Published October 22. 2012 7:00PM Updated October 23. 2012 12:39AM
Willimantic — The first debate to include all four candidates for the 2nd Congressional District featured substantive talks Monday night on the college debt crisis, defense spending, medical marijuana, health care and a slew of other topics.
The debate featured U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, the Democrat seeking his fourth term in the district, and Paul Formica, the Republican challenger and first selectman of East Lyme.
Colin Bennett, the Green Party candidate, and Dan Reale, the Libertarian candidate, also joined them on stage before a crowd of about 200 inside the Betty Tipton Room on the campus of Eastern Connecticut State University.
Each candidate had 20 minutes to craft responses to questions asked by Ray Hackett, the Norwich Bulletin's editorial page editor. The Bulletin was one of the sponsors of the debate.
The questioning started on what can be done to help students better manage the hefty loans they take out to pay for college.
Courtney brought up a piece of legislation that he loudly championed that for one year will keep the interest rates from doubling on federally subsidized Stafford loans. The one-year extension, which locked in interest rates at 3.4 percent, is projected to save more than 7 million college students about $1,000 apiece over the life of their student loans.
Bennett and Reale questioned whether college was the right choice for all young people nationwide. For instance, Bennett said he attended college largely to make his father happy and his other professional experience has shaped his views. Reale said many students don't understand the debt they take on.
When asked about the loan epidemic many students encounter, Formica referenced his experience dealing with his own four children who have either graduated or are in college and offered a potential solution to the issue.
"What we have to focus on is getting these kids jobs so that they can pay the principal on these loans. That way the interest doesn't become quite the issue," Formica said.
The discussion turned to the production of nuclear submarines at Electric Boat in Groton. Both Bennett and Reale argued defense spending has spiraled out of control and questioned whether future production of submarines was the right thing moving forward.
Courtney pointed to his work to help secure twice-a-year production of Virginia-class submarines. He also said recent remarks — even one from President Obama — have shown another round of military base closures nationwide is unlikely. The Naval Submarine Base has faced this threat in the past.
Formica said building submarines makes even more sense now than it did years ago. He said creating submarines would help create military deterrents and put other nations on notice.
Courtney and Formica both said they favored leaving the choice to states of making medical marijuana legal. Later the candidates were asked about the health care law, nicknamed Obamacare.
Courtney supported the legislation while Formica said there were parts of it he supports. He said he would prefer that government take another look at the provision that allows young adults to stay on their parents' insurance up to age 26. He said this would be unnecessary benefit if these younger adults were able to secure their own jobs and insurance.
When asked by Hackett about moving to a needs-based tax for Social Security, Courtney brought up how it helped his 26-year-old brother, who died and left a 2-year-old behind.
"It's not just a retirement program, " Courtney said. "It's for people on disability."
Owner of the Flanders Fish Market in East Lyme, Formica also spent much of Monday returning to the major theme of his campaign that the practices of small businesses can work on a bigger stage. Bennett spent part of his remarks arguing government should turn its attention to new sources of energy, such as wind and solar. Reale spent much of his allotted time criticizing government spending practices.
About 75 political supporters gathered outside the Eastern Student Center prior to the debate. Courtney's supporters, a group that included Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, outnumbered Formica's by about 2-to-1.
Courtney's people, with their yellow political signs, let out chants of "Hey, hey, whaddya say, vote for Joe on Election Day." A young man with a bull horn led the chants.
Formica's supporters countered with chants of, "Joe has to go," as they thrust their red, white and blue signs into the air.