Is third time a charm? Candidates for state's 123rd District in Trumbull say yes and no

TRUMBULL — When Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox launched her first campaign to represent the 123rd District in the state House in 2018, a lot of people didn't know who she was. But now Gadkar-Wilcox, a Democrat and Trumbull resident, is a more familiar face, running her third campaign to represent the district.

She's running against Republican incumbent David Rutigliano,who lives in Trumbull, also for the third time. 

And both said a lot has changed since the first time they met to compete for the seat.

For one thing, Gadkar-Wilcox said she's meeting more people who know who she is and what she stands for. For another, both candidates said they're meeting more and more people who are hungry for change.

"People are really tired of divisive politics," Gadkar-Wilcox said. "They really want to find a way around that."

Rutigliano said he's also hearing from people who are fed up, but most of those he's spoken with are upset about high taxes and a cost of living they feel is unsustainable.

"The economic stress out there is palpable, especially in the older population," he said. "I literally had a couple of seniors cry to me at doorstep" because they were worried about the high cost of oil they need to heat their homes.

"People are feeling (economic strain) and are concerned about it," Rutigliano said.

Rutigliano has named reducing taxes a key platform issue of his, along with with criminal justice reforms. Gadkar-Wilcox has pinpointed reducing political polarization, through such methods as imposing term limits, and protecting women's rights among her key issues. 

The two aren't without some common ground. Both have said they want to see state funding being used to relieve some of the tax burden in Trumbull.

Over the past two elections, Gadkar-Wilcox has gained some ground against Rutigliano. In 2018, she lost to Rutigliano by about 850 votes. But the 2020 race was tighter, with Rutigliano winning by roughly 250.

Gadkar-Wilcox pointed out that, so far, this year's campaign has been easier than the 2020 race in one clear way. That race was during the heat of the pandemic, she said, so she couldn't meet as many people face to face as she would have liked.

"We really couldn’t go out and get to the doors," Gadkar-Wilcox said. "Actually having public dialogues — that, to me, is what political life should be about."

That's why she said she is concerned that she and Rutigliano haven't been able to have a debate. Gadkar-Wilcox said she has reached out to Rutigliano about having a debate, but nothing has been scheduled.

"We get an initial response, but we never really get a confirmation," she said.

Rutigliano said the insinuation that he doesn't want to debate is "not a factual statement." He said the reason his response has been minimal is that he originally thought that a candidate debate needed to be organized by a third party — such as the League of Women Voters or the Chamber of Commerce — or it would violate campaign regulations.

Gadkar-Wilcox said she wasn't aware of this concern.

"This is the first I'm hearing of this," she said.

Laura Smits, the president of the League of Women voters of Connecticut, said she wasn't aware of any campaign laws of that nature. However, she said, she thinks it's advisable to have a debate organized by a third party organization such as the League of Women Voters to help ensure that the event is nonpartisan.

"(To my knowledge) that does not preclude candidates from coming to one another," Smits said.

Rutigliano said his understanding was, if Gadkar-Wilcox's campaign planned the entire debate, it would be considered a campaign event, and would be against regulations.

A representative of Gadkar-Wilcox's campaign said it was always their intent to have the debate be a collaborative effort not organized by one party.

Rutigliano said he was definitely open to a debate under the right circumstances.

"I've never said no," he said. "I'm not afraid of a debate."