicle and the other bills are vehicles owned by his son and ex-wife.  

McSparran said New London police have an open mail tampering investigation and that it's possible the Lockwood's tax bill, along with other mail, were stolen

If elected, Stuller said she would push in Hartford for systemic changes and thinks there needs to be discussion on things like ending drug prohibition, establishing a public bank to protect pensions and reduce state costs and allowing municipalities to have more power when it comes to administering  property taxes.

Stuller said she favors an idea first pitched by state Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, R-Groton, who made the case that to address the increase in property taxes due to tax-exempt nonprofits, municipalities could split assessments so at least the land the nonprofit sits on remains taxable.

“If the state funded (the payment in lieu of taxes program) the way they are supposed to we wouldn’t be such charity cases,” Stuller said. “The state should not have a say in the way in the way cities implement property taxes.”

She said the state should consider a universal health care system “that would take the burden off of our employers and make sure everyone is covered.”

Stuller said New London has chronically been shorted money from the educational cost sharing program and thinks the state should consider funding education by county.

“Every county has a mix of impoverished towns, wealthy suburbs and poorer rural area. Some kind of shared burden might be a good thing,” she said. “One hunded and sixty-nine towns doing things their own way is very charming, but the funding of schools and reliance on property tax just kills the city.”

Lockwood

Lockwood has described himself as a jack of all trades – a former car salesman and hotel owner, a licensed real estate agent and sometimes Uber driver who has a law degree and recently, despite a past failure, took the bar exam in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He is awaiting the results.

As a former co-chairman of the local watchdog group Looking Out for Taxpayers, he has been sharply critical of the way the city, particularly the school system, spends money.

If he was to gain a seat in Hartford, Lockwood promises scrutiny of the budget and reductions in spending that he said Democrats have been unwilling to do.

“Everybody knows Hartford is broke. If you go to Hartford and you’re asking for more money for education … they’re saying there is no money for education,” Lockwood said. “Basically for years Connecticut’s been talking about the sky’s falling, the sky’s falling. Well the sky’s already fallen. That’s the problem.”

He said he favors a reinvention of the way schools are funded with less emphasis on administration and more focus on the students and teachers — perhaps having the dollars follow the students no matter which school system they attend.

He said he thinks that he could help in Hartford by pushing for long-stalled development opportunities at Fort Trumbull.

He said the state has to scrutinize every dollar being spent and a finding a way to “restructure the welfare program in a way that people don’t make that their life career choice.”

Soto

Soto said New London has the fifth-highest unemployment in the state behind cities like Bridgeport in Hartford and calls himself a “problem solver,” who has a track record of creating jobs in New London through his organization Higher Edge.

He said he would like the answer as to why 16 percent of Connecticut’s Electric Boat workforce is composed of Rhode Island residents while just 8 percent of EB’s workforce at Quonset Point, R.I., is comprised of Connecticut residents.

“The way I see it there are plenty of good jobs that exist in our region but New Londoners are not filling those jobs,” Soto said.

He said the state could look at the issue from a workforce readiness perspective to put more residents to work and help lower the unemployment rate.

Soto said he fully supports the New London School district’s transformation into an all-magnet district and says he will champion the cause in Hartford, pulling for the city’s fair share of state funding that may have been lost in the past. He said Nathan Hale Magnet School lost $1.2 million last year simply because the city was unable to gain a waiver at the state level on the incoming number of out-of-district students.

“There is money on the table that we’re losing for New London that is getting gobbled up by other communities with stronger legislators,” he said.

Soto said the state needs to continue to innovate to help drive economic development. He used Spark Makerspace as an example, a community-run workshop space in downtown New London that is open to the general public for a monthly fee and offers access to things like a full woodshop, commercial kitchen, 3D printers, robotics lab and office space.

g.smith@theday.com

Editors note: This version corrects the reference to Andrew Lockwood's ex-wife.

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