Sprague First Selectman Prepares for Rematch with Coutu in 19th District
By: JC Reindl
Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten was always known as tough.
The eldest of six girls and one boy, she was cooking, cleaning
and waitressing at her family's former restaurant in Norwich throughout
high school. Three days after turning 18, she joined the U.S. Army.
"My parents taught us to be strong women," she said.
More recently, Osten dealt with maximum-security inmates during
her 21-year career in the state Department of Correction. She led a
successful effort to unionize the prison guard supervisors, sacrificing
promotions and invoking the ire of higher-ups.
Now the Democratic nominee for the 19th state Senate District,
Osten, 56, is energized from her Aug. 14 primary victory over state Rep.
Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, and charging hard against Rep. Chris Coutu of
Norwich, her Republican opponent this fall.
The winner on Nov. 6 will replace the popular Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, 86, who is retiring for health reasons.
Osten is presenting herself as a "tough-as-nails" tribune for the
people with a record of managerial successes. Her campaign literature
touts her "no-nonsense" work ethic and "rough-around-the-edges style."
"I'm a fighter," Osten said in an interview last week. "When
people tell me it cannot happen, I make it happen. I never let an issue
go until it's resolved in its fullest."
She's certainly in for a fight. Coutu handily defeated Osten in
2010, 57 percent to 43 percent, when she challenged his House of
This year, Coutu believes that he can turn one of Osten's
trumpeted accomplishments - directing more than $10 million in aid to
her small town - into a liability by portraying her as a spendthrift
Democrat responsible for Sprague's own "bridge to nowhere."
"The reason some of that money is coming in is because she was a
union president and she helped Joe Courtney and Dan Malloy (get
elected)," Coutu said last week. "They're basically paying her back."
Osten, a former president of both the 3,900-member CSEA/SEIU
Local 2001 and its 400-member correction supervisors' union, took issue
with that characterization. "We don't get any more help than anyone
else, it's writing good grant applications," she said.
She is confident about their rematch, pointing out how Coutu
won't be the incumbent this time and must appeal to voters outside his
native Norwich. Coutu also lacks Osten's potential trump card: the
"I don't know if you've ever door-knocked in the 19th District,
but you can't go to a house that doesn't know who Edith Prague is,"
Prague, who convinced Osten to enter the race, wrote a
districtwide letter to seniors this spring urging support for her
preferred successor. She also appears on Osten's campaign brochures and
did a robocall for her before the primary.
Prague, whose eldest daughter Susan recently died unexpectedly, was unavailable to comment.
Still, Reynolds was commonly seen as the frontrunner going into
the primary. He had the legislative experience, the convention
endorsement and was the first to qualify for public campaign financing.
And while he didn't have Prague's support, he had endorsements from 12
state legislators from the region.
But Osten pushed herself through an exhaustive door-knocking
campaign across the district - Norwich, Ledyard, northeastern Montville,
Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon, Marlborough, Hebron, Columbia and Lebanon -
similar to what Prague did in 1994 in her first run for the seat. Osten
also had endorsements from two of the state's biggest public-sector
She had so many blisters on her feet from walking the district that on primary night, she wore flip-flops.
"I fought my own party to win this election and I won because
it's important to me to represent the people," Osten said. "I'm not
about the organization - I'm for the people."
Sprague 'so much better'
Osten is proud of her work in Sprague, an old mill town of about
3,000 residents. She was first elected first selectman in 2007 following
a stint as town treasurer. In the nearly five years since, the town's
tax rate has increased a modest .75 mills.
She has been an outspoken opponent of water and sewer rate
increases by Norwich Public Utilities affecting Fusion Paperboard in
Sprague and Atlantic City Linen Supply Inc. in Norwich that, according
to Osten, threaten the local jobs there. The town has joined the
businesses in suing the city's sewer authority.
By Osten's count, Sprague has received $10 million to $15 million
in state and federal grants since she took office, including funds for
senior housing and upgrades to sidewalks, bridges and water systems.
"I think Cathy's one of the best things that's happened to
Sprague in quite awhile," said Vincent Chrzanowski, former member of the
town's finance board and a registered Republican. "If you look at the
town before her tenure and look at it now, it's so much better."
But other Republicans in town are unconvinced that Sprague really
needed all that money, courtesy of state and federal taxpayers. One of
the more controversial projects was a $400,000 rebuilding of rural
LaCroix Road Bridge over Beaver Brook, out of service since the 1980s.
Republicans also claim that Osten has commandeered control of most of the town's governing boards, a claim she denies.
"It's a joke around here, we call it Ostenville not Sprague,"
said Deb Deschamps-Baker, a Republican on the finance board whose
husband, Warren Baker, unsuccessfully challenged Osten for first
selectman in 2011. "Cathy does what Cathy wants to do."
Deschamps-Baker once filed a complaint with the State Elections
Enforcement Commission that resulted in Osten being fined $200 for
improperly using the town's newsletter in 2010 to highlight her
accomplishments during her campaign to unseat Coutu.
Osten stands by her capital projects and noted that town voters approved the LaCroix bridge project three times.
"None of the infrastructure in town had been updated in 40 to 50
years," she said. "I could have chosen to ignore it all or address it
all, and I addressed it all."
She keeps 'getting back up'
Osten was brought up in Norwich, where her dad Jim owned Jim's
Ten Pin Restaurant for 28 years until his death in 1986. Her mother,
Pat, then started the former Patti-o's Restaurant, also on West Town
Osten's grandfather was Ed Kelly, a area state representative in
the 1950s. Kelly once unsuccessfully challenged then-state Sen. Bill
She graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1973 and enlisted in
the Army. There, she learned Chinese and was stationed in Japan for
Chinese translation work. She enrolled in what was then Mohegan
Community College after leaving the service in 1978.
She went on to work a variety of jobs, including unloading UPS trucks, before becoming a correction worker in 1989.
"I can handle tough situations, always have been able to," Osten
said. "You need to have a common sense approach to things and just do
what needs to be done."
Osten came to Prague's attention in the late 1990s as she sought a
change in state law that would allow herself and fellow prison
supervisors to unionize.
"It was a tremendous undertaking on her part because there was a
tremendous amount of resistance from the department," Mark Verdone, a
captain in the department, recalled last week. "If you knock her down,
she's going to keep getting back up. And it took someone like that to
get the job done."
Osten was later a plaintiff in an early 2000s class action
lawsuit against the department alleging sexual harassment. The lawsuit
was eventually settled, resulting in a new process for reviewing
On a hot afternoon last week, Osten went door-to-door in her old
Norwich neighborhood along West Town Street to ask for support in
November. She carried a stack of brochures with photos of her with
"This woman here who I've been endorsed by, how she always ran
her campaigns was going door-to-door, and that's how I do mine," Osten
explained on one front porch.
She came upon a rebuilt property where she once lived in the
1980s with her now-grown daughter and her sister, Mary, and her two boys
before the house was destroyed by fire.
Osten, who is divorced, casually mentioned how the sister
happened to be home when the old house's gas range blew up.
Miraculously, the only injuries were singed eyebrows.
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