GOP candidates seek to distinguish themselves

Republican candidates for governor gather for a group photo at the conclusion of a Republican gubernatorial debate, including, from left, Bob Stefanowski; Mark Boughton; debate moderator Lee Elci; Steve Obsitnik; Tim Herbst and David Stemerman, in the Cabaret Theatre at the Mohegan Sun Casino on Thursday, July, 12, 2018.   (Tim Martin/The Day)
Republican candidates for governor gather for a group photo at the conclusion of a Republican gubernatorial debate, including, from left, Bob Stefanowski; Mark Boughton; debate moderator Lee Elci; Steve Obsitnik; Tim Herbst and David Stemerman, in the Cabaret Theatre at the Mohegan Sun Casino on Thursday, July, 12, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Mohegan — Standing before a sometimes raucous debate crowd in Mohegan Sun’s Cabaret Theatre, the five Republican candidates for governor took aim Thursday night at the Democratic rule they say has left the state’s finances in shambles, occasionally pausing to critique their opponents’ qualifications.

Voters will choose one of the candidates in an Aug. 14 primary.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst touted their records as municipal officeholders, while outsiders Steve Obsitnik, Bob Stefanowski and David Stemerman asserted that the last thing Connecticut needs is another career politician in the governor’s mansion.

“This primary comes down to trust and who can lead us to victory and govern like a Republican,” Herbst said before launching into an attack on an opponent he said didn’t vote for 16 years and who changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican shortly before announcing his gubernatorial candidacy.

“I have trouble trusting someone who’s donated to Barack Obama and (former Democratic U.S. Sen.) Chris Dodd,” Herbst said.

Though he didn’t name him, Herbst was referring to Stefanowski, a Madison business executive, who clearly was taken aback. After chastising Herbst for not identifying him by name, Stefanowski said he had failed to vote while living for years outside the country and the state and that he regretted it.

“Voters are tired of just that kind of speech,” Stefanowski said of Herbst’s offensive.

Stefanowski then claimed Herbst repeatedly had raised taxes while serving as first selectman and chided him for accepting $1.35 million in public campaign funding.

Boughton, who won the GOP’s endorsement at a May convention, also has accepted the public campaign funding. Obsitnik, a Westport tech entrepreneur, has applied for the assistance but has yet to secure the State Elections Enforcement Commission’s approval of it, while Stefanowski and Stemerman, a Greenwich investor who shut down his hedge fund to run for governor, are spending millions of their own money on their campaigns.

Herbst and Obsitnik qualified for the primary by garnering sufficient delegate support at the convention. Stefanowski and Stemerman petitioned their way onto the ballot.

All of the candidates said they would make changes in the state’s tax structure, though only Boughton and Stefanowski said they would phase out the state’s income tax if elected governor. Stemerman dismissed that approach as “pie in the sky,” saying he was the only candidate who has prepared a detailed plan for righting the state’s fiscal ship, a plan he's posted on his campaign website.

Stefanowski, who held top executive posts at General Electric and UBS Investment Bank, said he’s the only candidate with experience running “anything anywhere near the size of the state of Connecticut.” He said he developed his financial plan for the state after meeting with Arthur Laffer, the economist known for his work during the Reagan administration.

Obsitnik, the candidate with perhaps the closest ties to eastern Connecticut — he’s a former Navy submariner — said the upcoming election is about “makers versus takers.”

“We’ve had takers in Hartford for 40 years,” he said. “That’s what politicians do. I’m a job maker, I’ve actually made products.”

He said his military background and “the mind of an engineer” would enable him to tackle the state’s tax structure. He said he has a “five-step plan” to do so.

The debate, organized by 94.9 News Now, was moderated by Lee Elci, the radio station’s popular talk show host. He posed questions to each of the candidates in turn and they each had a total of 12 minutes to use at their discretion in addition to their opening and closing statements.

Herbst, while responding to a question about gun control, cast himself as the “law-and-order” candidate, saying he would seek to repeal the state's early-prison-release program, reinstate capital punishment and crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities.” He pointed to his recent endorsement by the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, which advocates for gun rights.

Boughton said Danbury is Connecticut's safest city because it has the least unemployment.

Asked about what the potential repeal of the Roe v. Wade decision might have in Connecticut, Boughton said, “I don’t feel comfortable putting government between the doctor and the patient.”

Herbst said Roe v. Wade is codified in Connecticut, a pro-abortion-rights state, and that he doesn’t see that changing.

Regarding matters specific to eastern Connecticut, several of the candidates said they would boost tourism funding if elected and voiced support for preserving the state’s relationship with the casino-owning tribes, the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots.

Asked by Elci to grade President Donald Trump’s performance since taking office, the candidates were in step with one another. Each said: “A.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

Republican candidates for governor, from left, Bob Stefanowski, Steve Obsitnik, Mark Boughton, Tim Herbst and David Stemerman, during a Republican gubernatorial debate, in the Cabaret Theatre at the Mohegan Sun Casino on Thursday, July, 12, 2018.   (Tim Martin/The Day)
Republican candidates for governor, from left, Bob Stefanowski, Steve Obsitnik, Mark Boughton, Tim Herbst and David Stemerman, during a Republican gubernatorial debate, in the Cabaret Theatre at the Mohegan Sun Casino on Thursday, July, 12, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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