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Gauthier challenges Conley for 40th District state rep seat

Groton — Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, said she first ran for state representative in 2016 because being on the Representative Town Meeting showed her how Groton was being left out of state budgets, and because she was concerned about access to health care and education. She thought she could do more in Hartford than in Groton.

In a recent debate, Conley pointed to municipal funding she helped deliver, but Conley said there's still more work to do on getting fair funding for communities and on health bills.

Her Republican challenger, Lauren Gauthier, takes issue with "one-party rule" in Hartford and said she's interested in making "substantial, sustainable long-term changes."

Describing herself as pragmatic, Gauthier is focused on the budget, saying, "We have to pay our debt off, and it's not fun and it's not sexy, but it takes precedent. You have to get out of the hole if we're going to start building. All of my priorities would be around that."

They are running in the 40th District, which includes the Town of Groton north of I-95, the northern part of the City of Groton, and the southwestern corner of Ledyard.

Conley, 38, and Gauthier, 24, both live in the Town of Groton — Conley with her husband and dog, and Gauthier with her husband, nearly 2-year-old son, two cats, two chickens and dog.

Conley, a Suffield native who has lived in Groton since 2007, is a workers' compensation attorney at Embry Neusner Arscott & Shafner in Groton. Gauthier, a self described  "Navy brat" who mostly grew up in Waterford, is a special projects manager at an oyster farm.

Gauthier, who received her master's in public administration from the University of Connecticut in May, is a member of the State Contracting Standards Board.

She's seen short-term contracts for social services get automatically renewed "when we could be competitively bidding and potentially getting better service." Gauthier also said she's seen respondents to requests for proposals not say upfront they need public funding but get it after receiving the bid, so she'd like see tighter controls and more transparency.

She thinks some services could be pushed to the nonprofit sector and would also like to see an exploration of public banking.

Conley said before the pandemic closed the Capitol, she and other legislators "had a very substantial women's health plan," including bills about breastfeeding at work and access to feminine products in schools. She also said the Joint Committee on Judiciary, of which she is a member, was talking about the appropriate jail sentences for certain offenses.

Planned Parenthood endorsed Conley. Gauthier noted she also supports the organization, which endorsed her in 2016 when she ran for state representative in the 38th District as a Green Party candidate. In 2019, Gauthier unsuccessfully ran as a Republican candidate for Groton Town Council but was elected to the Groton RTM.

She pointed to decentralization as a common tenet of the two parties, and said she'd like to see substantial election reform, such as ranked-choice voting, open primaries, and randomization of ballot order.

In Connecticut, "I think you'd see most Republicans don't align with what I'm going to call Donald Trump's Republican Party," Gauthier said. She added, "Voting all Democrat to spite Trump isn't going to help the state budget, it's not going to help reduce our debt, it's not going to make Connecticut more affordable, it's not going to make it more business-friendly."

She takes issue with what she calls "little gimmicks" to plug budget deficits, and she feels that revenue from sports betting, recreational marijuana, and tolls won't fix budget woes or be sustainable. She supports legalizing sports betting but not marijuana or tolls.

Conley said we "need to really start talking about sports betting, and that is real dollars that we could put in the revenue side," and that she voted for marijuana legalization on the Judiciary Committee for multiple years.

"If you're buying it on the street, it might be laced with fentanyl, it might be laced with something else, and if people are going to be using recreational marijuana, it should be safe and it should be taxed," Conley said.

In regards to the state's record-setting rainy day fund, Conley remembers commenting at the beginning of the pandemic, "Thank goodness we didn't do the Republican plan and spend that on roads."

Candidates differ on paid leave, police accountability bill

Two bills Conley voted for that Gauthier said she would've voted against are the paid family and medical leave bill and the police accountability bill.

Gauthier preferred the Republican plan to use the state's existing insurance industry to help underwrite paid family medical leave, and she doesn't believe a mandatory payroll tax was good for everybody.

On the police accountability bill, she thinks legislators could've taken more time to define certain terms, and she worries that taking away consent searches on traffic stops will "harm our police officers' ability to get illegal weapons and illegal drugs."

Conley said one issue with the bill is the definition of "use of force," which she said doesn't go into effect until next July and is being studied now.

Another controversial aspect of the bill is the part limiting qualified immunity. Conley said the bill "does not change the law very much" in this regard, that it "really codifies federal law, and I think that officers and people against the bill created a false narrative around that."

Conley said there's "so much in the bill that is helpful to officers and to policing as a whole," pointing to the duty to intervene, increased anti-bias training and $4 million for body cameras.

Conley said she's not anti-police. She noted that only Democrats voted for the budget that included more classes for state troopers, and said she worked on the language for a bill helping get police officers mental health treatment.

The police accountability bill passed in the summer special session, and Gauthier said she was disappointed that the most recent special session didn't include a racial health equity bill.

On the topic of affordable housing, she said she doesn't believe forcing zoning laws onto municipalities is the way to go and would rather incentivize affordable housing.

Conley questioned if the state could provide grants to install water or sewer service in areas without them to promote affordable housing. To help people without vehicles, she suggested the state look at expanding money to the Southeast Area Transit District or encourage larger employers, like Electric Boat, to expand their transportation system.

e.moser@theday.com

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