Candidates debate, and mostly agree

The League of Women Voters debate last Monday night, featuring the eight Fairfield candidates running for the state house and senate, was a battle for the center. In this land of steady habits, the candidates vied for most

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Eight candidates for state Rep and Senate debated in Fairfield last Monday night.

moderate, presenting themselves as friends of business, transportation, the environment and education, and staking out similar positions on most of the issues raised.

The debate, which took place in the offices of the Fairfield Board of Education, was notable for its lack of rancor, save for punches thrown by Democratic candidates Kevin Coyner and Kim Fawcett. Coyner and Fawcett called out their opponents Brenda Kupchick and Tony Hwang for voting against a transportation bonding bill while professing support for transportation investment. Fawcett also criticized Tony Hwang for waffling on gun control and “taking credit for things [he] didn’t do.”

The economy

When asked how they would stimulate the economy, candidates for the state house repeated a refrain of this election season:  invest in transportation infrastructure. Other uniformly popular ideas were support for the state’s Small Business Express program, which provides loans and grants to businesses with fewer than 100 employees, and streamlining unnecessary regulation.

Beyond those common themes, Brenda Kupchick, Republican incumbent in the 132d District, indicated a wariness for granting tax credits for some businesses rather than for all. Kupchick said she had seen individual companies, such as Peppridge Farm, take advantage of such specialized tax benefits only to fall short on promised job creation.
Her Democratic challenger, Kevin Coyner, said he would expand Small Business Express for large businesses as well, and  outlined, as he has in the past, his idea for a state student loan program providing incentives for students to live and work in Connecticut.

Democratic candidate Cristin McCarthy Vahey, running for the 133rd District seat now held by Kim Fawcett, expressed concern that any tax changes put in effect to help spur the economy “must be fair to middle class and working class folks.”

McCarthy Vahey’s Republican opponent Carol Way pointed to a Connecticut employer in Shelton she said employed 600 people, but was driven by Connecticut’s tax and regulatory policies to put “half in other states.”
Tara Cook-Littman, Democratic nominee for the 134th District seat being vacated by Tony Hwang, proposed property tax reform and prioritizing education spending, with an emphasis on education in precision technology and bioscience.

Laura Devlin, Cook-Littman’s Republican opponent, said the Economist had given the Connecticut economy a  “D” grade in June, which she said was distressing to her as a small business owner.

Affordable Care Act

Asked about the success of the Affordable Care Act in Connecticut, Way said the number of people who signed up through the state exchange led her to believe it was successful, although she was concerned about parts of the law dealing with medical equipment and electronic billing. In addition, she said, a constituent had recently told her the law kept his wife from seeing her long-time physician.

Still, Way said, she appreciated that the act provided options for the unemployed and those under 26, and  said, “with anything of this sort, there are changes and reforms that need to take place.”

Way’s opponent, McCarthy Vahey, called the state’s experience with the law a  “great success,” and added that as a social worker, she saw the law’s improved preventive health measures as a “tremendous advantage.”

Charter schools

Candidates for the 134th District expressed differing opinions on charter schools. Devlin said that while she had questions about the implementation of the schools, “if a child is in a failing school they should have options.”
Cook-Littman, on the other hand, said she saw “no place” for charter schools until the state fully funded public schools. She added that down the road, charter schools might play a role in education in the state, but for now “we should figure out what’s successful about charter schools and bring that to the masses.”

Gun control

Both Coyner and Kupchick said they supported gun control, Kupchick calling her vote in favor of the gun control bill “the  most difficult issue I faced in my short time in the legislature.”  Both candidates said the state needed to provide more support for mental health programs.

State senate candidates Fawcett and Hwang, running for state Senate in the 28th district, both voted for the gun control bill, and both said they would not support an appeal. Fawcett declared, “Connecticut should always lead the nation in this discussion,” while Hwang tempered his support of the law with regret that “we have used the gun bill to disrespect lawful gun owners.”

Affordable housing

Devlin and Cook-Littman both said a solution was needed for what they saw as the town’s problems with the state’s affordable housing law, known as 8-30g. Cook-Littman said as an Operation Hope board member, she understood the need for affordable housing, but nonetheless felt developers should be stopped from abusing the law to build large developments, while failing to provide affordable housing.

