First Republican gubernatorial debate — Boucher believes she can win

Casino gambling, gun laws. marijuana and the immigration status of the participants took center stage in Windsor Wednesday night as Republican candidates for governor squared off in their first debate. The event, hosted by Fox 61’s Jenn Bernstein and the Hartford Courant’s Chris Keating, was held at Windsor High School and streamed live on Facebook. Watch the debate here. The next debate is scheduled for January.

Six candidates attended the debate, former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, Stamford Director of Administration Mike Handler, State Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, former U.S. Comptroller General Dave Walker, attorney Peter Lumaj, and tech consultant Steve Obsitnik. State Sen. Toni Boucher, who has formed an exploratory committee but has not announced her candidacy for any specific office, participated in the second half of the debate after getting stuck in traffic.

The candidates agreed on more than they disagreed, with each targeting Gov. Dannel Malloy and bashing “career politicians” and “Hartford insiders” that they blamed for the state’s current condition.

Lumaj, in particular, took numerous jabs at his fellow candidates political backgrounds.

“Everyone’s telling a story about how I got elected here, I didn’t raise taxes there,” he said. “So with all these success stories, how come the state is a mess? Trust me, it’s them.”

Herbst took advantage of a question about cutting state agencies with a detailed answer in which he said he would reform the departments of motor vehicles and transit, and also fold some state social services programs into nonprofit agencies that he said have a track record of getting better results at ⅓ the cost.

Herbst also brought up another favorite topic of his, pension reform, in response to a question about eliminating the income tax.

“People need to be honest about what it’s going to take to get to that point,” he said. We have a massive unfunded liability problem. We have to get our pension cost under control. Once we get unfunded liabilities under control, then we can begin to talk about reducing income tax.”

The lengthy answers, though, cost Herbst later on as moderators asked a specific pension question that would have been in his wheelhouse, but he was not able to answer having used all of his allotted time earlier.

In response to other questions in the first half of the debate, Herbst called for more spending on infrastructure and transit plans as an economic development tool.

“Companies won’t relocate here if they know their employees are going to have to sit in their cars for three or four hours a day,” he said.

The structure of the debate broke down noticeably in the second half. Moderators asked a question about the proposed Bridgeport casino, and Obsitnik said he supported it provided no state funds were spent. Herbst in turn expressed reservations about the plan, citing possible job losses at the existing state casinos and concerns about a casino’s impact on traffic in lower Fairfield County.

Boucher said she was not a supporter of increased casino gambling, but believed the city should have a chance to decide its own economic future. She then launched into an explanation of why she believes she is the best candidate.

“Everyone on this stage has great ideas,” she said. “But we need to  focus on who can win in Connecticut. The only way we change is if we can win these offices, and there’s probably only one person here who can win.”

She said her life story, being an immigrant resonated in the inner cities, where Republicans would have to make inroads.

Lumaj, himself an immigrant as is Srinivasan, spoke next and reacted to Boucher’s personal story, quipping “Everybody running for governor is either a refugee or an immigrant” before blaming Connecticut’s Democratic domination on GOP timidity in a lengthy conversation sidetrack of his own.

“The reason we lose is that we’re afraid to be Republicans. We’re afraid to be conservative,” he said, prompting Bernstein to remind the candidates that the question was about casinos.

The candidates were essentially in agreement on gun laws, with all expressing support for the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Most also called for more research into mental health, with Handler the only one to specifically express support for a ban on the so-called “bump stock” accessory which gained notoriety following the Las Vegas massacre.

Herbst declared himself a gun owner and pistol permit holder and said he believed in people having the right to engage in the shooting sports and also to defend themselves with a gun, before advocating for mental health funding and increased law enforcement.

“We have a mental health crisis in this country,” he said. “This governor has depleted funds for mental health, consistently. We have some of the toughest gun control laws in this country.”

Herbst also stated that if elected, “We’re going to punish criminals and we’re going to stop decimating the Connecticut State Police.” He also pledged to send a bill to the legislature re-instituting the death penalty within his first 100 days in office.

In their closing statements, Boucher again expressed her belief that she was the only candidate that could win in Connecticut, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1, a statement Herbst took exception to in comments after the debate, pointing out that in 2014 he won left-leaning towns like Cromwell, Rocky Hill, Berlin and Wethersfield that Tom Foley lost.

“I am not a country club Republican, I am a blue collar Republican from a blue collar town,” he said.