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Local political races heat up

The presidential contest isn’t the only election that holds intrigue in Connecticut.

All 36 seats in the state Senate and 151 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs Nov. 3, with several closely contested races in the Farmington Valley.

At stake are two-year terms of, notably, how lawmakers will steer the state through Connecticut’s challenging financial, health and social issues.

After a brief shift in the balance of power in the state Senate from 2016-18, when there was an 18-18 split after years of Democratic control, the Democrats regained the majority 23-13 by gaining five seats in the 2018 election.

That margin was winnowed to 22-14 from the special elections that resulted when various lawmakers were appointed to Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.

In the House, the Democrats also have a clear majority (91-60) over their Republican counterparts.

Farmington Valley voters will have a hand in deciding three state Senate seats (the 5th, 6th and 8th districts), and four House of Representative seats (the 16th, 17th, 19th and 21st districts).

The Valley Press reached out to every Republican and Democratic candidate in the Farmington Valley to hear why they’re running, what they believe are the important issues facing the state, the challenges of campaigning amid the pandemic and what messages they want delivered to voters.

8th Senate District

One of the most hotly contested races in the area is between Republican incumbent Kevin Witkos and Democratic challenger Melissa Osborne.

They’re certainly familiar opponents, having run against each other in 2014 and 2018, races that Witkos, who works for Eversource in community relations and economic development, won by 27 points and 13 points, respectively.

This year, Witkos, the Republican deputy minority leader, is running for his seventh term in the Senate in a district that includes Norfolk, Hartland, Canton, Simsbury, New Hartford, Avon, Barkhamsted, Colebrook and portions of Granby, Harwinton and Torrington. A retired police officer, he previously served as a state representative as well as on the Canton Board of Education.

He says the pandemic and resulting impact it has had on the state’s finances compelled him to run again, as the state needs people experienced in the budget-making process to usher Connecticut through a challenging time.

“We need experienced leadership,” he said, adding the budget surplus that resulted from the 18-18 tie in the Senate will “evaporate” this year.

He says getting through the public health crisis is also paramount, noting he did not like Lamont’ extending his emergency powers for another five months through February 2021.

“We don’t have any information he’s basing it on,” Witkos said. “That’s very concerning to me when you have thousands of people on forced unemployment because the state is not allowing businesses to reopen. I think we need a total overhaul of that whole process.”

Witkos added the Department of Labor needs to update its computer systems to the 21st century to expedited unemployment claims.

Connecticut also needs to continue to recruit and retain high-tech businesses and be more business friendly, Witkos said.

“We need to stop the mandates on businesses,” he said. “We haven’t even gotten to the $15 minimum wage and people want to pass a living wage, which is $23 an hour. We’ve got to stop that. That sends the wrong signal to businesses.

“We’re perfectly situated between New York and Boston. And with COVID we’ve seen an influx of people and I’m just waiting to see what our tax revenues are on the personal income side.”

Witkos said the state doesn’t need to raise taxes and needs to continue to find efficiencies.

Other major issues are the getting a deal done for recycling and waste for the 51 towns that are served by MIRA, as well as wildlife management, particularly with bears in the Farmington Valley and Litchfield County, he said.

Witkos says he has gotten creative this year while campaigning, bifurcating the race into two elections: Oct. 2 (the day absentee ballots go out) and Nov. 3 (the date of in-person voting).

He’s opened a campaign “victory” headquarters and has a mobile billboard driving home his message. He attended BLM rallies in Avon and Canton (“we need to hold bad actors in police work accountable”), though he says he has not followed the national political scene.

He did not support the police accountability bill that passed the General Assembly in the summer, saying, among other things, it was too broad and vague, leaving open the possibility, for example, of police officers not being insured because of too many lawsuits being filed against them, regardless of the legal actions’ merits.

Osborne, an attorney, said she decided to run because she sees a changing political landscape in the district. She says bluntly that Witkos no longer shares the same values the residents in the 8th District share.

“This is not about him as person,” she said. “He’s a really nice guy but his votes are not what you’d expect from the man you meet. The thing that caught my eye and catalyzed me is he voted against a bill that would provide emergency contraception for rape victims in hospitals. This is not a man who shares the values of the people in this district."

She cited Witkos’ votes against a ban on allowing children under the age of 16 to possess semiautomatic weapons, a ban on bump stocks and a measure to remove firearms from someone who has recently had a domestic violence restraining order against them.

“Those votes don’t suggest he shares the values of the district that we share,” she said.

Osborne said campaigning during the pandemic has been difficult, but she also says everyone is struggling with the fallout from COVID-19.

She noted that her place of work - the court system - has been effectively closed for the past six months. Clients of hers are suffering because they are unable to resolve issues that require a judge and they’re also experiencing economic impacts.

She only started door-knocking in September, and she said she’s surprised the number of people who are happy to see her and her fellow candidates.

To make up for the fewer number people she sees in person, she has significantly increased phone calls to voters.

She says people in the Farmington Valley as a whole are receptive and supportive of the BLM movement.

“That’s extraordinarily important that for the first time in history a civil rights movement is also coming from people who are not adversely affected,” she said. “White people are saying enough is enough. Almost as a result, it doesn’t make it a divisive campaign issue for us.”