Devlin said the answer was not as simple as the repeal some residents would like, and argued for working with urban legislators to come up with a legislative solution, as well as ensuring that Fairfield gets “proper credit for the housing stock we do have.”

In-home nursing care

Asked about whether Medicare benefits should be available for in-home, as well as nursing home, care, Kupchick and Coyner said in-home care was more cost efficient, Kupchick citing studies commissioned by the legislature on the subject, and Coyner saying that studies also showed such care was “more satisfying for the patient.” Coyner added that he was a strong believer in preventive care, noting that the Republican state budget, had it passed, would have taken out funding for cancer screenings for women.

Fracking waste

McCarthy Vahey and Way drew the question whether Connecticut should ban the storage and disposal of fracking waste. Both said the toxic substance should not be brought into the state, although Way said fracking has been a boon to the economies of some states and increases our energy independence.

The senate candidates, faced with the same question, both said they supported the passage of the law that  bans the import of the waste into Connecticut while its chemical make-up is studied.

Early voting

The state Senate candidates displayed a rare outright disagreement on the state referendum on early and absentee voting. Fawcett said the state should offer “no-excuse absentee balloting,” describing Connecticut’s system as outdated, with the potential to disenfranchise those who can’t get to the polls or travel for work.

Hwang said he supported the referendum in principle, but his parents’ experience of living first under a communist regime and then under martial law, hesitated to alter the constitution to allow any majority party to control voting laws.

Environment

Both Hwang and Fawcett said they saw the environment as a significant issue for the coastal town of Fairfield, Hwang emphasizing his view that concerns about the climate be balanced with “progressive business policies that serve us all.” Fawcett raised the need to protect open space, farms and rural characteristics of the district.

Teacher tenure

Fawcett said the state had tried “to do too much to soon” in implementing common core benchmarks, new testing and teacher evaluations nearly simultaneously. She said she thought tenure was important, but that discussing its reform was “a fair conversation.”

For his part, Hwang said he thought education included family and “support systems” in addition to teachers, and that recent education changes in the state were flawed because they were implemented “without the input of the major shareholders: teachers and parents.” Hwang also criticized the changes for discouraging teacher innovation.

Medical marijuana

Hwang said his objection to medical marijuana was based on the legal inconsistency of federal laws still criminalizing its use. Fawcett said she supported the use of medical marijuana and providing access to the drug, expressing confidence in what she called Connecticut’s groundbreaking legislative treatment of the issue,  regulating marijuana’s growth, distribution and use.

Same-sex marriage

Fawcett offered a strenuous and apologetic explanation of her vote against same-sex marriage five years ago, saying the country and district had evolved on the issue in that time, and asserting that she had “the right to be part of the evolution.”  Fawcett said she was “proud” that the state and country now “afford access to civil rights for all of Connecticut’s citizens.”

Hwang said casting his vote in favor of gay marriage was “an incredible privilege.”

Bonding bill

In a debate in which candidates largely avoided attacking their opponents, Democrats Coyner and Fawcett criticized Kupchick and Hwang for their votes against the transportation bonding bill, two of only eight Republican “no” votes on the law. In his closing statement, Coyner said the bill contained “critical funding” for transportation projects important to the district, and that with legislation, “you have to take the good with the bad.”

Kupchick held up a sheet of paper, saying, “I prepared a nice closing statement,” and then put it down to respond to Coyner’s criticism. Kupchick said the inclusion of money in the two-billion-dollar bill for items like “a parade in Stamford” and “activities in New Haven” led her to vote against the bill, adding, “Mr. Coyner’s party stole $300 million out of the transportation fund” for non-transportation uses, which, she said, led to the transportation issues the state faces today.

Fawcett ended her closing statement by saying her opponent had “told people [he] would vote for them, and then voted against the transportation funding bill,” had taken credit for things he hadn’t done, and had “waffle[d]” on gun control. Fawcett was the last candidate to speak during the debate, leaving Hwang no chance to reply.

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