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Norwich — Although they were seated in armchairs on either side of a coffee table, Wednesday’s conversation between Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his Republican opponent Tom Foley was anything but warm.
In the first debate of the gubernatorial race, the candidates — who also faced off in 2010 — touched on gun control, education and the economy in front of a packed auditorium at Norwich Free Academy. The “conversational” debate format decided on by The Bulletin allowed the candidates 25 total minutes each, and neither one missed an opportunity to slip in a barbed comment.
At one point in the debate, which was moderated by The Bulletin’s Ray Hackett, Foley told Malloy he was out of touch because he lives in a “big mansion up there in Hartford and you’ve got a driver that takes you around.”
“You are hurting the citizens in this state with your policies,” said Foley, who said the cost of living in Connecticut went up under Malloy’s leadership while the economy continues to struggle.
It was a common theme for Foley, who countered Malloy’s optimistic words about the economy by talking about his conversations with struggling voters.
But Malloy was always ready with a reply. Throughout the night, he argued with the Republican’s statistics and said Foley had no clear plan of his own to address the challenges facing the state.
When Foley brought up the “mansion,” the governor accused Foley of “making people feel as bad as they can” about the economy for an electoral advantage.
Then he went on to bring Foley’s own residence into the debate.
The Republican lives in Greenwich, said Malloy, which is a nice place, but “really, people in glass houses probably shouldn’t throw stones.”
“When I went to Sprague,” continued Malloy, referring to Foley’s appearance in the town after a paper plant there closed, “I didn’t get out of the back seat of a BMW.”
In between the pointed comments, the candidates took time to spell out their policy differences and began the debate by discussing gun control and education.
When asked to clarify his position on the stringent gun control measures enacted after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Foley reiterated earlier comments that he would sign a repeal of the law if the legislature presented it to him. But that is not the same, he said, as pursuing its repeal.
Malloy accused him of splitting hairs on the point and speaking like a “career politician.”
The Republican went on to vow that “if anybody is pursued under this law for a felony for not having registered a firearm, I will make sure they are not prosecuted.”
Foley said it was reasonable for the state to respond to the shooting but described the legislation as “overreaching” and “way, way beyond what I believe would be an appropriate response to Newtown.”
In response, Malloy began directly questioning Foley.
“Should a person be able to buy a gun without a background check?” asked the governor. It was the first in a series of questions to Foley, before Malloy stated unequivocally that he would not sign a repeal of the legislation, which he said has led to “lower crime, fewer homicides, and safer schools, teachers and administrators.”
“I believe what we have done has made Connecticut safer,” said Malloy.
The two also butted heads on education, but in a moment of humility, Malloy apologized for previous comments on the subject. He said a controversial comment he made in 2012 about teachers winning tenure just by showing up was “bad language.”
Foley told Malloy that teachers should have played a larger role in policy decisions; the governor said they were significantly involved. They were at odds, also, on achievement of Connecticut students: Foley cited slipping test scores, while the governor argued that they are actually quite high and that his reform needs more time before being judged.
As the discussion drew to a close, Malloy called Foley’s numbers “patently ridiculous,” and the Republican likened the governor’s leadership to a ship’s captain headed for the Caribbean but finding himself amidst icebergs.
“Governor, when I hear you talk,” said Foley, “sometimes I wonder if we actually live in different states.”