Candidates for governor in CT face off in first debate

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Gov. Ned Lamont, Republican Bob Stefanowski and Independent Party candidate Rob Hotaling take part in the NBC Connecticut gubernatorial debate Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 at the TV station's West Hartford studios.

Gov. Ned Lamont, Republican Bob Stefanowski and Independent Party candidate Rob Hotaling take part in the NBC Connecticut gubernatorial debate Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 at the TV station's West Hartford studios.

Courtesy of NBC Connecticut

The first governor’s debate of the 2022 election cycle produced clashes on issues such as abortion and tolls as the three candidates appeared in person together for the first time and presented competing visions on issues such as the economy, crime, affordable housing, and teacher retention and recruitment. 

Taxes and inflation – the top issues cited by Connecticut voters this election cycle – dominated the hour-long debate between Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, Republican Bob Stefanowski, and Independent Party candidate Rob Hotaling that NBC Connecticut and Telemundo Connecticut live-streamed from West Hartford and recorded for broadcast at 7 p.m. Tuesday and 11 a.m. Sunday. But it was abortion – a  major issue Lamont and other Democrats have targeted Stefanowski over – that led to the biggest confrontation. 

Asked whether he would take the approach of other Republican governors and eliminate most options for legal abortions following the U.S. Supreme Court's dismantling of federal abortion rights, Stefanowski said “Let me be really, really clear on this because Governor Lamont has been spending $500,000 a week to attack me on TV. Roe v. Wade is codified in Connecticut state law. I’m going to protect a woman's right to choose,” Stefanowski said.

The Madison Republican sought to clarify confusion over his stance on abortion rights, which he blamed on Lamont whom he said has been lying about his position for months. “You talk about Connecticut values. You shouldn't be trying to scare the women of Connecticut that it's going to change when I win,” he said. “You really should stop it and you should focus on the economy.” 

The governor fired back telling his opponent, “I think you’re scaring the women of Connecticut.” Lamont pointed to Stefanowski maxing out in contributions to Leora Levy, an anti-abortion Republican running to unseat U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., as opposed to the moderate GOP candidate in the race, former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides who Levy beat in the primary election.  

“I think you know where Susan and I stand. 100% no ambiguity. You can trust us. We're going to fight for your right to choose,” Lamont said, referring to his running mate, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz. Lamont has a 15-point lead over Stefanowski, with a particularly strong 30-point lead among women, according to a CT Insider/Channel 3 Eyewitness News/Western New England University poll released Tuesday.

Responding to Lamont’s attack over his financial support for Levy, Stefanowski said contributing to a candidate’s campaign doesn’t equate to support for all their positions. He pointed to a contribution Lamont made several years ago to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat and “a Second Amendment hero,” which he said doesn't have bearing on Lamont's views on gun safety. “I know you’re not pro-Second Amendment,” Stefanowski said to Lamont.

Asked by a reporter after the debate whether he supports a Connecticut law passed this spring that provides a safe harbor for abortion patients and providers against lawsuits from anti-abortion states, Stefanowski said: “It’s part of the law. I’m going to support it. I wasn’t part of the legislature that voted for it, but I will continue to support it.”

Independent Party candidate Rob Hotaling, who was not asked to respond to the question on abortion, told reporters in an interview after the debate that “I support a woman’s choice. Period. End of story.”  He said he also supports the safe harbor law. 

Another tense exchange occurred over a viewer question about why Connecticut doesn’t have highway tolls – a major proposal during Lamont’s first year in office which he later abandoned after failing to gain support for the plan in the General Assembly. Instead, the governor approved a new highway use fee on large commercial trucks that’s set to take effect in January. 

Stefanowski said a toll is just another tax and Connecticut has enough of those already. He emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects to which Lamont retorted you know how the private sector gets paid “With a toll.” Bickering between the two candidates ensued with both talking over the other before one of the moderators moved on to the next question. 

In his response, Hotaling said while an unpopular idea, the state should look at exit entry toll points, similar to what New York and Massachusetts have. “It’s just common sense,” he said. 

The economy and affordability dominated much of the discussion between the candidates. Lamont emphasized his efforts to turn around the state’s fiscal house from deficits to surpluses while both Stefanowski and Hotaling said the state should be spending more of its budget surplus to help residents. Hotaling also said it's important for the state to pay down it's pension debt - a major argument Lamont has made for not tapping into the state's surplus funds for more relief. 

Stefanowski has released a $2 billion tax relief plan that relies on using the state’s surpluses to pay for the cuts while Hotaling said he’d like to spend 5 to 15 percent of the surplus to “close the achievement gap” and make “strategic investments” in infrastructure. Both Stefanowski and Hotaling agreed Connecticut is not a business-friendly state and more must be done to cut red tape and regulations hindering economic development.  

On crime, Lamont pointed to his efforts to hire more state troopers and recently released statistics, which show an overall decline in crime in Connecticut after an increase in 2020 including drops in violent and property crime. “Our crime rate is going down despite some of the fear mongering you hear,” he said. But he acknowledged, “we've got to do better.”

Stefanowski highlighted low support for Lamont among law enforcement officials, who he said have been hampered by Connecticut’s police accountability bill passed in the summer of 2020 in the wake of national protests against police brutality and racism. Despite what the statistics show, Stefanowski charged crime is out of control. “Does anybody at home really feel like you're safer than you were four years ago?”