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46th state House District candidates present contrasting views

Norwich — The race for the 46th state House District seat pits a four-term Democratic incumbent against a relative newcomer to politics who pledges to stay active in politics and the community for years to come.

Incumbent Democrat Emmett Riley, 51, is seeking his fifth term in the district that covers the southern and urban sections of Norwich. He faces Republican Robert Bell, 46, a property manager who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2019.

The two differ on most issues, from the prospect of tolls to the recently passed police accountability law and the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But both would support legalizing recreational marijuana.

The two have taken very different approaches to campaigning during the pandemic, as well. Bell said he has knocked on more than 1,200 doors in the cozy urban district. He knocks, steps back, and if someone answers, he hands out campaign material and talks briefly from a distance.

Riley said he is relying mostly on the telephone, calling some homes two or three times to give his campaign message and to “check up on how people are doing in this difficult time.” He said many residents are uncomfortable with people coming to the door.

Bell, who lives downtown and has a 14-year-old daughter at Norwich Free Academy, owns Bell Logistics LLC and runs Norwich B2B Center at 65 Main St. which houses his business, an accountant and a personal assistant. He recently purchased a building at 126 Broadway, which he hopes to develop into a small inn. Bell owns a rental house in New London and manages a three-unit short-term rental property in Old Lyme.

Riley, 51, is married to attorney and former state Rep. Melissa Olson. He succeeded Olson when she vacated the district seat. Riley works at his legislative position and takes care of the couple’s 6-year-old son, a student at the Montessori Discovery School in Norwich.

Bell, who moved to the city in 2006, said he feels “Norwich has been neglected” by its state representatives. He said when the economy crashed in 2008, downtown emptied out and the city has been slowly “crawling back" thanks to the city and Norwich Community Development Corp.

“Before (COVID-19), you really started to see this momentum going,” Bell said. “and that was all us, as a community doing that, just here in Norwich. Not Hartford. Not our representatives here in Norwich who are supposed to represent us in Hartford. And now here we are with (COVID-19), and I’m tired of complaining. I want to be part of the solution.”

Riley adamantly rejected criticism from Bell and Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom that Riley has not been active, misses major events or meetings.

Riley said he stays on top of major issues, such as the recent COVID-19 outbreak at Three Rivers Healthcare nursing home in Norwich, even though he could not attend the news conference Sept. 16. He said he has attended social justice protests and rallies in Norwich and Hartford.

“Just because I’m not running around on Facebook saying whatever,” Riley said. “I’m in this community. I live here. I’ve lived here my whole life.”

The candidates disagreed on how Gov. Ned Lamont is handling the pandemic. Riley supported the extension of Lamont’s executive orders, saying the governor’s staff is working hard to stay on top of changing conditions, and residents have remained diligent.

“We are a part-time legislature,” Riley said. “Wrangling all those people into one room or into the building is a difficult situation.”

Bell said the legislature should stop Lamont’s executive order authority. He supports opening bars and expanding restaurant capacity. He objected that people cannot buy a beer in a restaurant without ordering food.

“We talk social distancing and wearing our masks all day long," Bell said. "But every one of us knows that when we’re in those grocery stores, we’re passing right by people within inches, and we’re standing right behind them in line only 2 feet away. If we can do that, and we’ve been doing that since the beginning of this whole thing, we can open Connecticut.”

Riley strongly supported the police accountability law passed during the summer special session. He said there are “some mistruths about it,” including that police officers can be sued. He said the law allows a city to be sued, and if a court finds an officer guilty of “malicious, wanton or willful” actions, the officer must reimburse the city for legal costs.

“If they’re found guilty in a court of law, they should certainly pay for their defense,” Riley said, “or for what they’re responsible for.”

The law makes it easier, Riley said. It also bans chokeholds, requires body cameras and contains penalties for falsely reporting an incident.

Bell strongly objected to key language in the police accountability law. He said it has contradictory language, in one part allowing deadly force as a last resort and later claiming there is no justifiable deadly force. Bell said qualified immunity protected officers and cities from frivolous lawsuits and getting rid of it will be a boon to lawyers to sue for any alleged offenses.

The two candidates agreed that recreational marijuana should be legalized to bring in state revenue, and Bell said to save money by not prosecuting marijuana crimes.

Riley also supports legalizing sports betting, working with the Mohegan and Mashantucket tribes who claim to have exclusivity to run sports betting. “I believe they are the ones that would run it well and run it correctly,” he said, “because they do in other states, and they could have it up and running in a short amount of time.”

Riley supports tolls on major state highways and bridges to pay for much-needed infrastructure improvements, with discounts for residents. “We have so many tractor-trailer trucks coming through our state, not stopping, just going through, bringing all their stuff, and the wear and tear on the roads from those 18-wheelers is difficult,” he said. “It’s a short trip for a lot of these people from Greenwich to Westerly.”

Bell said legalizing marijuana could provide the revenue the state could raise from tolls.

“I’m a no tolls guy, hands down, no discussion, the answer is no,” he said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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