Madeline Stocker Photo
Tom Foley and Mike D’Aurio argue (Madeline Stocker Photo)

SPRAGUE— Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley was met with opposition outside a closing paper mill Tuesday, where his efforts to blame the plant’s failure on Democratic policies turned into 40 minutes of debate.

Foley had scheduled the press conference at Fusion Paperboard to highlight the ways in which he believed his administration would have saved the 145 jobs lost in the closing of the mill, and started off by listing some of his talking points.

“The largest tax increase in the history of Connecticut has slowed our economy and increased pressure on businesses,” Foley said, pledging to get rid of extraneous taxes, mandates and energy costs for businesses. “We have anti-business policies being mandated, and ultimately that drives businesses out of the state.”

Foley went on to say that he believed the closing of the mill was the result of the failure of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration, saying that the governor was “handing out billions of taxpayer dollars to bribe businesses,” in reference to the $3 million that the Department of Economic and Community Development loaned to Fusion last year.

However, Sprague First Selectman Cathy Osten, who’s also the district’s Democratic state senator, interrupted Foley’s press conference with questions of her own.

“Have you reached out to the First Selectman of Sprague?” Osten asked.

“No, I have not,” he answered.

Madeline Stocker Photo
Sen. Cathy Osten (Madeline Stocker Photo)

“Have you reached out to the union president? Have you reached out to the company itself to find out why they’re leaving the area?” she asked.

Foley said he had read press accounts of its closure, then tried to turn his attention back to reporters. But Osten compared the paper mill’s closure to the closure of a Bibb Co. facility in Georgia. The facility was shut down after a firm founded by Foley sold the company. It’s a subject Foley’s opponents cited often during his unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

After the Bibb comments, Foley returned Osten’s criticisms.

“You have failed at your effort to keep these jobs here, haven’t you?” he asked. “You’ve failed and Gov. Malloy has failed along with you and you’ve wasted taxpayers money.”

But Osten was not the only person at the event to push back at Foley.

“You need to get your facts straight,” said Mike D’Aurio, an eight-year Fusion worker and Plainfield resident, who chalked the mill’s closing up to corporate greed, not Democratic policies. “I don’t want you leading me.”

Others agreed that the 145 lost jobs were not a fault of the Malloy administration but of the company owners, who decided to sell the mill’s largest and most fundamental piece of equipment to a paper mill in Indiana, and were therefore left inoperable.

“The company decided that they would rather make money as an international investment firm, and not a company that holds onto their workers,” Osten said. “Personally, I think they got paid to take it offline.”

Osten and labor leaders said the Malloy administration had done everything they could to keep Fusion open, citing both the $3 million loan and the six-year contract between the company and the union as signs of “being in the clear.”

“I thought we were golden,” Rich Harrelle, president of Local 1840 of the United Steelworkers Union, said.

With a little under two months left until the mill closes, employees are left to search for other jobs. Although Osten said that she and other local officials are working to set employees up with interviews at the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance and General Dynamics Electric Boat, employees will likely be left to fend for themselves.

“We made $20 an hour,” Harrelle said. “It was a good job. It was good work.”