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In the 23rd, newcomer Rubino challenges incumbent Carney

Voters in Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and part of Westbrook will choose between the incumbent Republican state representative, Devin Carney, a lifelong resident of the 23rd District seeking a fourth term in office, and Democrat Dave Rubino, an attorney who settled his family here in 2018 and wants to put his worldly experience to work for his neighbors.

Both candidates live in Old Lyme.

During an Oct. 2 interview at Coffee's Country Market in Old Lyme, Carney, 36, spoke of his deep roots and connections in the community and said he's in the best position to represent the district as it copes with the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. He said he's in communication with town leaders, health directors and public safety officials and has served on the reopening committees for Old Saybrook and Westbrook.

"My relationships locally and statewide give me the tools to provide strong leadership in the district, should numbers continue to increase," he said.

Back in March, most of Carney's constituents were calling him about unemployment issues. Now, many are concerned about schools, whether it be sports, classrooms or distance learning, and he is hearing from landlords who are unable to evict tenants due to an executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont.

"Nobody wants to evict anybody who can't pay rent because of the virus," he said. "One landlord has a squatter who wasn't paying rent before the pandemic."

A couple hours later, during an interview at his law office above The Hideaway Restaurant in Old Lyme, Rubino mused that he is still considered a newcomer to the area, though he's owned his home here for 4½ years. He grew up in Boston, while his wife is from Norwich. Prior to moving to Old Lyme, the couple and their two young children lived abroad, where Rubino practiced international human rights law in Azerbaijan, Morocco, the Republic of Georgia, Armenia and Tajikistan.

"I chose to live here," he said. "I literally lived all over the world. I could have gone anywhere. It's a great place to live and raise a family. It seems to be me to be a community I want to be part of."

Rubino is practicing general law and is a member of Old Lyme's Economic Development Commission. He ran for Board of Finance in 2019 and lost.

Taxes

In the General Assembly, representatives of small towns struggle for their fair share of state funding while being asked to help provide for cities. Carney is adamant that his job is to represent the four towns and consider how every piece of legislation affects them.

"I hear from people a lot who say, 'We're self-sufficient. We just don't want to pay more,'" Carney said. "Not a lot of it (tax money) comes back, and that frustrates people."

Carney is concerned about the number and placement of tolls in the proposals he's seen and their potential impact on commuters. He said a tax hike during a pandemic is not a good idea, and that he'd like to look at efficiencies that have been used during the pandemic and use lessons learned from them to trim state government. Also, he supports looking at ways to save money following the expected wave of retirements in state government in 2022. He would not support a statewide car tax, rather than a local assessment, because it would result in tax increases for towns.

"We are going to have major budget shortfalls and problems going forward," he said. "It means we needed revenue. We have to look at all options."

Rubino said he supports tolls geared at people passing through the state, with a gas tax credit for locals who use the roads daily.

Legalizing marijuana should be looked at as a source of hundreds of millions of dollars, if children could be protected from harm, he said.

"I don't think there's any amount of cuts that get us where we need," he said. "It's not something people want to look at."

Taxes for the most wealthy and businesses also should be looked at, he said.

Washington politics

In the 23rd District, unaffiliated voters outnumber Republicans and Democrats, and it's often described as not red or blue, but purple, Carney said. He said at the state level, politics is not necessarily a question of Republicans vs. Democrats. He said he loves working on a bipartisan level and has created bipartisan caucuses for young legislators and clean energy.

On the day the nation learned that President Donald Trump had COVID-19, Rubino spoke of the increase in the number of cases and said it's important not to lose sight of the significance of the disease.

"Part of it is the messaging coming from D.C.," he said. "We have to make sure we are sending messages as a state. I think there's still a level of politicizing and skepticism, largely driven by the president."

Affordable housing

Carney said he would like to see a collaborative approach to bringing affordable housing to the district, noting people were upset with an Old Lyme proposal last year that ultimately failed because they were being told, "This is where's it's going to go. This is what it's going to be."

He said he's supported diversity measures, co-sponsoring legislation requiring schools to teach about the Holocaust and genocide and Black and Latino history. Though he hasn't heard much about a social justice initiative in Old Lyme, he said the town has a lot to offer, and everyone is welcome.

"I think people do move here because of the way it is," he said. "The schools are great. It's quiet. Taxes are relatively low compared to other towns."

Carney works in real estate and finance, at Coldwell Banker and John A. Bysko Associates, but said his part-time job as a state representative is really more like a full-time job. When the legislature is not in session, he said that prior to the pandemic, he was constantly going to local events. He's involved with the Old Saybrook Rotary, which covers all four towns, and with the Old Lyme and Old Saybrook chambers of commerce. He's on the board of directors of the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center and Saybrook Senior Housing and serves as an alternate on the Old Lyme Zoning Board of Appeals.

In Hartford, he's a member of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding, Planning and Development and Transportation committees.  

He's one of only five state representatives to be endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters and has been asked to serve on the board of the national Caucus of Environmental Legislators.

Rubino said it's important to show how ideas such as affordable housing can be beneficial.

"This isn't about trying to change the community," he said. "It's about making it grow and thrive. It's difficult for young families and single people to live in a community like this. We're an aging community. We need to have a base that small businesses, that people, can rely on."

Zoning laws may need to be revamped, Rubino said, but he doesn't think zoning decisions should be taken away from communities by the state. Fixing affordable housing and zoning laws is a way to address underlying issues such as racial inequality, and it's important that the communities are more welcoming.

Working as a human rights lawyer, part of his job has been legislative reform, Rubino said.

"If I can go into a place like Tajikistan and help rewrite laws, I don't think it's going to be a hard sell in the 23rd District," he said.

The state needs to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with COVID-19, having been mostly reactive, by necessity, to date, and to have a safety net, he said.

Rubino said with the expected conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, major issues such as affordable health care, Roe v. Wade and environmental regulations will be handled at the state level. Other pressing issues will be budgets, pension funding and police accountability.

Police accountability

Carney voted with other Republicans against the Police Accountability Act passed this summer during the emergency special session.

Rubino would have likely voted for it, with his party. He said the removal of qualified immunity, which has been the most controversial part of the law, would not lead to increased lawsuits but will affect only those police who engage in behavior that is "malicious, willful and wanton," and will help people who were unable to be compensated.

Rubino said his mother's father was a lifelong police officer in Boston, and he knows most cops are "doing good stuff."

k.florin@theday.com

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