Candidates clash in feisty GOP debate

Republican candidate for governor Steve Obsitnik makes a point during Tuesday's GOP primary debate at Sacred Heart University. — Donald Eng photo
Republican candidate for governor Steve Obsitnik makes a point during Tuesday's GOP primary debate at Sacred Heart University. — Donald Eng photo

With three weeks to go before the Connecticut gubernatorial primary, the five GOP candidates stepped up their rhetoric against Gov. Dannel Malloy, taxes, and each other in a feisty 90-minute debate Tuesday at Sacred Heart University. Democrats will hold their own debate at the school July 27.

The debate, moderated by Connecticut Post political reporter Ken Dixon, featured clashes between candidates Dave Stemerman and Bob Stefanowski, Stemerman and Tim Herbst, Herbst and Stefanowski, Herbst against Stefanowski and Stemerman, and Stemerman against Mark Boughton.

In their opening statements and a series of policy questions, the candidates stuck mostly to their polished talking points, with Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who won the party’s endorsement at the convention, touting the progress Danbury has made under his leadership.

“The city I run has obtained metrics any would be proud of,” he said. “It’s one of the best cities to start a business, and the most livable in the state.”

Danbury’s turnaround happened not only because the city’s leaders have been working hard, but because they work together, he said.

“It starts with electing the right Republicans to lead,” he said. “This is our time.”

Herbst, the former Trumbull first selectman, also cited his track record as a chief elected municipal official, praising Trumbull’s schools and reputation as a desirable place to raise a family.

“If ever there was a time to elect proven reformers and Hartford outsiders, the time is now,” he said.

Westport tech entrepreneur Steve Obsitnik differentiated himself as the only “maker” on the stage citing his background in the U.S. Navy and in manufacturing.

“We have been led by self-interest and special-interest,” he said. “We need a Republican … who can turn around this state.”

Madison businessman Stefanowski said he had helped turn around large companies like General Electric, and promised once again to end the corporate tax and estate tax, and to phase out the income tax over eight years. His plan to cover the resulting budget shortfall is aggressive cuts in expenditures.

“I will rip costs out of this government like you’ve never seen,” he said.

In the final opening statement, Stemerman said it was time to distinguish among the candidates.

“We are at a university, and if this is like the average, two of every three graduates will leave the state because there’s no jobs for them here,” he said.

All five candidates stated their opposition to any plan to implement tolls on Connecticut highways. Despite their agreement though, the question brought the first of a series of spirited clashes between the candidates as Stemerman criticized Boughton’s characterization of the state Connecticut’s infrastructure was in.

“I guess when you’ve been mayor of Danbury for 18 years, you don’t get out much,” he said.

Boughton fought back, slamming Stemerman as a fake Republican.

“When I was serving in the U.S. military, and you were a registered Democrat, I got out plenty,” Boughton said.

Stemerman in response pointed out that both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump changed party affiliation four years before running for office as a Republican.

“I’ve been a Republican for 14 years,” he said. “I’ve earned the right to run as a Republican.”

A question about taxes set off another round of attacks. After Stefanowski said he was the only candidate with a plan to eliminate the income tax and who had promised never to raise taxes as long as he was governor, Stemerman pounced, saying Stefanowski should be “ashamed” of the proposal.

“Bob knows the numbers don’t work,” he said. “The idea that we are going to eliminate the income tax is a fancy.”

Stefanowski, given time to respond to being called out by name, ripped Stemerman for the negative turn his campaign took in recent days. Stemerman has released ads critical of Stefanowski for his own party switch from Democratic to Republican.

“After the way you handled yourself over the past week, turning this campaign into a smear campaign, you say I should be ashamed?” he said. “We don’t need more attack ads, we don’t need more nonsense.”

Stemerman pressed on, pointing out that Stefanowski had not worked at GE in a decade and that Stefanowski had been CEO of Dollar Financial Group, a payday lender that has been criticized for predatory lending practices.

“Is that what we need in a leader? I don’t think so,” Stemerman said.

Herbst brought the debate back on topic, stating that the state relies on the income tax for more than half its revenue.

“No one has shown us how to close a $5 billion deficit when that tax accounts for 55% of the revenue,” said. “I’m in favor of eliminating taxes, but not raising other taxes to cover it because at the end of the day it all comes out of the same pocket.”

All five candidates sidestepped a lengthy question about Donald Trump’s impulsiveness, climate change and safeguarding American democracy, instead praising Trump’s leadership and slamming Malloy and Democrats in general.

“Democrats will want to talk about anything but the economy,” Stefanowski said. “When you get a question like that talk about what really matters, get rid of the income tax, get rid of the estate tax.”

Herbst took advantage of the question to deliver a jab to Stefanowski and Stemerman, saying the question “sounds like a question for a Democrat, I figured you two would enjoy answering it.”

As the question rounds ended, the candidates returned to their talking points for their closing statements.

“If you guys truly want more of the same, if you want a career politician or someone that’s starting to look a lot like one, to fix the problems caused by career politicians, then I’m not your guy,” Stefanowski said.

Herbst quoted the popular saying that character is who a person is when no one is watching.

“Who can Republican primary voters trust to govern like a Republican come January 2019?” he asked rhetorically. “I did it in Trumbull, we can do it in Hartford.”

Obsitnik said he would bring the same sense of duty to Hartford that he brought to his navy career.

Having protected these waters, I will bring same discipline to being governor of this state,” he said. “As a submariner we are all trained firefighters, and we are on fire right now.”