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Democrat Bob Statchen, left, listens as state Sen. Heather Somers, a Republican, answers a question Tuesday night during the League of Women Voters / Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce Stonington Candidates Night. Corey Fyke, The Westerly Sun

STONINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic and issues including racism, criminal justice reform, police accountability and climate change were all topics of discussion Tuesday evening as the four candidates for state legislature and two candidates for probate judge went head-to-head for the first time.

The six candidates, each seeking to fill one of three open seats to represent the town, had a chance to showcase their positions and discuss their aspirations if elected during the Stonington Candidates Forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut and the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce at the Dragonfly Equestrian Center in Mystic.

Debate answers showed both common goals and differences between incumbents and challengers for the state’s 18th Senate District and 43rd House District, as well as providing an introduction to the candidates facing off in a special election to serve as judge for the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Probate District.

In the debate for state Senate, incumbent Republican state Sen. Heather Somers found herself defending her record at the state level and touting her background in science as she sought to separate herself from concerns facing the party on a national level and focus on local issues. Statchen, however, challenged that record and said his experience serving the community during the COVID-19 pandemic helped make him better suited for the Senate seat.

Statchen questioned Republican initiatives on both a state and federal level, saying that the party had lost its way by voting against family medical leave and living wages while simultaneously trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which he said would potentially leave millions without health care in the middle of a pandemic. He also questioned Somers' record on subjects including use of ballot boxes and other voting rights.

“These are difficult times. We’ve been through a lot and there is still more to come,” said Statchen, an attorney and business professor who serves as a colonel with the Connecticut Air National Guard. “We need leadership, we need people who value science and we need people who will put public safety over politics.”

Somers offered a counter to these concerns, saying her experience has allowed her to achieve numerous committee and leadership roles in Hartford. She told the audience she has been honored to serve and touted her record as “the most bipartisan record in the Senate.”

Toward the end of the debate, she also accused Statchen of using her image inappropriately in a flier to local homes, stating that it was done maliciously and noting that it is something she has experienced as a woman in the workplace many times in her life. The two ran against each other for the same seat in 2018.

“What I hope most will know after our time here tonight is how proud and honored I am to hold the position entrusted to me,” she said. “I believe I have represented your voice and done so while holding the needs of the district in the highest regard; higher than the needs of any party and the associations levied against me by my Democratic opponent.”

Much of the debate was direct and focused on issues, however, and it seemed the two candidates were not far apart. Both praised the state handling of the pandemic, both argued that the state must address impacts of climate change, especially along the state’s shoreline, and both openly denounced racism while acknowledging a systemic problem.

The two did clash on other issues, including the state’s recent police accountability legislation. Somers called the bill horribly written, even though it did address a need, while Statchen argued that it was a starting point to address a serious, overdue issue.

Debating the police accountability bill

One aspect that separated Democratic state Rep. Kate Rotella, who represents Stonington and North Stonington in the 43rd Connecticut House District, and Republican challenger Greg Howard was their view on the police accountability bill that was passed in July.

Howard, who works as a detective for the Stonington Police Department, said addressing problems with the police accountability bill would be one of his top priorities if elected. He noted that many people had expressed concerns over the bill and the liability it would place on both towns and individual officers.

“In the past few months, I have made a lot of contact with people of all walks of life in our district,” he said. “Most of the people I speak with are upset about the police accountability bill passed in July, the content that was in it, and the division in our community.”

Howard noted that the task force that developed the bill had “no street-level officers,” and said that he would work to properly hold police accountable without ending the qualified immunity that he said would make the officers personally accountable financially.

Rotella challenged that immunity, however, noting that while revisions may be needed to make the bill more effective in the future, it provides important groundwork to address a long-standing issue. She said the bill does not make officers personally financially liable, leaving the town instead to cover the cost unless an officer is convicted of a willful violation of a victim’s rights.

“It also has great funding for body cams, dashboard cams, training and mental health checks,” she said. Howard said he also supports these initiatives, which were included in the bill. 

Rotella noted that in the coming term, whoever is elected will have the task of working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to refine the bill in a manner that holds both officers and criminals accountable for their behavior and actions.

The two also expressed differences in the way they would address the community’s needs. In her first term as state representative, Rotella said she worked to bring funding for numerous projects to the community including recently helping to secure $600,000 for the Pawcatuck sidewalk project.

She said in the coming term, she would also continue to work toward providing better health coverage for everyone, lowering prescription drug costs and legalizing sports and internet gaming.

Howard, however, said he’s heard too many concerns about state spending and would instead focus on accountability rather than increased taxes. He said for economic recovery to occur in the state, it would be important to rein in spending and reduce taxes while also rolling back regulations to attract new businesses.

Rotella said to attract businesses, the state must also stay focused on improving training to provide small businesses with the skilled workers they need to succeed.

Time to face the (probate) change

The event also provided an opportunity for back-and-forth between Democrat Elizabeth Ladwig Leamon and Republican Salvatore Ritacco, the two candidates to fill a probate seat that will be vacated when Judge Nick Kepple retires. The elected attorney will lead a court that serves Stonington, North Stonington, Groton and Ledyard.

Each said that, if elected, they would be in court full-time but continue to maintain their private practices.

Leamon and Ritacco used the chance to highlight their service over the past several decades, and each said that if elected they would work to improve technology and enhance services, including offering video conferencing options and other elements to improve access and participation.

Ritacco said that, if elected, he hopes to lean on his record of resolving hundreds of cases to help do the same at a probate level. He said this could be accomplished by creating a forum that attorneys could use to help clients with estate planning, noting that such an effort could also prevent more difficult cases from reaching the court.

With a professional record that includes practicing as an attorney in 26 Connecticut probate courts, Leamon said she has the experience to know what works, as well as the issues that need to be addressed. She said she would also focus on public outreach to help the communities better understand probate issues.

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