In the first debate since the Republican field of gubernatorial candidates shed a half-dozen candidates, a quartet of GOP contenders talked tough Monday night about immigrants, state spending, tolls, public-sector unions and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — pretty much everything and everyone but each other.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, former First Selectman Timothy Herbst of Trumbull, tech entrepreneur Steve Obsitnik and former hedge-fund manager David Stemerman broadly sketched out their views of the challenges facing the next governor, largely sparing each other of pointed criticisms.
The one-hour debate before an audience of 1,100 at the Shubert Theater was sponsored by CT Realtors and televised live on WCTX, the sister station of WTNH, Channel 8.
Bob Stefanowski, a political newbie whose early television advertising has given him an edge in private polling, declined to attend, as did Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, who was uncertain Monday if he would be able file sufficient petition signatures by the 4 p.m. Tuesday deadline to qualify for the Aug. 14 primary.
It seems more likely that Republican voters this summer will have five choices on the GOP ballot: the three who qualified at the state convention last month — Boughton, Herbst and Obsitnik — and Stefanowski and Stemerman, two self-funders who bypassed the convention in favor of a petition drive. Both say they have collected sufficient signatures.
Boughton, the convention-endorsed candidate and a former leader of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, showed no sympathy for Hartford, an easy target for Republicans seeking suburban votes. He declined an invitation to consider wealth inequality as one of the causes of fiscal stress in Hartford and cities other than Danbury, which has low unemployment.
“Frankly, I think Hartford should have been allowed to go bankrupt,” Boughton said. “They need some tough love at this point.”
Herbst, who did not seek re-election last year as the chief executive of the Bridgeport suburb of Trumbull, similarly took a tough view of struggling cities, saying the causes of their distress was bad management, not the confluence of poverty and limited tax bases.
“We have to stop rewarding bad behavior,” Herbst said.
A viewer’s question about whether the candidates would welcome President Trump to campaign with them drew laughter from the audience. No one suggested that Trump, who easily won the GOP presidential primary here and then decisively lost in November to Hillary Clinton, keep his distance from Connecticut.
“I’ll be very clear on this. I’m a military veteran,” said Obsitnik, an Annapolis graduate and former submariner. “I always support our commander in chief.”
But he quickly pivoted away from Trump, saying the president didn’t cause Connecticut’s problems, nor would he solve them.
Stemerman said he, too, supports the commander in chief. But he pivoted in a different direction, talking about the importance of his family values, without directly saying if they are odds with the thrice-married president: “Our own values are reflected for me in my family. I’m married to the same woman for 20 years. I have five children.”
The candidates all pledged to varying degrees to help the Trump administration enforce immigration laws. Herbst issued a warning to the mayors of Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport.
“I am opposed to sanctuary cities,” Herbst said. “If I am elected governor, Luke Bronin, Toni Harp and Joe Ganim will understand very clearly that they will either comply with federal immigration officials or they risk losing their funding from the state of Connecticut.”