She says she would have voted for the police accountability bill, understanding the concerns municipalities have over the potential for increased litigation.

“There are probably things that need tweaking,” she said. (The legislature convened a special session this past week; the police accountability bill was not on the agenda). “It’s something that needs to be addressed in full session: a methodical, steadfast, deep dive into the issue.”

She said the biggest issue is with the removal of qualified immunity, noting that municipalities are the ones who hire and train and employ police officers and, therefore, are in the best position to deter bad apples from acting in bad ways.

“My opinion of the bill this summer is there is still work that needs to be done. but this was a moment in time and far greater injustices have occurred to Black and brown in people in this country than the costs of frivolous litigation, and it was a moment that could not pass us by.”

Top priorities in the state include economic recovery, which was needed before the pandemic hit, she said, as well as tackling “the behemoth that is Eversource” as well as Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, Osborne added.

She said Witkos has been at the Capitol for a combined 18 years and nothing “suggests he has the answers to economic recovery.”

As for Eversource, Osborne said Connecticut has one of the highest rates of electricity in the country as well as one of the poorest responses to major storms. She said she wants to take a holistic view of how energy is generated and provided in the state, something, she contended, Witkos won’t do as an employee of Eversource.

“Our district does not have a voice on energy,” she said. “We are being held hostage by a monopoly that exists with a right to profit even when it’s doing a bad job. Even during a year when we don’t have a bad storm, we have still been voiceless in our district.”

Witkos said he takes each bill on its merits, and has contended that Osborne misrepresents his voting record.

He also waved off Osborne’s claims on energy, saying PURA sets electricity rates.

“She’s been running against me for five years,” he said. “I’m doing the job. I’m doing it well. I’ve worked harder this year than ever, which had to with COVID and other issues. … Melissa would rather just attack me and associate me with President Trump and Eversource energy.”

Further, Witkos said when PURA suspended a rate-hike increase over the summer, he wrote testimony to repeal the increase.

“I always put my constituents first,”

he said. “I’m one of 9,000 employees [of Eversource]. I don’t set the rates. PURA does.”

Osborne, however, said energy rates is a massive issue not just to individual consumers, but to businesses as well.

“It’s one of the biggest economic barriers to businesses and people in state,” she said. “As part-time legislators, we need to maintain jobs outside the legislature. I still will. But we need to make sure our employment outside the legislature doesn’t keep us from doing job we need to do inside the legislature.”

Osborne works as a mediator and said she has a proven record of helping solve large, complex legal and financial problems while practicing law. She’s served as a volunteer on Simsbury’s Charter Revision Commission, Clean Energy Task Force and is currently a Zoning Alternate. She’s also served as the vice chair of the Child Welfare and Juvenile Law Committee of the Connecticut Bar Association and on the legislative subcommittee of its family law section.

“I am a qualified, competent, professional individual who has run a successful law practice,” she said. “I can help take parties who are at opposite polar ends and come together and settle cases. That’s what we need in Hartford. At end of the day, I’m not one to start the fight, but I’m one to absolutely finish it if I have to as a litigator.”

6th Senate District

In what’s sure to be a closely watched race, incumbent Republican Genarro Bizzarro will face state Rep. Rick Lopes in a rematch of the February 2019 special election for the 6th Senate District seat that Bizzarro won 53% to Lopes’ 47%.

The 6th District covers New Britain, Berlin and a small portion of Farmington.

The 2019 special election, which was marked by low voter turnout (just over 7,315 votes were cast in that election. By comparison, 30,000 votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election) was necessitated when longtime state Sen. Terry Gerratana vacated her seat to take a position with the Lamont administration. (This is the seat Republicans flipped to cut the majority from 23-13 to 22-14 in the Senate).

Bizzarro, an attorney, says the state is at “crossroads.”

“Now, more than ever, we need legislators who understand the challenges faced by working middle-class families, small business owners, and overburdened taxpayers,” he said. “I have been a warrior for the forgotten middle-class families of Connecticut, and I will continue to fight for them in Hartford.”

The biggest issue, according to both candidates is the pandemic and the resulting economic impact on the state. Bizzarro also said how the state educates its children during the pandemic is also a major issue “COVID-19 and the economy will continue to dominate our daily lives for the foreseeable future,” Bizzarro said.

“Even prior to the pandemic, Connecticut was bleeding both jobs and population, and our state’s economy was flat. But now the combination of crushing long-term debt and the financial fallout from COVID-19 is projected to yield a multi-billion-dollar hole in next year’s state budget. Once the November election is over, you won’t have to wait very long for the conversation in Hartford to once again turn to higher taxes and highway tolls.

“In the near term, we need to figure out a better way to handle education in the face of COVID. Education has always been the key to the American dream, but COVID is threatening to slam that door shut for so many. Teachers are understandably scared, parents are confused, and students are lost. We have to make sure that schools and families get the resources that they need so that none of our children are left behind.”

Bizzarro said he would “let voters decide” the differences between his and Lopes’ platforms, but that he is a proud fiscal conservative, and a “strong sup