Candidates for governor meet in first debate
West Hartford ― Connecticut’s major party candidates for governor met Tuesday afternoon to debate for the first time since their final debate of the 2018 campaign.
The rematch between Republican businessman Bob Stefanowski of Madison and Democratic incumbent Ned Lamont of Greenwich presents mostly the same dichotomy, with the added element of Lamont’s record, which he ran on, or defended, most of Tuesday afternoon. The two had met recently in several informal forums ahead of Tuesday’s debate.
Independent candidate Rob Hotaling of Cheshire, who works in business and tech, joined the Republican and Democratic candidates onstage. Stefanowski attempted to get Hotaling off the ballot because of an alleged caucus violation, but was denied in court this month.
The gubernatorial candidates met at NBC-30 and Telemundo studios in West Hartford for a televised debate without a live audience moderated by Grace Gómez of Telemundo and Mike Hydek of NBC. The second and final gubernatorial debate will take place Nov. 1 at Mohegan Sun.
Stefanowski has labeled himself as pro-choice but has mostly downplayed the abortion rights debate and the Dobbs decision, saying Connecticut is exempt because of state laws passed in the most recent General Assembly session.
The most explosive exchange of the debate came when Stefanowski was asked about his abortion stance.
“Roe v. Wade is codified in Connecticut state law. I’m going to protect a women’s right to choose,” he said, adding laws on abortion would not change while he was in office. He then took aim at Lamont and his campaign for attacking him on the abortion issue with TV advertisements.
“Governor Lamont has been lying for four months about my position,” Stefanowski said. “Governor Lamont, you should really stop doing it. And you should focus on the economy.”
Lamont in turn said Stefanowski has not been entirely clear on the issue.
“I think you’re scaring the women of Connecticut,” Lamont said. “You could’ve donated money to a pro-choice Senate candidate, instead you donated to Leora Levy, who pledged to outlaw a woman’s right to choose.”
Asked about his “Parental Bill of Rights,” which includes a tenet barring trans children from participating in sports in some instances, Stefanowski said, “I fundamentally believe it’s unsafe and unfair for a biological male to compete against a girl in high school,” he said. “That’s not extreme, that’s common sense. We need to find alternatives for transgender athletes.”
Stefanowski echoed other conservative talking points on education matters Tuesday, saying, “We shouldn’t be introducing sex education into kindergartners who can barely tie their shoes.”
Lamont and Hotaling also said parents should play a role in shaping curriculum, but did not expand beyond that.
“I don’t need anybody pitting parents against teachers,” Lamont said.
Lamont and Stefanowski traded barbs all afternoon about Connecticut’s rainy day fund, which stands at more than $4 billion.
“This is the exact wrong time to be playing games with how we’re saving our money,” Lamont said, adding that if there’s a recession the state won’t have to raise taxes or cut education spending due to the surplus.
Stefanowski said the surplus monies should go to the Connecticut taxpayer, whether it helps with home heating oil prices, food prices or in other ways.
“That $6 billion is money Governor Lamont has taken from taxpayers that he doesn’t need right now,” Stefanowski said.
When Hydek corrected him on the current surplus of more than $4 billion, not $6 billion, Stefanowski said he was working from the projected surplus numbers, as it is expected to grow.
Hotaling said he agreed with Lamont that the surplus should be used to pay down pension debts, “but we should use some of those funds to close the achievement gap and invest in infrastructure.”
Lamont touted tax credits for car and property taxes, and a middle class tax cut instituted in the 2023 budget to “help deal with inflation going forward.” He said he was the first governor in 40 years not to raise the income tax.
Stefanowski argued his administration would support lower taxes than Lamont’s has, saying that if elected, he would stop collecting 200 fees that collectively generate less than 0.25% of the state’s revenue.
Hotaling said he’s in favor of eliminating business property taxes and motor vehicle taxes as well as lowering the income tax rate because he doesn’t believe Connecticut is a business-friendly state.
