Lamont, Stefanowski paint different pictures of Connecticut in first debate
Trailing by double digits in recent polls, Republican Bob Stefanowski repeatedly jabbed at Gov. Ned Lamont on Tuesday, trying in the first of two televised debates to stoke voter concerns over inflation, crime, police accountability, local zoning and how children are taught sex education in public schools.
The Democratic governor and Republican challenger, joined by Rob Hotaling of the Independent Party, diverged sharply in their views of Connecticut in a 60-minute debate that NBC Connecticut live-streamed and recorded for broadcast at 7 p.m. Tuesday and 10 a.m. Sunday. Telemundo will show it Saturday at 11 a.m.
Stefanowski was the aggressor. He portrayed Connecticut as dangerous, overburdened by taxes and struggling economically, but he said it can still afford to spend billions in budget reserves to raise pay for police and teachers and lower household costs for consumers.
“It’s unconscionable that we’re sitting on $6 billion when people are out there right now only filling half of their oil tank because they need food,” said Stefanowski, who promised in his first campaign in 2018 to phase out the state income tax over 10 years.
Connecticut closed the last fiscal year on June 30 with a $4.3 billion surplus, and early projections show this fiscal year closing with another $2.3 billion cushion.
Lamont reminded voters of how quickly Connecticut has rebounded from a string of budget crises and tax increases to three years of surpluses that have allowed a major tax cut in 2022, full budget reserves and unprecedented payments on the state’s unfunded pension liability.
The governor said Stefanowski’s old idea would have gutted state government and state aid to municipalities, and his new idea “is to gut the rainy day fund.
“And this is the exact wrong time to be playing games with how we’re saving our money — to make sure when there’s a recession, we do not have to raise taxes, we do not have to cut education spending,” Lamont said.
Stefanowski unveiled a $2 billion tax relief plan earlier this month that included recurring tax cuts worth roughly $700 million per year that would require either deep cuts or scaling back a savings program launched in 2017 to ensure budget stability and to reduce Connecticut’s, long-term pension debt, which is roughly $40 billion.
Hotaling mildly split the difference, not taking full advantage of his only debate invitation to make the case why the candidacy of a minor-party candidate with no elective experience or financial backing should be viewed as credible.
“I think that if you’re tired of partisan politics, if you’re tired of the lack of progress, I’m your only other viable candidate,” Hotaling said after the debate. “I’m the only one who can break the blue-red divide.”
Lamont was relaxed after the debate, confident that a Hearst Connecticut/WFSB poll released earlier Tuesday shows that voters do not share Stefanowski’s dark view of Connecticut or its first-term governor. The poll showed Lamont with a 15-point lead.
“I think the poll reflects the fact that people believe we’re making progress in this state,” Lamont said. “We were in a pretty tough place back four years ago, and four years later, our fiscal house is in a better position. We’ve got a lot of jobs. We’re making progress. I think that’s what the poll reflects.”
The debate’s format was casual, with no strict limits on the time candidates used to answer questions posed by Mike Hydeck of NBC Connecticut and Grace Gómez of Telemundo Nueva Inglaterra.
Stefanowski insisted that crime statistics do not accurately reflect crime in Connecticut, a state that routinely ranks among the safest in America based on annual Uniform Crime Reports collected by the FBI.
“Maybe crime is down in Litchfield County, I don’t know,” Stefanowski said after the debate. “But I can tell you it’s not down in Hartford. It’s not down in Bridgeport. It’s not down where I grew up in New Haven. We’re going to support police forces. We’re going to bring back qualified immunity, we’re gonna pay officers more, and we’re gonna keep people safe on the streets and in their homes.”
During the debate, Stefanowski dismissed fresh State Police data showing that crime was down in 2021 after an increase in 2020. He argued that the police accountability law passed after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 have cowed police from pursuing criminals and depressed the recruitment of new officers.
“Government has lost respect of police officers. I’m going to get it back. I’m going to be behind these men and women, and we’re going to make Connecticut safer,” Stefanowski said.
He suggested that the fear of personal liability is the reason why police infrequently engage in high-speed chases, even though there has been a national trend against them in recent years.
“Of course crime is down, because they’re not they’re not following in high speed chases anymore. We need to reverse that,” Stefanowski said.
Stefanowski and Lamont clashed fiercely, if briefly, on abortion.
The Republican candidate pledged to defend the state’s 32-year-old law codifying Roe v. Wade, though he has refused to say whether he would have signed a new law that provides a legal safe harbor for abortion patients and providers against so-called vigilante lawsuits authorized by Texas.
Lamont is trying to scare and mislead women about what a Stefanowski administration would mean for reproductive rights, Stefanowski said.
“I’m gonna protect a woman’s right to choose. I don’t know what else I can say. Gov. Lamont, you really should stop doing it. Because it’s not right for you. You talk about Connecticut values — you shouldn’t be trying to scare the women of Connecticut. That is going to change when I win. You really should stop it, and you should focus on the economy.”
“You’re scaring the women of Connecticut,” Lamont replied. “Actions speak louder than words, Bob.”
He noted that Stefanowski had financially supported Leora Levy, an anti-abortion candidate, over Themis Klarides in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Klarides is a social moderate who favors abortion rights.
Stefanowski was ready, saying that he never would suggest that Lamont’s contribution to Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, a Democrat who opposed a ban on assault weapons, should lead anyone to question Lamont’s commitment to gun control.
Lamont made no mention of Stefanowski’s refusal to take a position on the safe harbor law.
Without being asked, Stefanowski mentioned his opposition to 8-30g, a state law that is one of the state’s tools to encourage affordable housing development, saying it undermines local rule.
He also repeated his opposition to transgender athletes playing in girl’s sports, without saying if he would support repealing the the civil rights law that currently allows them to compete. He objected to how sex education is taught in some schools, again without suggesting a course of action by the state.
Lamont and Hotaling said nothing in response.
The candidates plowed no new ground, with the possible exception of Stefanowski seeming to propose privatizing Bradley International Airport and other state-owned transportation facilities.
In response to a question about transportation infrastructure spending, Stefanowski almost casually mentioned privatization, as opposed to great state investment.
“We don’t have the money to do it. Let’s bring the private sector in. Let’s cut a good deal, make sure we got enough economics. Airports is another one. Most countries and states across the world have privatized their airports,” Stefanowski said.
He left the post-debate press conference without saying if that was a proposal he intended to make if elected. His campaign did not respond to a request for clarification.
Lamont said he saw no reason to sell Bradley, which is now run by the quasi-public Connecticut Airport Authority.
The Connecticut Mirror's Keith Phaneuf contributed to this story.