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Three state House candidates address NFA students' questions

Norwich — Three state House district candidates answered questions from Norwich Free Academy students Tuesday night, addressing early voting, abortion, COVID-19 and vaccine issues.

Incumbent 139th House District Democrat Kevin Ryan of Montville, his Republican challenger Caleb Espinosa of Norwich and Democratic 47th House District candidate Kate Donnelly of Hampton shared the stage at Slater Auditorium on Tuesday, answering questions from students in the NFA Debate Club and the Norwich NAACP Robertsine Duncan Youth Council.

Donnelly’s opponent, incumbent 47th District Republican Doug Dubitsky of Chaplin, did not attend the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Norwich NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut.

All three candidates supported a state constitutional amendment to allow early voting. A proposal to put the question to voters failed in 2019. Ryan, the only incumbent in Tuesday’s House forum, said he voted for the measure and "it's even more important now that we have a pandemic.”

Donnelly said she supports early voting to avoid long lines that plague other states. She was grateful Connecticut expanded absentee ballot voting this year, because people shouldn’t have to guess whether they will be in town, or healthy, on Election Day.

Espinosa supported early voting, but differed slightly from the two Democrats in recommending that official state ballot boxes be placed in more secure locations, such as inside town halls. Espinosa said ballot boxes could be at risk “just sitting outside, if someone decides to throw a match in there in the middle of the day, or decides to hit it and take it or something like that just to cause havoc.”

Ryan said that could be too restrictive, as people would need to drop off their ballots during open hours, and Donnelly added that ballot boxes must be readily accessible by people with disabilities.

The three candidates supported the current state law protecting women’s reproductive rights amid a possible push for the conservative U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Espinosa said the state law does not need to be modified, because “what we have is working quite well.” He said people should realize that agencies such as Planned Parenthood offer important health services other than abortions. Ryan said the General Assembly’s Women’s Caucus proposed measures two years ago to strengthen the state law in anticipation of possible erosion of federal abortion rights.

Donnelly said the state needs to ensure that agencies such as Planned Parenthood have adequate funding to provide the health care services. “I think it’s absolutely essential for all of us, not just women, to fight to keep our reproductive freedom,” she said. “It’s absolutely essential. It’s a fundamental right.”

When asked about expanding access to rapid COVID-19 tests, all three candidates expressed concern that rapid tests can be unreliable. Asked about a potential vaccine, Donnelly said she is confident that any COVID-19 vaccine released to the public will be safe and distributed quickly.

Ryan and Espinosa said because a COVID-19 vaccine would be new, people might be hesitant to trust it.

“It is new, and people will be worried,” Espinosa said. “Quite frankly, everybody is different. I don’t think mandatory vaccination for coronavirus vaccine is the way to go.”

As a follow-up, the candidates were asked if the state should eliminate the religious exemption for mandated childhood vaccines. Donnelly and Ryan both favor eliminating the exemption, while Espinosa would keep it.

Espinosa said he spoke to families who testified for the exemption during a contentious legislative hearing last spring and told "tragic" stories of their children becoming very ill from vaccines.

The other two candidates countered that those fears would be covered by the medical exemption, which would remain in place.

“I do think we should abolish the religious exemption,” Donnelly said. "I think that it’s become a place that people go when they don’t want to have vaccinations for other reasons, and they use the religious exemptions. And many religions do not favor the religious exemptions.”

“There is no religion to my knowledge, except maybe Christian Scientists, that don’t allow you to get vaccines,” Ryan said. “Medical exemptions seem to address many of the issues that people who came forward at the hearing had.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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