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This bid for statewide office starts in Groton

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 02/16/2014 12:00 AM
Updated 02/15/2014 10:24 PM

John N. Dempsey, a native of Ireland, was the mayor or Putnam before he went on to become lieutenant governor of Connecticut and then governor, from 1961 to 1971.

Dempsey, who is buried in Putnam, retired to a waterfront home at Mumford Cove in Groton after leaving the governor's mansion.

The list of things Dempsey did for Groton and southeastern Connecticut is long and includes many of the things the region still treasures, like the big state park at Bluff Point and the Avery Point branch of the University of Connecticut in Groton.

And so I perked up when I saw recently that Heather Bond Somers, a town councilor in Groton and former mayor, announced she is running for lieutenant governor.

It's been a long time since one of our own here in southeastern Connecticut has aimed for statewide office, if you don't count a few losing bids for U.S. Senate.

I hate to be a regionalist, but I can't help but be a little parochial as the state's next gubernatorial contest gets under way. Wouldn't it be great for southeastern Connecticut to have some real influence again in Hartford?

When I called Somers and asked if we could get together for an interview, she politely suggested we meet at her home in the City of Groton, which turned out to be a charming old Victorian on the hill looking across the Thames River at New London.

After a pleasant meeting, I came away thinking that, no matter what voters might make of Somers' politics or take on issues, one could hardly question her qualifications.

I also came away with the realization that Groton takes advantage of New London. New Londoners look at the oil tanks, smokestacks and industrial sprawl of Groton. Groton residents like Somers, on the other hand, look at a handsome New London shoreline, its skyline punctuated by church steeples, its waterfront busy with ferry and tug traffic.

Somers said she and her husband didn't even realize their Groton house had a view when they bought it as a ramshackle wreck, back in 2010, with a tree growing through one of the porches and the barn filled with rusting old cars.

The renovated house is a good symbol of Somers' obvious energy, which she applies at home, in her career as a successful businesswoman, and in her second calling, as a top vote-getting politician in her hometown.

Somers has two children who are away at college. She married her husband, a cardiologist, in 2009. They have a 3-year-old named Grace, who Somers said came along as a delightful surprise, when she was 44 years old.

She also has three pugs, rescue dogs, including 7-year-old Zoe, who snored loudly from a couch for the course of our interview.

Until this month, Somers has been the president of a medical device manufacturer. She started the company with a colleague in the basement of a church, with borrowed money and three employees.

When they sold it two years ago - staying on as paid managers for a transition - it had 40 employees, a manufacturing company based in an old Willimantic mill with an international customer list.

Somers lived briefly in downtown New London, after marrying in 2009, but she is a Grotonian at heart, the daughter of a civilian submariner who grew up in Noank and went to Groton schools before attending the University of Connecticut.

She first ran for Town Council in 2001 and lost by four votes. She tried again and won and has pretty much served ever since on the council, except for her short stint away from town, in New London.

One of the first issues to motivate her to get involved in politics was high property taxes. She said she remembers seeing people of her parents' generation being driven from their homes when they could not afford the rising property taxes in Noank, as property values soared.

She helped craft a proposal that would have frozen taxes for the elderly, deferring increased taxes until their estates could pay them. The measure died in a 5-4 vote, she said.

Somers said she would like to pursue similar property tax relief at the state level and believes that one of the biggest problems Connecticut faces is the migration of older, retiring residents and young people who don't settle here and stay.

As lieutenant governor, she said she wants to be a worker, not a ribbon-cutter and parade walker. She would like the office to become a formal liaison and advocate for Connecticut businesses and municipalities, since she knows from both perspectives how hard it can be to get help from Hartford.

A Republican, she also says she wants to work with Democrats.

"Both parties are guilty of digging in and not compromising," she told me. "We need to work together, to make this work, to move forward."

Hardworking. Entrepreneurial and successful. Open to compromise.

Those are all good qualities in a candidate, even one that isn't from Groton.

It is especially welcome to see them in a candidate who is.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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