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Cheeseman and Steel face off in virtual debate

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, and Democratic challenger Cate Steel convened virtually Wednesday evening for a debate that touched on the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, education, tourism, and the police accountability bill, with some of the starkest differences over funding infrastructure improvements, recreational marijuana legalization, and undocumented immigrants.

The League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut and Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut hosted the hourlong debate with the candidates in the 37th House District, which includes East Lyme and Salem.

Cheeseman is executive director of the Niantic Children's Museum, and Steel is a retired speech language pathologist.

On funding improvements to roads and bridges, Cheeseman proposed leveraging federal dollars, noting the state can borrow money at a low cost. She also proposed looking carefully at Connecticut's administrative cost per mile, noting it's among the highest the country.

(The Reason Foundation, a nonprofit libertarian think tank, ranked Connecticut 50th for administrative disbursements per mile in 2019 and in 2018.)

Steel said one option is setting up weigh stations to make sure tractor-trailers aren't overloaded and another is tolls, saying the state could set up a system where people who live or work in the area are exempt. Cheeseman responded by saying Rhode Island's truck tolls are likely to be ruled illegal and called tolls regressive.

On marijuana, Cheeseman said she'd be happy to look at expunging criminal records for possession of small amounts but is "adamantly opposed" to recreational legalization. She cited concerns about teen use and how higher THC content makes this "not your mother's dope."

Steel said, "I think it's something that we would have to move ahead in a cautious and a judicious way, and I know that there's concerns about it, but if you look at the economic impact of it, then the possibility might be that it would work or that it could work." She added that it would have to be for people who are older.

On immigration, Cheeseman said she believes there should be a path to citizenship but that people should take their turn, commenting, "If we're going to make people legal, there has to be a process that does not unfairly punish, as it were, those who have gone and played by the rules."

Steel said we shouldn't think of people as undocumented but welcome them, and said she thinks "we have to give them the opportunity to get settled, to take the jobs that a lot of people don't want, the minimum wage jobs that isn't a living wage." Cheeseman disputed the idea there are many jobs Americans won't do, saying if employers pay the right wages, Americans will do them.

Steel also criticized Cheeseman for voting against a bill opening financial aid for higher education to "Dreamers," and in her closing statement, she criticized other votes Cheeseman has taken.

Steel said, "I just have to ask my constituents, my voters: Was your voice heard when my opponent voted no on the ban for bump stocks? Was your voice heard when she voted that it was OK for ghost guns to come in? Was your voice heard when she voted against the 10 health essential benefits that we should all have?"

(According to the Connecticut General Assembly website, Cheeseman actually voted in favor of the bill banning guns without serial numbers, called ghost guns.)

Cheeseman said in her preceding closing statement, "You may not agree with every vote I've taken, but I will always explain to you why I took it," and closed with, "No one will outwork me, no one will be better prepared, and no one is better served to serve the people of this district."

Both candidates agreed the pandemic is the number-one issue facing their towns.

Steel said we need to do more testing and follow the example of Australia and New Zealand, and Cheeseman said, "It's keeping people safe and reducing transmission that's going to be the best tool in restoring our economy and our lives."

On environmental issues, Steel — who has the endorsements of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club — said we need to have more bike lanes, shuttles, electric charging stations and electric buses.

She supports increasing the bottle and can redemption deposit from 5 to 10 cents, noting it could bring in $5.4 million in revenue. Cheeseman said she would contemplate an increase if processing isn't an undue burden on businesses.

e.moser@theday.com

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