125th District race: Robbins, O’Dea, Bedell give answers

Gun control, food labeling and improving the business climate within Connecticut were areas where the three candidates running to represent the 125th state House District found common ground during a question-and-answer forum Monday evening at Wilton Library.

There was a very light turnout — about a dozen or so people — for the event that brought together Republican Tom O'Dea, Democrat Mark Robbins, and Green Party candidate David Bedell. It was sponsored by the Wilton League of Women Voters and Wilton Library.

Over the course of an hour, the candidates fielded about a dozen questions submitted by audience members that ranged from the above topics to voter registration, education spending, energy costs, partisanship, and legislation known as cap and trade. Acting as moderator was Catharine Kempson, president of the Wilton League of Women Voters.

The candidates, all New Canaan residents, are vying for the seat left open by the retiring John Hetherington, a Republican who has served five two-year terms. The 125th District encompasses about a third of Wilton voters and most of New Canaan.

One area where the candidates disagreed was on a question regarding campaign financing. Specifically, would they support an attempt to overturn the Supreme Court decision on super PACs such as Citizens United?

Mr. Bedell answered first, saying while corporations have certain legal rights, they do not vote and therefore should not have the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. With an obligation to maximize profits for shareholders, corporations are motivated by profit, not social or environmental criteria.

Mr. Robbins acknowledged the decision is now "the law of the land and we have to live with it." He preferred, he said, to focus on "transparency and disclosure. The transparency issue has to be revisited."

At the other end of the spectrum, Mr. O'Dea, an attorney, said he would not support overruling the issue. "In the eyes of the law a corporation is the same as an individual," he said, and he would not support enacting legislation that would change that. He went on to say he is not taking public money for his campaign. "I don't want your money for my campaign," he said. "I'll raise it."

Noting the legislative seat has been held for decades by Republicans, one question asked how each candidate would represent people of opposing ideologies.

Mr. Robbins acknowledged he is the first Democrat to run for this seat in 26 years. "I'm fiscally conservative," he said. "I can work across party lines." He added some of the first donations to his campaign were from Republicans.

"This seat doesn't belong to any one party," Mr. O'Dea said. "If I am blessed to represent all of you, I promise to work for everyone, not just Republicans or Democrats."

He went on to say the economic challenges facing the state are universal. "We are on the edge of a fiscal cliff ... we are in the worst shape in our history. It's a problem we all have to tackle. I am looking forward to stopping taxing and spending."

As a Green Party member, Mr. Bedell said, he would not be beholden to Democrats or Republicans. "I would be able to represent an independent viewpoint," he said, and "not feel pressured to take part in factionalism in the legislature. ... What concerns me is the issues. What has the most practical benefit for the citizens."

A question about Gov. Dannel Malloy's "First Five" program, which offers tax incentives for companies to bring jobs to Connecticut, gave the candidates an opportunity to talk about job creation.

Offering that the program has some "good points," Mr. O'Dea said he would "prefer making the entire state more business friendly" in general instead of "trying to bribe companies to be in Connecticut," as the governor is doing with this program. "We've lost 5,000 businesses in the first five months of the year. We've got to make the state more business friendly. Jobs is No. 1."

"Small business is where we should put our emphasis," Mr. Bedell said. "I don't believe in bribing large companies to come in and put their headquarters here." He would like to promote the establishment of a state bank, such as exists in North Dakota. "A state bank would not engage in predatory lending practices," he said, and instead would help stabilize the economy.

Mr. Robbins echoed his competitors' support of small businesses, and added he is a "huge champion" of the state's Small Business Express Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses to spur growth and job creation. The state has invested $100 million in the program this year and he would like to see that amount doubled every year for five years.

Guns, food

All three agreed, however, that Connecticut's gun control laws are strong enough in answer to a question asked in light of the movie-theater shooting in Colorado this summer.

Mr. Bedell said he thought there should be limits on the amount of ammunition that may be purchased online.

A bigger issue in terms of public safety is cars, which he said cause more deaths in Connecticut than guns. "We should put more controls on automobiles."

Mr. Robbins concurred.

"Republicans unanimously oppose 'good-time' credits" for people imprisoned for violent crimes," Mr. O'Dea said, adding the gun laws are strict enough. On the issue of automobile-related deaths, he said he would move for more restrictive laws for distracted driving, such as texting and cell phone use.

There was also some agreement over labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, referred to as GMOs.

Both Mr. Robbins and Mr. Bedell referred to a bill that failed to gain passage this legislative term. HB 5117 would have required "the labeling of genetically engineered foods and create best practices for GMO farming and preferences for food products that are voluntarily labeled to indicate whether they include genetically engineered ingredients."

Mr. Robbins said he is in favor of disclosure and would be in favor of resurrecting the bill.

Mr. Bedell was more passionate. "We really need this," he said. "Consumers want to know what's in their food," adding food with genetically modified organisms is not the same as organic food. "Labeling would be a benefit to Connecticut small farmers who prefer not to use GMO food."

Mr. O'Dea said "more disclosure is a good thing." He said he would want to see what the labeling entailed and he would be supportive "if it was not adverse to farmers."


On the issue of energy costs and the availability of natural gas or lack thereof, Mr. Bedell said that while natural gas is a "relatively clean alternative" to coal, oil and nuclear energy, he would rather put the emphasis on renewable sources such as wind, solar and fuel cells. More than those, he said, "we are sitting on megawatts of untapped energy in the form of energy efficiency," and that is where more attention should be paid.

Mr. Robbins advocated for more natural gas service but also praised the benefits of renewable resources. "We are one of the largest producers of fuel cells," he said of Connecticut, "and we need to deploy them here [rather than exporting them as they are now, he said] to save millions."

Mr. O'Dea admitted he is not an "expert" in this area but said he would support "state initiatives to have natural gas accessible" to residents here. "Choice is always a good thing." He added he would prefer giving tax incentives rather than outright funding to providers.

In their closing statements, Mr. O'Dea said the major issues facing Connecticut are taxes, spending, jobs and seniors. He said he would like to see a 10% cut in all state departments. Noting there has been a net reduction in the number of jobs in Connecticut since 1987, more focus needs to be on small business jobs.

"Seniors are key to our success," he said, noting what is generally considered a poor retirement atmosphere in the state. "Seniors donate one-third the money and one-third to personnel" in running nonprofits, he said.

Since the issue of health care did not come up, Mr. Bedell devoted his remarks to advocating a single-payer plan to reduce costs. He favors a system like Canada's, with a network of private and public providers funded through a variety of sources.

Mr. Robbins said he would champion job growth through innovation and questioned Mr. O'Dea's proposal of an across-the-board 10% spending cut as draconian in that it would take money from heating oil benefits, child immunizations and other programs. He would instead "champion" an energy policy, job creation and municipal job sharing to reduce taxes.

Mr. O'Dea is an attorney with Halloran & Sage LLP, specializing in litigation concerning the transportation and trucking industries. He also has expertise in employment issues, real estate transactions and probate litigation. He is a member of the New Canaan Town Council, is married and has three children.

Mr. Robbins has a background in real estate development and specializes in sustainable homes. He is a trustee of the New Canaan Nature Center and serves on the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Committee of Soundwaters, a Stamford-based nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Long Island Sound. He is also co-chair of the Connecticut Green Building Council's Green Homes Committee.

Mr. Bedell teaches English to international students and is treasurer of the CT Green Party. He believes "a green jobs and green loan program will put people back to work insulating old buildings, retrofitting homes and schools with solar panels. ... As more people go back to work and earn a living wage, their spending will stimulate business and restore the state economy."