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ANALYSIS: How was Howard able to defeat Rotella in 43rd state House race?

By many accounts, Democrat Kate Rotella of Mystic was a hardworking freshman state legislator who not only was able to obtain long-needed state funding for sidewalks in Pawcatuck but played a role in drafting successful legislation that protected preexisting health conditions and lowered prescription drug costs.

With a career in finance and purchasing, she also had landed a seat on the General Assembly’s powerful Appropriations Committee, giving southeastern Connecticut another voice when it came to developing the state budget.

But in Tuesday’s 43rd House District race, Rotella was defeated by 297 votes by Republican Greg Howard of Pawcatuck, a veteran Stonington police detective who not only got into the race late but had no previous experience on local boards or commissions. Rotella, meanwhile, previously had served on the Stonington Board of Selectman. Numbers were unofficial Wednesday.

While political observers in the district’s two towns of Stonington and North Stonington had expected the race to be close, it was the only General Assembly race in southeastern Connecticut in which the incumbent lost.

So, what happened?

Members of both parties The Day spoke with Wednesday pointed to a number of factors that may have helped decide the race, including Rotella’s support of tolls and the controversial police accountability law, two positions that would not play well in more conservative North Stonington. Howard opposes tolls and has criticized aspects of the police accountability law, while supporting Black Lives Matter protesters in Mystic this past summer.

The gregarious Howard is also well known in both communities, not just as a police officer but as president of Stonington youth football. His wife is also from North Stonington and voters in that town, which gave him 718 more votes than Rotella and overwhelmingly supported Republican candidates including President Donald Trump and incumbent state Sen. Heather Somers.

That GOP support extended to the bottom of the ticket, where unsuccessful probate court judge candidate Salvatore Ritacco of Pawcatuck received more votes than Democrat Beth Ladwig Leamon, who defeated him in Groton, Stonington and Ledyard. Even Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, whose work to bring submarine contracts to Electric Boat has created thousands of well-paying, middle-class jobs for the region, received a far smaller percentage of the vote in North Stonington than in other area towns. Rotella had defeated Howard by 421 votes in Stonington.

Stonington Democratic Town Committee Chairman Tim O’Brien said there was apparently a great deal of straight Republican ticket voting in North Stonington, which aided Howard, who also appeared on the ballot in both communities for the Independent Party.

“But we knew this would be a hard race,” he said. “We knew Greg was a different kind of candidate. He’s involved in youth sports. I have kids, you know who Greg Howard is. So he had a built-in network in Stonington and North Stonington.”

That said, O’Brien said Rotella worked very hard to connect with people in both towns and get out the vote. He said COVID-19 restrictions made campaigning difficult.

As for the impact of the police accountability law, O’Brien pointed out that incumbents in other communities who supported the law were successful in their reelection bids.

Howard’s successful race

On Aug. 3, Howard went to Stonington Town Hall and picked up forms he needed to collect signatures to get on the ballot as a petitioning candidate. By Aug. 7, he had been endorsed by the Republican Party to replace Shaun Mastroianni, who had been endorsed in July to challenge Rotella but then dropped out of the race. Both men knew that Howard’s position on the ballot as a petitioning candidate would mean they would split much of the Republican vote and Rotella would likely cruise to victory.

Howard, who has pledged to not vote along party lines, attributed his victory to two factors: the hard work of about 25 supporters, and the fact that people know he will tell them where he stands on an issue.

“As a police officer in a small community, you live in a fishbowl, and that’s the way I’ve always tried to live my life,” he said Wednesday. “People realize I will not change who I am.”

He said a group of people, not just town committee members but friends and relatives who were not previously active, worked tirelessly to make phone calls, get out voters and put up signs since he was endorsed in August.

“I would not have won without them,” he said.

While Howard does not have formal experience on local boards or commissions, he said he does have a lot of public service experience and has always paid close attention to what is going on with boards such as the Stonington Board of Finance, frequently talking with members.

Howard said the days leading up to the election, as well as Tuesday, were a roller-coaster.

“I had people telling me, 'You’re going to get killed.' Others told me, 'You will win by a landslide,' and others said, 'It will be close,'” he said. “When the polls closed, I just didn’t know.”

Rotella could not be reached to comment Wednesday.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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