NEW BRITAIN — Fifth District Congressional candidates Andrew Roraback and Elizabeth Esty share a fundamental opposition to the death penalty, but Roraback voted against repeal this year and Esty accused him of waffling on the issue during Saturday’s debate at the Trinity on Main Theater.

Roraback, a Republican state senator, and Esty, a former state House Democrat, are in a close race for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy. Their debate took on a surreal quality Saturday because props from the Rocky Horror Show, which is running at the theater through Oct. 31, remained in place during the debate.

As debates go, this one was no horror show. But the candidates continued trying to push public perception of their opponent further left, and further right.

Though the federal government leaves death penalty policy up to individual states, the issue came up during Saturday’s wide-ranging 5th District debate as the two candidates — both considered social moderates — staked out positions as independent voters.

Esty, a Cheshire resident, served one term as a state representative before losing her seat to Republican Al Adinolfi. She attributes that loss to voter backlash for her support of scrapping the state’s rarely-used capital punishment statute in favor of life without parole. It was a tough position to take in the town where the 2007 murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters were still fresh on voters’ minds.

“I lost my seat in the legislature over a vote on the death penalty that was quite unpopular, to say the least, in my community,” Esty told the audience at the Trinity on Main Theater.

Esty said Roraback, a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, flipped his position during this year’s Republican primary to avoid paying the political price for getting rid of a policy that Republicans generally support.

Roraback sees it differently. During the primary he announced he’d be tying his vote to repeal the death penalty with a vote to rescind a program giving inmates the opportunity to be released from prison early. So unless the Democrat-controlled legislature voted scrap a program they’d passed only a year earlier, Roraback would not support their effort to end capital punishment.

Republicans have made a concerted effort to make the inmate policy a campaign issue at the state level. But when it came to the death penalty vote, Democrats shot down Roraback’s efforts and repealed capital punishment without his support.

On Saturday, Roraback defended his position, arguing that the early release credit program represents a threat to public safety.

“I do wonder how many innocent people will have to be killed before Elizabeth Esty would commend me for standing up to an outrageous early release program,” he said, adding that violent criminals can now be released earlier than their victims were led to believe.

Roraback said he couldn’t abide replacing the death penalty with life without parole when he couldn’t have confidence the sentence would actually be carried out. However, it’s unlikely there would ever be a scenario where someone sentenced to life in prison would receive the credits that allow inmates to go before a parole board early. Homicide was among the few crimes written into the policy that prohibit an inmate from earning the credits.

But the law allows convicted rapists, child molesters, and people convicted of manslaughter to earn credits, Roraback said. He said some inmates who earned credits have already committed murder.

“It’s outrageous and now people have paid the price,” Roraback said.

Esty did not comment on the inmate policy, but she said when it came to the death penalty, Roraback “waffled” when his vote counted most. For the first time in decades the legislature was taking up the issue with a governor who would actually sign the repeal. Esty said Roraback knew Democrats would never agree to rescind the early release policy.

“This year his vote mattered. This year there would have been a political price, and suddenly Andrew Roraback’s lifelong opposition — poof, vanished,” she said. “. . . I knew the price when I took my vote and I took that price and stood by my vote.”

Throughout the debate, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and ran about 90 minutes, the two candidates found common ground on social issues. For instance, both advocated against the Defense of Marriage Act, the repeal of which would allow same-sex marriages to be recognized nationally.

But they parted ways on economic and fiscal issues and each questioned the others’ ability to break ranks with their respective parties. Esty said that over the last five years Roraback has voted with Republicans on every budget item.

Roraback didn’t shy away from those budget votes.

“Never will I apologize for calling [Gov. Dannel Malloy] out for imposing the largest tax increase ever,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Roraback campaign said that Esty, in her one term in office, voted with other Democrats on almost every vote.

Esty argued that in Congress, Democrats aren’t the problem.

“The gridlock in Washington, D.C. over the last two years, has been a gridlock caused by a Republican House of Representatives and John Boehner himself has called it ‘hell no.’ That has been his priority, to block the president from doing anything,” she said.

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