139th House District race features incumbent and underdog
State Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, is seeking his 15th term representing the 139th District. Republican challenger Caleb Espinosa is unfazed by Ryan’s experience, though.
Ryan, 68, has been a state representative for longer than Espinosa, 20, has been alive. The former speaks of the importance of experience and relationships, while the latter argues that the timing is right for a different direction in the district.
"I tell people Kevin Ryan is a nice guy, but he's had 28 years. I'm only asking for two years of refreshing change," Espinosa said. "This office, state representative, is not supposed to be a lifelong career."
Espinosa believes he has a “very good shot” at beating the incumbent and claims a variety of people from different political parties have warmed to his campaign. In addition to digital marketing, he’s trying to knock on every registered voter’s door before Election Day.
Ryan, who has won past elections on the power of name recognition, said that while his campaign is knocking on doors, it has moved to making more phone calls because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 139th District encompasses Norwich, Montville and Bozrah, three places that, when combined, can make for a mercurial voting population. While Espinosa called himself “libertarian on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues,” Ryan characterized himself as a moderate.
Espinosa is not currently registered to vote in the district he’s running to represent. His voter registration lists his address as 20 Martin Court, Uncasville, which is in the 42nd House district. He said he is switching his voter registration to 60 Merchants Ave. in Taftville, which is in the 139th District. He signed a lease for an apartment at that address but hasn’t moved yet because the place still needs to be renovated. He said he is moving whether he wins or loses the election.
A candidate is allowed to live outside the district, but he or she has to move into the district before being sworn in.
Espinosa said he felt Ryan’s voting record has been too partisan and attacked him for favoring “every tax increase.” He criticized Ryan for his vote in favor of a bill to end religious exemptions for vaccines and his support of the police accountability bill, which, Espinosa said, didn’t align with the values of the district.
“Before COVID-19 ended the regular session, they had a mandatory vaccination bill that dealt a lot with religious exemption on the Health Committee floor. Some of the people in the district voiced their concerns with him. They told me he either never got back to them or gave them a wishy-washy answer,” Espinosa said. “Mr. Ryan is losing touch with the community.”
Ryan touted his work on education and health care. He highlighted his record during the most recent term despite the last session being cut short.
“We did a lot of work with raising the minimum wage, we looked at the business entity tax, we looked at reducing taxes on social securities and pensions, and we tried to see what we could do in the way of property taxes for veterans,” he said. “On budget issues, we were able to maintain funding for our communities so local taxes didn’t get raised.”
Espinosa said he is focused on health and mental health, jobs and the economy as top issues. Ryan also is focused on the economy and health care. He added the issue of education, and getting students and staff back in schools while keeping them safe, to his list of priorities.
The sharpest critique Espinosa has levied toward Ryan is on the police accountability bill. He said the law is leading some qualified candidates to reconsider careers in law enforcement.
Ryan "had told the mayor of Norwich and a few others that he was going to vote against it, and then he ended up voting for the bill,” Espinosa said. “They tried to do the bill in response to the unfortunate death of George Floyd. We want good police, and what happened in Minnesota was very tragic; however, it did not happen in Connecticut.”
Espinosa believes the entire bill should be redone.
Ryan said he isn’t familiar with Espinosa’s positions on issues: “I haven’t heard anything about him, so I can’t even really comment on that to be honest with you.”
Ryan said falsehoods have been circulating about the police accountability bill, and though it isn’t perfect, it does include meaningful reforms. “There’s nothing about defunding the police, it did not eliminate qualified immunity, it basically brought it back to what it had been in the 1960s,” he said. “It protects officers who make reasonable mistakes, but if an officer does do something and knowingly does it incorrectly, there may be repercussions. And the concept that people can randomly come out and sue an officer isn’t true at all either. Right now, the municipality will take the responsibility for the cost involved unless the officer was egregious or malicious in their actions.”
Ryan and Espinosa generally support online gambling. A past president of the Council of Legislators from Gambling States, Ryan said he’s been keeping tabs on the possibility of online gambling, and though he’s cautious of expansion, he said the idea deserves “a serious look.” Espinosa said he is for the concept but needs more information on execution before going ahead.
Though Espinosa said he is a more ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, Ryan has a “C” rating from the NRA and has voted with Republicans on gun regulation measures in the past.
For tolls, Espinosa is against them, and Ryan doesn’t think the political will exists to implement them. Still, Ryan said something needs to be done to improve the state's infrastructure.
Both candidates said the state must cut spending. Espinosa said legislators should go line by line in the budget to examine possible cuts and need to further examine how money allocated to agencies is being spent.
Espinosa and Ryan are at odds on the minimum wage. Ryan has supported its increase in the past; Espinosa thinks a $15 minimum wage will adversely affect businesses and consumers.
While Ryan acknowledged the state has limits in helping people economically impacted by the pandemic, he said there are some ways to assist. “We’re going to have to look at stretching our budget to help the small businesses, relieve them of some of the taxes they typically pay,” he said. “We need to look at creative ways to help these businesses to keep the economy going, to help their families.”
Espinosa floated the idea of a tax credit to businesses who take on a local apprentice from the community and eventually hire the person full time.
Espinosa's great-grandfather emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1949. As soon as his great-grandfather arrived in Miami, Espinosa said, he took the next flight to New London, where he bought a house on Broad Street. Shortly thereafter, he bought a house in Montville. In 1965, Espinosa’s grandparents and the rest of his family also moved to the area, and they’ve been in Montville since.
“When he came here, he fought hard for the civil rights movement and other movements to better the community,” Espinosa said. “One of the big reasons I’m running is I want to continue on that legacy and publicly serve like my great-grandfather did back in the '50s and '60s.”
Espinosa graduated from New London High School and works as an automotive technician. He enlisted in the Connecticut Army National Guard in 2018 and is a volunteer firefighter.
Ryan is an adjunct physics professor at the University of New Haven. He graduated from Villanova University in 1974 with bachelor’s degrees in biology and English. He earned a master’s degree in community psychology from the University of New Haven and a doctor of optometry degree from Pennsylvania College of Optometry. In the General Assembly, he has served as a deputy speaker since 2011, and is a member of the Public Health, Environment and Appropriations committees.
He explained why he’s seeking a 15th term. “There’s still a lot of work to do. I think my forte has been constituent service — helping people with individual problems,” he said. “I got started with this when we had issues on the Board of Education and we went to Hartford to get things remedied. There are issues besides education, but if we’re going to make our state better, that’s the place to start.”
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