Freshman incumbent Democrat Christine Cohen is running for re-election against Republican Joe LaPorta for the 12th District’s State Senate seat, representing Madison, Guilford, Branford, North Branford, Durham and Killingworth.
Cohen, who chairs the Environment Committee, and founded and co-chairs the Coastal Caucus, “a bipartisan group of lawmakers who focus on the issues affecting coastal towns, cities and waterways,” has taken a prominent role in issues affecting the environment.
Cohen also co-chairs the legislature’s Bioscience Caucus, where she works to promote the state’s biotechnology industry.
With her husband, Cohen also owns Cohen’s Bagel Company in Madison. They live in Guilford.
“We didn’t really know too much about making bagels, but we tried out several recipes and one hit,” she said. “Seventeen years later, here we are, we just got named Best Bagel by Connecticut Magazine.”
Cohen says that gun safety and affordable healthcare are among the issues that she will prioritize in the coming term if re-elected. Cohen supports a public option for healthcare in Connecticut, and has worked on bills to cap the cost of certain drugs and treatments, including insulin.
Her challenger, LaPorta, said that one of his priorities, if elected, would be to make the state an affordable place to live for the elderly and for young families.
“Seniors are being priced out of their homes,” he said. “They can’t afford the property taxes anymore when they’re on a fixed income.”
LaPorta, who works as an engineer at Eversource, was born and raised in Waterbury before earning a BA, as well as master’s degrees in electrical engineering and business administration, from University of Hartford.
He is a self-described newcomer to politics, joining the Madison Republican Town Committee in April 2017 after moving to town with his wife Lauren, where they raise their four children.
LaPorta is also a of member of the Guilford Sportsmen’s Association and a board member of the Connecticut Chapter of Delta Waterfowl, a nonprofit dedicated to “science-based solutions that efficiently conserve waterfowl and secure the future for waterfowl hunting.”
LaPorta said that he doesn’t want to see his children grow up and move out of state because it’s too expensive to live in Connecticut.
“I’m very, very invested in the state, he said. “Connecticut born. Connecticut bred. And when I’m gone, I’ll be Connecticut dead.”
Asked how they would prioritize state budget choices with Connecticut facing a projected fiscal year deficit of $2.5 billion, and further deficits stretching into the future — in August, Gov. Ned Lamont directed agency heads to plan for deep cuts in the state budget of 10% — both Cohen and LaPorta said they are cautious about the idea of indiscriminately cutting programs.
Cohen, said that it is especially important that food assistance programs and Medicaid are not subject to budget cuts.
“You talk to constituents, and, you know, one constituent will give you an example of how great a program was at serving their needs. And you talk to another constituent, and a completely different program really was their lifeline. And so … you begin to understand that these programs are all important in their own right,” said Cohen.
LaPorta and Cohen both said that they want to eliminate fees and what Cohen refers to as “nuisance taxes” that burden small businesses.
“It’s an impediment to giving people a shot at starting a business … all these upfront costs that we expect people to pay when they’re getting started,” said LaPorta.
Cohen said she hopes that eliminating extra expenses will promote economic growth for businesses, which in turn will help grow the state budget.
LaPorta said that he would support delaying the minimum wage increase, saying that it prevents business owners from hiring new people. Cohen said that increasing the minimum wage benefits essential workers.
Energy and the Environment
In August, Cohen wrote a letter to the president of Eversource expressing her frustration with what she believed was their poor response during Tropical Storm Isaias.
“We are the ratepayers … We are promised, year after year or any time there’s a rate increase, that there will be something provided for that. Oftentimes it’s storm preparedness, emergency preparedness.”
Eversource, she said, has failed to live up to those expectations. Cohen said that she believes the company prioritized the restoration of power over sending out “make safe” crews, to clear roads for public safety.
In the recent special session, Cohen supported legislation giving state regulators broader authority to consider performance when setting electrical rates, to require minimum staffing, and to reimburse customers for lost food and medicine after an extended power outage.
LaPorta, who works as an operations manager at Eversource, said that he was very proud of the crews he worked with during the storm.
“I don’t think a lot of people give enough credit to the guys that are actually doing the work — you know, long, long shifts on very, very minimal sleep,” he said.
Asked how the state can better address energy generation and regulation, LaPorta said that the push toward renewable or green energy sources comes at a cost to the ratepayers. He said that he could potentially support “putting the pause button” on any future renewable energy requirements.
What you end up with is just a lot of costs … that have to be born by the rate payers,” said La Porta.
Current regulations require that energy providers obtain 48 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.
Cohen, who helped move legislation through the Environment Committee to increase the use of wind energy, said that she would like to see the state move toward 100 percent renewable energy.
Asking if she would support changes to police accountability legislation passed in an August special session of legislature, Cohen said that initially she had concerns about provisions of the law limiting the use of force by police officers and limiting qualified immunity. But Cohen said that the version passed by the legislature would only target officers engaged in “willful, wanton misconduct.”
LaPorta in contrast said that the financial ramifications of the qualified immunity provision would be “really damaging,” especially given the lack of a cap on damages in a lawsuit.
“Think about the frivolous lawsuits that could be brought forward,” he said. “That could be very, very expensive, not only for our officers … to have to purchase liability insurance, but also for the towns, which may be the ones who are purchasing it for them.”
“I think the negatives really outweigh the positives with that bill,” added LaPorta, who said that he has heard from a number of people in the district with concerns about public safety.
“They don’t want to see crime in their state. And I think that that’s a very real concern for a lot of people, especially parents of young kids,” he said. “We have a great state … we want to keep it beautiful.”
Local and state government
Cohen said that she approves of the extension of emergency executive powers until February 2021 for Lamont.
“I think if ever there’s a time for a state of an emergency and executive authority, it’s in the midst of a pandemic. I think the governor has done a really great job of leading our state in a direction that has mitigated the spread of the virus,” she said.
LaPorta said that it was time for the legislature to resume its constitutional duties.
“I believe it was time for the governor to let his executive orders expire and let the legislature do their job. They’re elected by the people. The people voted for their representatives,” he said. “We should let them go back to work and decide how it is we’re going to move forward as a state.”
Asked whether he supported a role for state government in creating affordable housing and regionalization of the schools, La Porta said that he was in favor of local government having greater autonomy in most issues. He opposes the idea of regionalizing schools and said that towns should be able to decide whether and what kind of affordable housing they want.
LaPorta also said that he opposed efforts by the state to make municipalities responsible for teacher pensions.
“That’s kind of the point in my whole philosophy on government. It’s local level. Local control. Access to your elected officials, access to actually be able to make change,” he said. “The more we centralize things away from where services are rendered, the less satisfied we will be with our government.”