On a cabaret stage Thursday night, the five Republican candidates for governor shed the reticence that has blurred differences and personalities in the long slog to next month’s GOP primary, prodded by a radio talk-show host intent on producing 90 minutes of engaging programming.
Bob Stefanowski, a retired corporate executive whose early television commercials have helped him to a lead in private polling, was on stage for the first time with his four rivals: Mark Boughton, Timothy Herbst, Steve Obsitnik and David Stemerman.
Herbst welcomed him with a blistering summation of Stefanowski’s long absence from the debates, his indifference to voting, his financial support of Democrats, and his brief tenure as a Republican.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Herbst said. “We have had seven debates. I have participated in all seven. It’s time to vet our candidates, mano a mano, not hiding behind the ads or the mail, getting on stage, articulating a vision and defending your record.”
Stefanowski, who registered as a Republican voter last year before announcing his candidacy, had not voted in 16 years, but contributed to campaigns of Democrats, including former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd. Herbst said Republicans cannot trust such a man to govern as a Republican.
The crowd in the intimate Cabaret Theater at Mohegan Sun, one of the two sprawling tribal casino resorts in eastern Connecticut, roared, prompting a caution from host Lee Elci, a conservative radio host.
“I was overseas for 10 years. I was a global executive,” said Stefanowski, a North Haven native and Madison resident who lived the life of a corporate expatriate, including a long stretch in London.
“Absentee ballot!” shouted a woman in a cheering section that included Herbst’s parents.
“I didn’t vote. I should have. I wish it were different,” Stefanowski said.
But he quickly pivoted from apologetic to aggressive, poking Herbst for being both a career politician — Herbst was the first selectman of Trumbull for eight years — and someone with a reputation for angry, hard-ball politics.
“There are a ton of disaffected voters out there,” Stefanowski said. “They’re tired of just that type of speech, where you get a political person up there who pushes an agenda without any facts, and these people are going to come roaring back in November and elect someone like me who has real-world experience and knows how to run a business.”
He also noted that taxes regularly increased during Herbst’s tenure as first selectman.
Smiling, Stefanowski said later he enjoyed his debate debut, even the clash with Herbst.
“When you’re ahead in the polls, you know what’s coming,” he said.
The candidates strained to separate themselves from a pack that has agreed for months on Connecticut’s most pressing need: economic growth and an end to the state’s chronic budget shortfalls. The next governor is expected to face billions in budget shortfalls during his first years in office.
Stemerman, a former hedge fund manager who is self-funding his campaign, offered himself as the man with plans, or at least detailed position papers. Others on stage, he said, are offering sound bites and outlandish promises about cutting taxes.
“We’ve got two guys on stage that are promising to eliminate the income tax,” Stemerman said.
Stefanowski says he could eliminate the income tax in eight years, Boughton in 10.
There were shifting alliances among among the candidates.
The only two with elective experience — Boughton, the mayor of Danbury, and Herbst, the former Trumbull first selectman — were aligned at times against Stefanowski, Obsitnik and Stemerman, three businessmen who have never held office.
Stemerman, Obsitnik and Herbst united in scoffing at Boughton and Stefanowski over their promises to eliminate the state income tax.
Politician or not, everyone portrayed themselves as a Hartford outsider, able to bring a new vision to the State Capitol. Obsitnik, a Navy veteran and former tech entrepreneur, said, “This election is about makers and takers.”
The makers are people like him, who have created businesses and jobs, he said. The takers are the elected officials who demand ever-higher taxes.
To varying degrees, all five promised to be tougher on crime than Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who is leaving a legacy of prison policies that focus more on rehabilitation than punishment and led a successful push for repeal of the death penalty and decriminalization of minor drug crimes, some of which carried mandatory sentences and disproportionately affected urban minorities.
Crime rates have fallen in Connecticut during the governor’s tenure, outpacing the drops seen nationally, but it still resonates as an issue.
Herbst promised to increase funding for the State Police and bring back the death penalty, a punishment carried out in Connecticut only once in the past half century, and only then because the condemned man, rapist and serial killer Michael Ross, ended his appeals and all but demanded the state execute him by lethal injection.
All five sided with President Trump on the prosecution of immigrants here illegally, criticizing Malloy for not being cooperative with ICE, the federal immigration agency.
Boughton, the convention-endorsed candidate, noted his support for Danbury police when they effectively acted as ICE agents under a federal program begun by George W. Bush and discontinued by Barack Obama.
When asked to grade Trump’s performance, all five candidates gave him an A.
All five also opposed efforts at passing further gun controls in Connecticut, a state that expanded background checks to purchase firearms and ammunition and banned large-capacity magazines and certain assault-style weapons. Stefanowski said Malloy has “persecuted” gun owners.
Stemerman said Connecticut could look to Israel, where schools are hardened against assault and armed security officers are deployed.
Elci asked the candidates how they would approach abortion, should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, an issue since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote. Trump’s nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, would give the court a sold 6-3 conservative majority.
No one on the stage was open to making abortion illegal.
Boughton described himself as personally pro-life, but said, “I don’t feel comfortable putting a government between a woman and her doctor.”
Connecticut state law essentially codifies Roe v. Wade, and Herbst flatly said Connecticut is a pro-choice state with no chance of ever banning abortion.
Obsitinik agreed with Boughton and Herbst. Stemerman and Stefanowski offered no opinion on abortion from the stage. After the debate, they called the issue a distraction from the fiscal and economic challenges, including the state’s unfunded pension liability, that rightly dominate the campaign.
Asked later why he remained silent about the issue on stage, Stefanowski replied that the candidates only were allotted a total of 12 minutes for answers, time they could use as they saw fit. But Stefanowski had more than three minutes of time remaining for closing remarks.
As Herbst has said in other venues, Stefanowski said off stage he would support a law requiring parental notification for a minor to get an abortion.
Stemerman was the only candidate to stumble over a question that has embarrassed candidates for decades: How much is a gallon of milk?
The father of five replied, $1.25. He was off by at least $2.
Boughton said he pays $2, because he only buys a half-gallon at a time.
Stefanowski leaned into the microphone and said, “Organic skim, $4.52.”
“Price is right, Bob!” a woman yelled from the crowd. “Price is right!”