Candidates duel at League of Women Voters debate night
Updated 3:12 pm, Wednesday, October 26, 2016
DARIEN — It was a night of candidates calling for change.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Republican candidate for the State Senate’s 25th District Greg Ehlers said on Tuesday night.
At the Darien League of Women Voters (LWV) Annual Candidates Night at Town Hall, Ehlers’ was a sentiment expressed often, in different words, by Republican candidates for the state General Assembly who believe a shift to the right is long overdue in Hartford.
State Senate 25th District
The state’s fiscal outlook, especially, drew the attention and became a focus of the first — and most contentious — debate of the night, in which Ehlers met Democratic incumbent and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, who is running for his seventh term.
In the course of answering several questions submitted by audience members — moderated by Kay Maxwell of the LWV — Ehlers stated his disappointment with what he considered financial mismanagement and insecurity, little return on money paid by Darien to the state and an additional level of taxation in the form of regional Councils of Government.
“We can talk, but we don’t need to share our money. We’re sharing enough of our money currently,” Ehlers said, of regional COGs.
Duff responded to Ehlers’ claims, on more than one occasion, by characterizing his concerns as fear mongering. He also referred to a “rooting-for-failure” crowd in the Republican party whose negativity often gets more attention in the press. Despite the recent exit from the state of General Electric, businesses like Sikorsky Aircraft, which has chosen to stay in Connecticut, are examples of economic growth in the state, Duff said. He also rebuked the notion that regional COGs, were an additional level of taxation, instead noting that individual municipalities stand to save money by pooling resources with their neighbors.
State Senate 27th District
In the second debate of the night, between Senate Deputy President Pro Tempore Carlo Leone, D-27, and his Republican challenger, Dr. Gino Bottino, talk of the state economy continued, this time centered on the pros and cons of raising the state minimum wage.
Bottino, a self-described non-politician, called raising the minimum wage a “double-edged sword.”
“On the one hand you want to provide for the poorest element of our society, working very hard at minimum-wage jobs to be able to sustain their job and sustain their family and live in that area. On the other hand, depending on how much you raise it, the problem is you can hurt small businesses, not big businesses. You’re not going to hurt Bridgewater, you’re going to hurt these little mom-and-pop shops,” Bottino said.
According to Leone, despite the initial outcry when minimum wage was raised to $10.10, businesses have been mostly unaffected since the increase and added that he’d likely support a continued, incremental increase in minimum wage that would allow employers to adjust accordingly.
Bottino and Leone also differed on the state’s progressive income tax, which some say is causing people to decamp for less expensive states.
“I don’t think the state of Connecticut should be adjusting their finances for the uber-wealthy, for one or two people who may decide to leave. Once we start doing that, we become beholden to those in that bracket,” Leone said.
Bottino countered that it is not primarily the uber-wealthy who are leaving the state, but the middle class — young people unable to find jobs and older people who can’t afford to retire in Connecticut.
“I see my friends leaving. I don’t think it’s good for society when you have a situation where you can’t maintain family ties,” Bottino said.
State House 121st, 127th Districts
Enabling people to remain in state was also a point of discussion in the third debate, featuring House of Representatives incumbent Terrie Wood, R-121, her challenger, Democrat Randy Klein, and William Tong, D-127, who is running uncontested.
When asked about the possibility of raising Connecticut’s estate tax exemption, currently set at $2 million, each of the candidates seemed willing to work across the aisle.
“It should be increased at the very minimum to the federal exemption, which is $5.45 million, or eliminated altogether,” Wood said. “It’s the single biggest reason retirees leave this state.”
Tong and Klein, members of the majority party that has traditionally been in favor of the estate tax, also expressed a willingness to look seriously at the tax’s ill-effects.
“It’s true that in the past, I think, many of our Democratic colleagues have pushed for a greater estate tax burden and have not been supportive of raising the exemption. But I will tell you that’s changing,” Tong said, though he added he couldn’t promise a change overnight.
The candidates also agreed that recreational marijuana should remain illegal, at least for now, and that transit fares should not continue to rise.
However, when the candidates were asked to name one positive and one negative thing Gov. Dan Malloy had done in office, clear party lines reemerged.
Tong and Klein both complimented Malloy’s toughness and leadership during the Sandy Hook shooting and Hurricane Sandy, though Tong was disappointed with the lack of communication between Hartford and Fairfield County regarding the fare hikes and Klein said the state’s budget could have been better managed.
While Wood complemented Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” initiative, which aims to cut down return rates to prison and help released inmates find jobs, she was more outspoken in her criticism of Malloy.
“His understanding of economic issues is zero. Totally zero,” Wood said. “My understanding is he doesn’t allow people their own opinions and if you don’t agree with him, he will go after you.”
“I believe Democracy is freedom, and freedom to speak and freedom to disagree, and there should be more tolerance from him for disagreements,” she added.