On questions ranging from gun policy to political corruption, five of the six Republican gubernatorial candidates did their best to answer Friday during the first televised political debate of the 2014 season.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, Avon Attorney Martha Dean, Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, and former West Hartford Town Councilor Joe Visconti participated in the debate sponsored by the Courant and Fox 61 at the Mark Twain House.
Tom Foley, the 2010 Republican nominee, declined an invitation to debate. His absence was marked with a folding chair outside the Twain auditorium.
On any other day, the debate may have been the biggest political news of the moment, but it was upstaged by the arraignment of former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland.
One of the first questions the candidates were asked Friday was about “Corrupticut,” the nickname the state has earned for the number of politicians who have been put behind bars. The question came just hours before Rowland pleaded not guilty to seven counts of campaign corruption. Two weeks ago, a former congressional candidate and her husband pleaded guilty to charges that they illegally paid the former governor-turned-radio-host consulting fees without reporting them to the Federal Election Commission.
“What would you do to clean up Connecticut politics?” Fox 61 Reporter Laurie Perez asked the panel.
McKinney said he’s spent 15 years in the state Senate fighting corruption and was one of the lawmakers who asked Rowland to resign back in 2004 amid another federal inquiry that led to him pleading guilty and going to jail.
“When John Rowland was governor I called on him to step down because we could not have a governor who engaged in illegal activity,” McKinney said. “When Sen. Ernie Newton, a Democrat, engaged in illegal activity, I similarly called for him to step down.”
He estimated that about 99 percent of politicians who serve are good people, “but there are those who break the law, and that cannot be tolerated.” He said it creates voter apathy.
Dean, who got into the race last month, said cracking down on corruption requires strong leadership. She said in order to end the reputation of Connecticut as a corrupt state, voters have to stop sending the same people back to the Capitol.
As far as Rowland is concerned, Dean said she thinks it’s a “black eye to the Republican Party that it’s tolerated.”
McKinney said he’s always “astounded that people might put themselves in positions and make decisions that would violate the law.”
He said he’s always amazed when someone who has been through the criminal justice system and has gone to jail would “jeopardize their freedoms to go back to jail again.”
Lauretti said its hard to legislate behavior. You just have to be diligent about corrupt behavior.
“To a good extent, the system has worked. I’m not sure you can legislate behavior like some people would like to think,” Lauretti said.
Visconti said leading by example is the what needs to be done. He pointed to a Courant story from 2013 in which Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration admitted to using private email accounts to conduct state business.
“We need to look at the current governor and how he has cut and weakened current FOI law,” Visconti said.
Boughton went after the Malloy administration as well and described as “ripe for abuse” some of the current practices they have implemented.
“When certain key individuals who are close to the governor get grants that they probably shouldn’t get, we need to be very afraid,” Boughton said. “Unfortunately, I think there are going to be more of these investigations, more of these bad headlines coming out.”
As far as Rowland is concerned, Boughton said after the debate that he doesn’t think it hurts the Republican Party and people will judge the party on its own merits.
“Obviously, it’s very troubling and deeply disappointing that he would even get near a second time around to having this kind of problem,” Boughton said.
The question was a nice change of pace for Boughton, who has been criticized from both the left and the right on his decision to leave Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Whether the candidates would repeal a bill that tightens restrictions on what types of guns and ammunition a Connecticut resident can possess was one of the first questions posed during the debate.
Boughton said he believes the parents and victims of the Newtown community deserved a legislative response, even though he feels the bill didn’t go far enough on mental health and school security.
“While we spent a lot of time concerned about what kind of flash suppressor a gun has or what kind of magazine it has, we didn’t spend a lot of time on the heavy lifting,” Boughton said. “Mental health care is going to require real input.”
McKinney was the only lawmaker on the panel that voted in favor of the bill and defended his decision. He said he was elected to represent the entire town of Newtown and be their voice in the legislature.
“Leadership’s about making difficult decisions,” McKinney said. “There’s no easy decision after something like Newtown.” He challenged Boughton’s characterization of the legislation. He said they did address mental health and they did address school security.
Dean is an avid gun rights advocate and is helping with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new law. Visconti, who carries a gun, also is a gun rights advocate.
Lauretti, who has been competitive in raising the necessary funds but shy when it comes to talking to the news media, said he would have opposed the legislation.
“I also think the video game industry has gotten a completely free pass on this thing,” he added.
The Newtown gunman was an avid video game player, but the science about whether violent video games lead to mass murder is not definitive and lawmakers didn’t take any action on video games.
The debate will air again at 10 a.m. Sunday on Fox 61.