(Updated) Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz didn’t want to block the cookies so she staked out a corner in the back of the room at a Chester restaurant Wednesday night.
Her Democratic opponents in the race for attorney general, Rep. Cameron Staples, of New Haven and George Jepsen of Stamford, gravitated toward the front of the room, but stood in opposite corners.
It was the first time all three candidates were in the same room at the same time talking about their candidacies with Democratic Town Committee members from 13 towns, including Chester, Essex, and Colchester.
It wasn’t a formal debate, but each candidate was given five minutes to introduce themselves and make some opening remarks before town committee members started asking questions. No one asked about Bysiewicz’s qualifications, but each of the candidates talked about the issue in their own way.
During her introduction Bysiewicz talked about her legal background; her partnerships with Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, and her previous elections for Secretary of the State where she garnered more votes than the popular Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
“The most fun I’ve had as Secretary of the State are the times I partnered with Dick Blumenthal,” Bysiewicz said touting her friendship with the current attorney general who is running for Chris Dodd’s U.S. Senate seat.
She talked about how she and Blumenthal took on the U.S. Veterans Administration on voter registration issues at its West Haven hospital and Broadwater Energy, the company that wanted to put a floating liquefied natural gas terminal in the middle of Long Island Sound.
While no one asked there were whispers about Bysiewicz’s qualifications both before and after Wednesday’s event.
Earlier this week Blumenthal issued a 14-page legal opinion, which says the 10 years of active practice requirement for an attorney general is constitutional. But he fell short of saying Bysiewicz herself was qualified. He said that’s a question for the courts to decide.
Bysiewicz said Tuesday that she won’t be asking the courts for an opinion and will leave it up to the voters to decide.
However, Nancy DiNardo, chairwoman of the Democratic Party said Thursday that she is concerned and is talking to lawyers to see if the party has the ability to bring the issue to court.
“I’m concerned about the delegates at the convention and how they will feel with the status of her qualifications, which still aren’t clear,” DiNardo said in a phone interview.
Both Jepsen and Staples came close to talking about Bysiewicz‘s qualifications, but never formally addressed the issue.
“The position of attorney general is a position where credentials really matter,” Jepsen said citing his 26 years of legal practice.
Staples, who initially came out swinging on the issue of Bysiewicz‘s qualifications, made a point of talking about how he is committed to the four-year term of office.
“This is not a job you should run for, for one-term. You have to make a commitment,” Staples said.
When Bysiewicz announced she was switching from the governor’s race where she was the frontrunner to the attorney general’s race she didn’t rule out a run for higher office.
Some have speculated that Bysiewicz is interested in challenging U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman for his seat in 2012. When pressed Bysiewicz has said “I have learned in politics to stay very focused on the task at hand.”
Shelia Horvitz of Colchester said she was impressed with the presentations of all three candidates, but has known Bysiewicz the longest.
“At this point I’m in Susan’s corner,” Horvitz said.
When asked if she was concerned about the uncertainty over Bysiewicz’s qualifications, Horvitz said she didn’t hear anyone make it an issue Wednesday night.
“Susan is confident she has the qualifications and meets the requirements,” Horvitz said.
State Comptroller Nancy Wyman who stumped briefly at the beginning of the night for her re-election bid refused to pick sides Wednesday and has not endorsed any of the three candidates.
But Sen. Eileen Daily of Westbrook said she’s supporting Staples. The two have chaired the legislature’s Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee together for the past six years.
Jepsen, former Democratic Party chairman and a legislator for 16 years, was unfamiliar to many in the room based on his Fairfield County roots.
Russell Marth of Deep River said it’s too early to tell who he will support. He said he knows Bysiewicz because of her statewide profile. Wednesday was the first time he had an opportunity to meet both Jepsen and Staples.
“I’m a big fan of Dick Blumenthal so I want to make sure he does well and I want to make sure his replacement is just as good,” Marth said.
Each of the candidates promised to carry on in Blumenthal’s activist tradition in pushing public policy issues and taking on special interests. Each candidate also said they don’t believe pushing consumer issues are bad for business growth in the state, a position a Republican is likely to take.
The office is the “perfect mix of legal advocacy and public policy,” Staples said. If elected Staples said promised to play a pivotal role in making sure people get good quality health care. He will also focus on the financial services industry because bad business behavior is not good for business.
“The number one issue is our economic future,” Jepsen said. Keeping costs down for businesses and making sure they’re able to access credit is essential to Connecticut’s future, he said. He agreed with Staples that health care is also a big piece of that. And he will fight to preserve farmland.
Energy and utility issues are important to the state and as attorney general Bysiewicz said she will work to help create a public power authority and make sure business has a level playing field.