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Senate candidates for the 33rd District square off in New London

New London — Incumbent Democratic Sen. Norm Needleman and Republican Brendan Saunders traded a few barbs during Thursday's debate, which touched on issues ranging from early voting to immigration.

It got heated at times for the two candidates seeking the seat in the 33rd state Senate District following accusations of personal attacks.

While the two explained their often divergent views on a number of issues throughout the hourlong debate, Needleman at one point commented that Saunders seemed not to be able to answer a question without adding a personal attack. Saunders, who is an ordained minister, countered that his religion had been attacked.

“Could you elaborate on what we’re talking about?” asked Paul Choiniere, the debate moderator and The Day's editorial page editor.

“Certainly. The senator knows. He’s the one that commissioned three rounds of mailers calling me an anti-gay activist,” Saunders said. “He certainly knows that he owes me an apology. He certainly knows that he owes all of the people of faith in the district an apology for his anti-Christian attack ads against me.”

Needleman said Saunders had declined to talk about where he stood on the abortion issue and gay rights, or “on any other critical civil rights issue.”

“Personally, he said that … it’s a sinful lifestyle choice to be gay and it shouldn’t be equated to civil rights. I’m sorry. That is out of touch. The mailers pointed that out. I’m glad that my opponent has clarified his position. Because that’s actually what he believes. It’s a sin. I don’t think so,” Nedleman said.

“The mailers said I am an anti-gay activist and that is not at all true,” Saunders said.

On the topic of divisiveness and in response to claims of attacks against Saunders, Needleman said “it’s not a secret I’m Jewish.”

“The digital ads that were run against me showed a bucket of money with a pair of handcuffs across them. I’m not sure how you feel about that but that made me pretty squirrelly, Brendan,” he said.

Thursday’s was the last in a series of Senate debates held at the Garde Arts Center in New London. There was no audience as a safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic. The debate was instead steamed live on TheDay.com.

Needleman and Saunders responded to questions posed by Choiniere; Lee Elci, 94.9 News Now radio talk show host and contributing Day columnist; and Julia Bergman, a Day staff writer and editorial board member.

The two were asked about their views on loosening voting rules to allow for early voting, mail-in voting or other reforms.

Needleman said the state’s election laws are obsolete, and said he supports a constitutional amendment to make “voting accessible, easier, earlier…” Saunders said early voting is an option “if we have a truly secure system.”

“My problem is we aren’t sure of the security of our current system,” Saunders said. “What we have is a come-one-come-all system put in place by the secretary of state, codified by the governor and rubber stamped by the legislature in special session where we can get stuff done quick when we need to.”

Business owner Needleman, who serves as the first selectman in Essex, is seeking his second term in office. It’s the first time seeking political office for Saunders, who works in the hospitality industry and served as an ordained Baptist minister.

Needleman touted his ability to pass a “landmark” bill that improves accountable from energy providers like Eversource in storm responses and proof of his ability to garner bipartisan support in Hartford. Saunders said the bill may improve accountability but was unlikely to help lower electric rates in the state. He said rates are likely to rise because of “my opponent’s recklessly aggressive pursuit of renewable energy.”

Asked about President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration policies versus the state’s approach of being more lenient with undocumented immigrants, Saunders said Trump was only enforcing the immigration laws on the books.

“If you don’t like the law, change the law,” Saunders said.

“Locking up kids. Putting them in cages. Building a freakin’ wall. None of this makes sense even to people who support restrictions on immigration,” Needleman countered.

Needleman said that if reelected his top priority would be tackling the pandemic and to “figure out how to get out of the mess we’re in.”

Saunders said the upcoming election was “a referendum on the status quo in Hartford,” and priorities would include the high cost of living and addressing the “horrible business environment we have in this state.”

g.smith@theday.com

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