Stefanowski faced criticism during his 2018 campaign for governor for saying that the state should eliminate its income tax, and has since eased up on the position and mostly left it out of his 2022 campaign. But in July in New London, he returned to it, in the context of his June meeting with New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
“Anyone want to guess what the income tax rate is in New Hampshire? Zero. Anybody want to guess what the state sales tax is in New Hampshire? It’s zero,” Stefanowski said at the time. “So people say it can’t be done, New Hampshire is the perfect example of how it can be done.”
Electric Boat was mentioned several times during Tuesday’s debate in the context of workforce development. The state is facing shortages — and has open positions — in fields such as policing, nursing and teaching, among other fields.
“We have to get 1,000 new workers up to Electric Boat over the course of the next 12 months,” Lamont said.
Hotaling argued that the state and Electric Boat share responsibility for training its workforce.
Stefanowski and Hotaling said the state needs to be more proactive in its training programs for trade jobs but Lamont said he’s put some such programs in place in collaboration with the state’s community colleges.
“College is terrific for kids who can afford it,” but small and medium-sized businesses need employees with specific skills, Stefanowski said.
Stefanowski and state Republicans have made inflation one of their key campaign issues. Lamont and state Democrats point to the surplus. Stefanowski has said he hasn’t seen any real benefit from the budget surplus, while Lamont has cited improvements in DMV wait times, access to daycare and availability of capital for small businesses.
Stefanowski argued that the state should privatize its infrastructure efforts in lieu of tolls, saying, “We need to bring in the private sector,” but, “not like we did with the State Pier,” where the state is picking up the project’s cost overruns.
In August at a news conference in New London, Stefanowski slammed Lamont for lack of transparency and cost overruns on the offshore wind redevelopment project at State Pier. Day columnist David Collins revealed in August that a federal grand jury has subpoenaed six years of port authority records as part of an investigation into the quasi-public agency.
Lamont and Hotaling did not say whether they were outright opposed to tolls. Lamont said the state has been able to fund transportation efforts for the first time in years in part because of the highway use tax on large commercial trucks.
Stefanowski said that although he thinks Connecticut needs to improve its affordable housing options, he would like to repeal a state law that seeks to bolster the number of Connecticut’s affordable housing units. He said it threatens local zoning control.
Neither Lamont nor Hotaling want to repeal the law, which makes it difficult for towns without 10 percent of their housing stocks designated as affordable, to deny permits for affordable housing projects.
Asked about crime — a recent state report has crime down, with violent crimes up slightly — Lamont, Stefanowski and Hotaling all argued that police deserve more respect and, in terms of recruitment efforts, more money for both officers and departments.
Lamont said the crime rate is going down, “despite some of the fear mongering you hear.”
“Does anybody at home really feel like you’re safer than you were four years ago?” Stefanowski responded. He again said he would bring back qualified immunity for police officers. Asked after the debate how he would do that with Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, Stefanowski said he thinks some Democrats now realize they voted the wrong way on the police accountability bill.
“I think most of the Democrats realize we made a mistake, and we’ve tied the hands of police officers,” he said.
Democrats and Lamont have shown no interest in revising the law.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of our police do an extraordinary job,” Lamont said. But, he added: “That person who had their knee on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes should be held accountable.”
Qualified immunity, which partially protects police officers from being sued, was eliminated by the police accountability law passed in 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The law makes it so officers can be held liable if they’ve knowingly violated a person’s rights.
Lamont has pointed out that no cases have been brought under the police accountability bill regarding qualified immunity.
Recent polls from Quinnipiac University and Western New England University/Channel 3 Eyewitness News/CT Insider both show Lamont with a comfortable double-digit lead over his Republican challenger. Stefanowski said in a news conference after the debate that there were similar polls in 2018, but the election ended up being close, with Lamont earning about 40,000 more votes than Stefanowski.