Congressional candidates address hot topics during Sunday debate in Wilton

Fourth District Democratic incumbent Congressman Jim Himes and Republican challenger Dan Debicella discussed a number of hot topics during a debate at the Clune Center in Wilton on Sunday, Oct. 19.

The hour-and-a-half debate was sponsored by 12 chapters of the League of Women Voters of Fairfield County and moderated by Kay Maxwell, a former president of the League of Women Voters of the United States and current executive director of the Stamford-based World Affairs Forum.

Ms. Maxwell presented the two candidates with questions from members of the audience and the League of Women voters, as well as Wilton High School students. The subjects ranged from gun safety and the environment to immigration reform and the housing market.

Corporate contributions

The first question of the evening asked the candidates what steps they would take to reduce corporate campaign contributions.

Mr. Himes said although he is a “real optimist on the future of this country,” he is concerned about money being used as a form of free speech.

“I am profoundly concerned about the drift of this country into a political world that moves us away from … one person, one vote [to] if you can write the checks, you will be listened to,” he said.

Mr. Himes said he and Mr. Debicella are both guilty of seeking campaign money from people over the last year and a half “in an exercise that is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, causes a world where people with big checkbooks can get listened to more than people without big checkbooks.”

“We are both caught up in a system that is far, far from perfect. In fact, it’s a system inconsistent with what we think of as democracy,” said Mr. Himes, who mentioned that he had promoted and “worked hard” to pass the DISCLOSE Act, designed to put regulations on unlimited contributions.

“I would continue to fight this trend of more money in politics with a constitutional amendment with increasingly stringent regulation on the ability of people to influence elections with their pocketbooks.”

Mr. Debicella said he is running for the 4th District congressional seat because “Washington is broken.”

“We need to have leaders once again who are going to start to put country above party, and your family above their own political careers,” said Mr. Debicella, who accused Mr. Himes of making “the corrupting influence of money” his “No. 1 priority in Congress.”

“I actually proposed we ban all political action committees, that we no longer allow anyone who is not a real person to donate to campaigns,” said Mr. Debicella, claiming that one difference between him and Mr. Himes is where they receive campaign money.

“Ninety-five percent of my money comes from real people — half of Jim’s money that he’s raised comes from these political action committees,” said Mr. Debicella.

“Jim may have gone down [to Washington] with good intentions, but he’s part of the problem there. He’s embraced this culture that he swore to change.”

Gun safety

When asked what he would do to strengthen federal gun safety measures, Mr. Debicella said he believes in the Second Amendment and that “it’s every American’s right to own a gun, but not every American has a right to own a bazooka.”

“Keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those with mental histories, and this is where background checks are the most common-sense thing,” said Mr. Debicella, acknowledging that a number of Republican Party members are “blocking common-sense gun control.”

“If I go down to Washington, I’m going to stand up to my party on a number of issues, this being one of them.”

Mr. Himes acknowledged that he and Mr. Debicella both agree on universal background checks.

“Ninety percent of Americans agree that there should be universal background checks. That’s just plain common sense,” said Mr. Himes, who co-sponsored a bill that would reduce the maximum number of rounds allowed in a magazine to 10.

“My point of view is that if you can’t hit the deer or protect yourself in your own home with 10 rounds, you probably need a little more time on the range,” he said.

“We should, I believe, have a line of military combat assault weaponry that we deem to be inappropriate for either hunting or for home protection use. Strong gun safety regulation is both appropriate and necessary.”

Mr. Himes said addressing mental health issues and utilizing technology like trigger locks are also important.

Environment

Mr. Debicella said he thinks the most critical environmental issue facing the United States is green energy.

“I think environment and energy policy are tightly tied together,” he said.

“We, as Americans … want to be energy independent in a way that’s friendly to the environment, and have that energy be as cheap as possible.”

Mr. Himes, on the other hand, said he believes the most critical environment issue is climate change.

“You don’t need to have spent a lot of time in Fairfield County in the last couple of years … to understand three truths — climate change is real, it is caused by human beings and it is getting worse,” said Mr. Himes, adding that he’s proud to have supported legislation that pushes for energy efficiency.

“We start dealing with the cataclysmic, civilization-destroying problem of climate change by acknowledging that it is real.”

Immigration

Mr. Himes said he is a “huge supporter of comprehensive immigration reform.”

“I am a big supporter of that because it is not just about guys who sit on corners waiting to get picked up by contractors,” he said.

