Veteran politicians with long tenures in their towns are supposed to cruise to victory with little opposition. That's one reason voters sometimes push for term limits — as incumbents rarely face serious challenges.
But that's not the case this year: Four Democrats, each with at least 16 years of service at the state Capitol, are being challenged in primaries Aug. 12.
Those incumbents rank among the longest-serving legislators, and one — Rep. Robert T. Keeley of Bridgeport — would become the third-longest-serving member of the House of Representatives if he survives the test. First elected in 1982, Keeley said that several House primaries in Bridgeport are related to settling scores over last year's bitter race for mayor between state Rep. Christopher Caruso and former state Sen. Bill Finch — who was the victor.
So the stakes are high and the gloves are off.
"This race is all about that I supported Caruso for mayor — not Finch," Keeley said. "It's a classic battle between David and Goliath — little Bobby [Keeley] against the moneyed interests of the suburbs. But I brought my slingshot."
Keeley is facing trial attorney Auden C. Grogins, a former city council member and former president of the Bridgeport school board who was defeated in her re-election bid in 2007.
"She's the only person on Finch's slate who lost last year," Keeley said. "He's a puppeteer, and she's one of the marionettes."
But Grogins sharply rejected that characterization, noting that Mario Testa, the powerful chairman of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee, broke a tie to award Keeley the Democratic nomination in the race.
"I think it's just the opposite," Grogins said. "I think Mario is the puppeteer, and Keeley is the marionette."
The two have been arguing over whether Keeley has been an effective advocate for Bridgeport during his 24 years in the legislature. Keeley's supporters say the city cannot afford to lose him because he is now co-chairman of the powerful bonding subcommittee through which he can deliver important projects to the cash-strapped city. On Monday, the State Bond Commission is expected to award $1.1 million to the city to repair a firehouse in the Black Rock section.
Adam Wood, Finch's chief of staff, said the mayor's office solicited the funds directly for the firehouse in a multi-pronged effort. He said there is "no truth" to Keeley's statements that Finch is a puppeteer, and he said that Finch did not ask Grogins to run against Keeley. He also denied Keeley's statements that the mayor's office — and Wood — are running Grogins' campaign.
Among the 19 legislative primaries, some of the nastiest are in Bridgeport. One is a rematch between state Rep. Andres Ayala Jr. and Lydia Martinez, a former three-term legislator who was ousted by Ayala in an August 2006 primary, 61 percent to 39 percent. Some insiders believe that race will be closer this time.
Also, Caruso — with 18 years at the Capitol, one of the longest-serving legislators — is being challenged by Bridgeport city council member Carlos Silva. Two other incumbents — 16-year veteran Terry Backer of Stratford and 16-year lawmaker Marie Kirkley-Bey of Hartford — are being challenged for their seats. Backer is facing Democrat Michael Singh, while Kirkley-Bey is facing North End political stalwart Abe Giles.
One of the hottest primary races statewide pits state Rep. John "Corky" Mazurek against political neophyte Karen A. Houghtaling, a 41-year-old grandmother who works two jobs as a receptionist and a waitress in Waterbury. Houghtaling has major backing from union and liberal groups, such as Connecticut Citizen Action Group, the United Auto Workers, AFSCME Council 4 and the Working Families Party.
One Democratic legislator said the race is "too close to call," while CCAG Executive Director Tom Swan said Houghtaling could pull off an upset.
"I would not be the least bit surprised to see her beat him," Swan said.
While Mazurek is better known as a three-term incumbent, Houghtaling has the same amount of money — $15,000 — to spend under the new campaign finance reform law.
But House Speaker James Amann strongly disagreed that Mazurek will have difficulty in Wolcott, a conservative-leaning town where Mazurek has lived for more than 30 years. By contrast, Houghtaling moved to the small town only two years ago and has never held public office.
"The bottom line is not one of our incumbents is in trouble," said Amann, who plans to campaign with Mazurek on Monday. "The people of Wolcott love him. Corky Mazurek will be a repeat legislator. The guy did nothing wrong to his community. They're not going to knock him out."
Mazurek, a conservative Democrat, has had support from unions in the past but is now clashing with the liberal activist group CCAG.
"I think CCAG feels if they can't control you as a Democrat, they want you out," he said. "CCAG isn't going to control me."
On the Republican side, only one race involves an incumbent — Rep. Selim G. Noujaim against Jason A. Carlascio in Waterbury. In a hotly contested race in the Senate district that covers Simsbury, Avon and nine other towns, Rep. Kevin Witkos of Canton is battling Moira Wertheimer of Simsbury.
Witkos, a longtime police officer, became known quickly at the Capitol for his upset victory over incumbent Democratic Rep. Jessie G. Stratton in November 2002. Wertheimer, a nurse who attended law school at Georgetown University, currently serves on the Simsbury Board of Selectmen. She is already running radio advertisements in the Hartford region on WTIC-AM, while both candidates have mailed campaign literature to registered Republicans.
Even though Witkos is one of the "Fighting 44" Republicans in the House who have constantly supported Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell over the past four years, Rell has not thrown her support behind Witkos.
"I always stay out of primaries," Rell told The Courant. "I'll support the candidate after the primaries are completed."
In the same way, the state Republican Party is staying neutral, but GOP Chairman Christopher Healy has offered words of advice to the candidates.
"We encourage everybody not to tear each other up too much," he said.
Contact Christopher Keating at email@example.com.
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