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Sen. Osten defends record as she seeks fifth term in 19th District

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, seeking her fifth term serving the 19th District, says she hears a lot of concern about economic uncertainty amid the pandemic as she makes the rounds to meet voters this fall.

"I still find the consumer confidence is not there," she said.

Doing less door-knocking than usual and more teleconference town halls, Osten says people are very concerned about health care, especially those who were laid off after two major companies in Montville and Norwich decided to close their doors. She cited a recent food giveaway that came up several hundred boxes short of the need, and the growing demand for free and reduced-price lunches at schools.

Osten's Senate district includes Columbia, Franklin, Hebron, Lebanon, Ledyard, Lisbon, Marlborough, Norwich, Sprague and a section of Montville.

A 1973 graduate of Norwich Free Academy, the 65-year-old Osten enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school and became a translator, leaving with the rank of sergeant. She spent 21 years in the state Department of Correction, serving as president of a union and helping organize women against what she has called pervasive sexual harassment.

Her leadership experience led her to run for first selectman in her hometown of Sprague, where she became the town's first female chief executive, serving for 12 years until her election defeat in 2019. In 2012, she won her first race for the state Senate, replacing a retiring Edith Prague, also a Democrat.

In the Senate, she has risen to assistant president pro tempore and co-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, where she says she is very used to the process of looking at every line item to determine what can be cut.

"We've already done a lot of belt-tightening," she said in a Zoom interview Friday. "Salaries are $100 million less than a decade ago. We're at 1950s-level state employment."

Still, Osten says she's determined to maintain the state's safety net intact.

She also is a proponent of tolls, pointing out that the state needs to fund critical infrastructure such as at the Gold Star Memorial Bridge spanning New London and Groton, which requires significant repair work. She noted that tolls are essentially a "user fee" and that every state in New England except for Vermont counts on toll money to support transportation funding.

"We need to look at a funding mechanism for tolls," she said. "We need to address the issue."

Osten also wants to see legalized sports gambling in the state, supporting the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes in their attempt to expand their gaming enterprises.

"I don't think there is a downside," she said.

She opposes bringing in other enterprises to run sports gambling in the state, pointing out that the two local tribes would sue and could wind up backing out of the compacts that have added close to $9 billion to state coffers over the years the casinos have been open.

"That amount of money is not something we can give up, and we would have to give it up," Osten said. Attempts to exclude the local tribes from sports gambling "smacks to me of bad politics," she added.

Osten said she has been pushing since July for the American Jobs Center in Montville to reopen. She pointed to major local losses of jobs in the hospitality and tourism industries and said these people need to be retrained for jobs at Electric Boat or in manufacturing, among other areas.

She has been a big supporter of raising the minimum wage in Connecticut, and succeeded in helping to pass a bill with automatic increases to protect workers who over the years have seen their pay dwindle due to inflation. She said 95% of people making minimum wage are not teenagers — they are often moms and dads trying to make ends meet.

"These people deserve to make a true living wage," Osten said.

As for affordable housing, she said eastern Connecticut often doesn't get credit for its relatively low cost of rentals because the old mill houses from the 1950s that dot her district are not deed restricted, requiring them to be affordable. Also, she said, many of the smaller towns don't have the infrastructure of city water and sewer in place to support affordable-housing projects, and there also is not a good public transportation system to allow those with low income to get to jobs.

"In eastern Connecticut, we have affordable housing right now," she said.

Osten's Senate website pointed to some of the legislation she has helped pass over the years, including a sex offender notification bill and a Connecticut version of "Erin's Law" intended to protect children from sexual abuse. She is the mother of one and a grandmother of four.

She was also a supporter of the police accountability law that passed during a special session of the General Assembly this year, following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and subsequent protests nationwide over police violence, particularly in minority communities.

Her opponent, Republican Steve Weir, a former police officer, has criticized the law, but Osten defended the bill, saying concerns over officers losing their qualified immunity was addressed in a subsequent fix to the legislation that now allows officers to be covered by municipal immunity. Police will now get into hot water legally only if they violate the constitutional rights of the public, she added.

Osten said she has been very supportive of officers, saying Democrats funded two classes of state police trainees this year, most recently graduating more than 80 troopers. What's more, Democrats, as opposed to Republicans, have supported covering post-traumatic stress disorder coverage for officers, and have continued funding the resident state trooper program that many municipalities count on.

"My track record on law enforcement is very strong," she said.

l.howard@theday.com

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