By Jarret Liotta
Whether it is national politics or local economics that is encouraging increased interest in state government is not clear.
Candidates in tonight’s League of Women Voters of Westport debate. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com
But a standing room only turnout for tonight’s Westport Town Hall candidate debate indicated that many Westporters plan to participate in the state election process next week.
The League of Women Voters of Westport hosted the debate involving candidates for four state legislative seats. Questions spanned how to retain younger residents in Connecticut, transportation, gun control, and taxation.
While the debate had no direct candidate rebuttals, several moments respectively drew big applause and shocked gasps from the audience — standout points amid a tempered mélange of resume recitations and platform lists.
At one point, each candidate was given a chance to pose a written question to their opponent.
Incumbent 136th District Democratic State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg asked Republican challenger Greg Kraut, a District 5 member of the Representative Town Meeting, how he intended to meet his responsibilities as a legislator in Hartford when “you’ve missed almost half of your RTM Finance Committee meetings.”
“I’ve been able to have a family,” Kraut responded. “I’ve a thriving business, give to my community. I’ve made over 95 percent of my RTM meetings. I am on two of the most active committees. And it’s actually 40 percent, not 50 percent (attendance rate for the Finance Committee).”
After pausing for a moment, Kraut then added: “This is supposed to be a part-time job.” The remark elicited some audience gasps. He continued: “You’re only supposed to be there (Hartford) 60 times a year,” quickly adding: “If I have to work 100 hours a week, I’m going to do it.”
When Kraut asked Steinberg if his district was better off than when he came into office eight years ago, Steinberg replied, “Absolutely.” The answer produced laughter, a yelp, and scattered applause.
Steinberg countered Kraut’s “part-time job” remark by saying: “Unlike my opponent, I treat this like a full-time job.” He said he was the best “steward” for the role.
Democrat Michelle McCabe, who is challenging four-year incumbent Republican Tony Hwang in the 28th Senate District, drew the loudest applause of the evening on the issue of gun control. She noted her opponent had supported lifting a ban on concealed weapons in state parks.
“Enough is enough … I will fight tooth and nail in that friendly nonprofit kind of way,” she said, referencing her professional background in the nonprofit sector.
Democrat candidate Will Haskell took incumbent 26th Senate District Republican State Sen. Toni Boucher to task for her vote favoring an amendment to the affirmative-consent bill that he said would have removed the very definition of affirmative consent.
Boucher countered with a fervent defense of her record, getting particularly animated in her closing statement.
“Connecticut is not Washington,” she said, noting she was proud of her legislative record.
“I’m known as a fairly liberal member of my caucus,” she said.
In the race for the 143rd Assembly District seat currently held by Republican Gail Lavielle, Democratic challenger Stephanie Thomas noted the relationship to national politics.
“A lot of people are saying President Donald Trump is not on the ballot this year, but he is,” she said. “We have to live with him another two years.”
She said the two biggest issues of concern she has heard from voters are gun safety and divisiveness.
“My job now is and has always been to represent you,” Lavielle said, not her party or an ideology.
“Government from the top down has never been effective,” Hwang said, also making a plea for what he said is “a sense of loss in civility.”
Ironically he received the only overt catcall from the audience when a man shouted out, “Answer the question!” following his comments.
“The fiscal situation in our state is dire,” Kraut said, explaining that the financial issue needed to be solved before more attention could be given to certain areas requiring more funding, such as issues around the environment.
“We need to have money to do all the stuff we want to do,” he said.
“The legislature has done a good job on a lot of things,” Lavielle said. “It has not done a good job at getting our fiscal house in order.”
“That requires discipline,” Thomas said, “but it also requires truth telling.”
Haskell said one key issue was not that taxes were too high, but that infrastructure was crumbling and that “a young, diverse tech-savvy workforce” was unavailable in the state.
He spoke in favor of a student loan-forgiveness plan to incentivize young people to stay in Connecticut.
There was at least some consensus among the candidates, including their unanimous belief that global warming is a serious issue, as well as agreement that the state should not have cut education funding to Westport.
Meanwhile incumbent Republican Lisa Wexler addressed the audience before the debate, as she is receiving no opposition in her drive to retain her role as probate judge.
“I realize that I am lucky,” she said. “I realize that it is a great privilege to serve all of you (and) I will continue to try and be a good and fair judge for all the people.”