“This is about people who pay Social Security and Medicare taxes and help fix the long-term challenges that we have.”

Mr. Himes said immigrants can help create the kind of job growth the 4th District and the country needs.

Mr. Debicella, who led the filibuster of Connecticut’s version of the Dream Act in 2007, said the bill was brought to Connecticut because of Congress’s failure to act.

Mr. Debicella said the Dream Act should not be passed on a state-by-state basis and “it wouldn’t even be necessary” if comprehensive reform took place at the federal level.

“My mother- and father-in-law came over here from Argentina, and my mother-in-law worked three jobs when she came over here so that my wife and her brother could go to college,” said Mr. Debicella. “Immigration is the lifeblood of America and we need to continue it.”

Mr. Debicella said he would like to see an unlimited H1-B visa program, which allows foreign workers to be temporarily employed by U.S. employers in specialty occupations.

Housing market

In order to strengthen the housing market, Mr. Debicella said, “we need to bring jobs back here to Fairfield County.”

“The No. 1 thing that housing prices correlate with is job growth,” he said. “The way you’re going to get the housing market to take off again is to have people move in and not out of Connecticut.”

Mr. Debicella said helping the long-term unemployed and immigration reform will “actually get the economy moving.”

Mr. Himes agreed that jobs affect the housing market and said if the economy continues to recover, there will be stronger consumers in better positions to purchase homes.

“If we go from 10 million new jobs created in the last six years in the United States to 15 million, our housing market generally will get better,” he said.

To create jobs, Mr. Himes proposed making “a very serious commitment to investing in our infrastructure.”

“The American Society of Civil Engineers says it’s going to be $3.7 trillion to bring our infrastructure up to snuff,” he said. “Let’s make a  down payment on that. We can finance today at real interest rates of 0%.”

Middle East

Both candidates said they would not support direct U.S. military ground deployment to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Mr. Debicella said he believes President Barack Obama’s current approach is exactly “what we need.”

“I wish he had done it a couple months earlier, but I think the President’s approach to provide direct air support to help fight ISIS and working with the moderate Syrian rebels to fight on the ground and provide training for them is the actual right approach,” he said.

Mr. Himes said he also would not support ground troops in the Middle East, but said he differs from Mr. Debicella in that he thinks arming and training the Syrian rebels is a mistake.

“These are individuals who hate Bashar al-Assad, and the idea is we’re going to train them and send them back to Syria [and say], ‘We understand you hate Assad, but don’t go after him. We want you to go after ISIS,’ which, by the way, is also going after Assad,” said Mr. Himes.

“That’s called being on both sides of the civil war. It’s a bad idea to be on one side of the war. It’s a terrible idea to be on both sides of the civil war.”

Mr. Himes said it has historically been a bad idea to arm rebel groups, “thinking they are actually our interest.”

“The worst that we know about, of course, is we thought it was a good idea to arm and train the mujahideen the 1980s to take out the Soviet Union, and, by the way, it succeeded,” he said.

“We armed and trained them and the Soviet Union was forced out ... and then they turned around on us — we armed and trained Osama bin Laden.”

Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and production was another Middle East topic brought up at the debate, which Mr. Himes said is “a critical national security issue for the United States.”

“Just about every day, I ask the question to the NSA, CIA — Is Iran complying with the terms of the interim agreement that was negotiated to hopefully get them to finally give up their program to develop nuclear arms?” said Mr. Himes.

“To date, the answer from the Intelligence Committee is that they have abided by their obligations — that’s a good sign, but the big question, of course, is: Where do we go from here?”

Mr. Himes said although Iran is “famously difficult to predict,” his approach would be to ratchet up sanctions if Iran does not agree to scale back its nuclear program by the Nov. 24 deadline set by the P5+1.

“Iran needs to understand that they either act in good faith and give up their ability to create nuclear weapons, or they will face those sanctions or worse,” said Mr. Himes.

Mr. Debicella agreed, saying the consequences of a nuclear Iran is “the one existential threat to the United States that we don’t talk about enough.”

“We need to be willing to say, as Americans, that it’s unacceptable to have a nuclear Iran and we need to ratchet up whatever we need to ratchet up to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Mr. Debicella.

“If they continue to actually develop a nuclear bomb, we and our allies are going to have to take action on it — but we’re nowhere near that point.”

Mr. Debicella said he believes the threat of a nuclear Iran has to “always be in the background to make sure that our diplomacy is the thing that works.”