The four candidates for the 2nd District Congressional seat debate in Willimantic

Willimantic — All four candidates vying to represent the 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives -- the Libertarian, the Green Party member, the Republican and the incumbent Democrat -- met on stage at Eastern Connecticut State University tonight for the only four-way debate of the season.

The presence of Bill Clyde, a Green Party member, and Dan Reale, a Libertarian, altered the dynamics between Republican Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney in the discussion moderated by the Norwich Bulletin’s Ray Hackett.

The members of the minor parties pushed discussion in directions it wouldn’t necessarily have gone otherwise: Reale, a freelance paralegal, was emphatic when he criticized large banks and called for making student loans dischargeable during bankruptcy, causing Courtney to elaborate on his efforts in those areas. And Clyde, an economics professor, criticized divisiveness in Washington and offered a new perspective on healthcare.

The candidates touched on several topics that have been in the headlines: Ebola, immigration, healthcare and ISIS.

Courtney used a good portion of his speaking time to throw his support behind specific bills under consideration and discuss his previous efforts in the House.

He touted his work on student loans, but said more needs to be done. He agreed with Reale that they should be dischargeable under bankruptcy and said there is, in fact, a bill in the House that would allow just that.

“But that by itself is not enough,” said Courtney, who supports lower interests rates for the loans. “Bankruptcy court is not where people prefer to be.”

He said he also supported a bipartisan senate bill on immigration that “makes a sharp distinction between people with criminal records” and other undocumented immigrants.

“At some point we have got to address this problem,” said Courtney, who said immigration should be seen as “not a burden but an opportunity.”

He added that he wants Speaker of the House John Boehner to have them consider the Senate bill during the lame duck session.

Hopkins-Cavanagh offered a different view on immigration.

“We don’t even know who the illegals are who are here,” she said, arguing that those who are on welfare, unemployed or have a criminal record are “a drain on the country.”

Either they’re a “productive member of society or they should go back where they came from, wherever that is,” she said.

The Republican candidate also advocated tight borders to prevent not only unwanted immigration but terrorism and, “God forbid,” the spread of diseases like Ebola.

The candidates offered a variety of views on healthcare. Courtney defended the Affordable Care Act but reiterated that it’s “not the Ten Commandments” and could use some work.

“There are positive trends,” he said. Healthcare is “dynamic and changing, but I think we made a lot of steps in the right direction.”

“Like so many things in our lives, (healthcare is) confusing,” said Clyde, the Green, who supports a universal healthcare system. “It needs to be simplified.”

Reale, the Libertarian, railed against the current system’s lack of transparency in pricing. If other industries did that, he said, people would be fined and jailed.

Hackett pressed Hopkins-Cavanagh, a critic of what she calls ObamaCare, for more specifics on what she would replace it with.

“I can put a name on it,” said the Republican, who felt she had already explained the alternative. “LoriCare, there you go.”

“LoriCare,” she said, would involved payroll contributions to health savings accounts for every citizen, catastrophic injury coverage by the government and individual choice for everyone.

Hackett also brought up a couple college students, who asked, among other things, whether they should be optimistic about finding a job in Connecticut come graduation.

“All the students in this room: you’re going to have a heck of a time finding a great career opportunity” upon graduation, said Hopkins-Cavanagh.

Things have changed, she said, since 1985, when she graduated from the University of Connecticut and quickly started her own business.

“There was opportunity everywhere. You could be whatever you want to be. It was the land of opportunity,” she said. But now, “government’s in the way” -- something she said she’d change as a congresswoman by decreasing regulation.

Career outlook, said Courtney, depends on a student’s major, but he said “demand is off the charts” in southeastern Connecticut for engineering and design majors. There are openings at several major employers in the region, including Electric Boat, Mohegan Sun and Pfizer, he added.

And, he said, there is nothing wrong leaving the state and “going out and exploring and experiment in life.”

The congressman also took a moment to refute some of his Republican opponent’s charges about the local economy.

Hopkins-Cavanagh, a real estate broker, has said repeatedly that the region is in a “housing depression” and “trails the economy in economic growth,” but Courtney disagreed on both counts.

He said real estate sales are actually up 10 percent and housing market is “moving forward” -- to which Hopkins-Cavanagh countered that housing prices must increase to solve the problem --and that the second district actually has lower unemployment rates than some contiguous districts.

Courtney cited mydistrictdata.com, a site run by citigroup, as the source of that data.

He also confronted one of Hopkins-Cavanagh’s frequent criticisms: That the workers at Electric Boat are to thank for their submarine contracts, not politicians like Courtney.

The Democrat called EB workers “wonderful,” but said “the fact is that they don’t authorize and appropriate the shipbuilding account.”

Hopkins-Cavanagh called herself an advocate for the working poor and middle class and said Courtney’s policies are making the rich “very, very, very wealthy.”

She concluded her message by saying “we need to return to business sense in Washington, D.C.”

Courtney, on the other hand, asked voters to return him to Congress.

“I am just a total optimist about the future of this country and engaging young people,” he said, promising to invest in the people of Connecticut through making higher education more accessible.

The minor party candidates had their own pitches to make.

Reale promised that his “campaign promises come under the penalty of perjury,” as does his belief in a three-term limit -- he has signed an affidavit promising to address certain issues.

“We give Democrats and Republicans too much of a chance. It’s time that they earned their votes,” said Reale.

Clyde had the last word of the evening, and he appealed to voters to “do something bold and different.”

If you’re dissatisfied with the major parties and decide not to vote, “we all know what’s going to happen,” said Clyde. “Joe Courtney’s going to win two-thirds of the vote, as he did the last time.”

“If instead, you decide to use your votes as the strong and powerful messages that they are,” said Clyde, you can send a message to Washington that the status quo needs updated.

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