John McKinney took aim at Tom Foley’s presidential appointment as Ambassador to Ireland during a Thursday Republican gubernatorial debate in which both candidates tried casting the other as a political insider.
The debate was hosted Thursday by the Hartford Courant and WTIC-TV and will be broadcast Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox 61. Foley, the Republican convention-endorsed candidate, and McKinney, the minority leader of the state senate, are competing in an Aug. 12 primary for the nomination. Whoever wins will face Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
During the debate, the two candidate sparred on a wide range of topics and left behind the collegial tone that marked their first debate. And one day after a Foley campaign ad framed him as a “career politician,” McKinney sought to remind voters that Foley was a top fundraiser for former President George W. Bush, who later appointed Foley as Ambassador to Ireland.
“While Tom has earned a personal wealth and raising millions as a political fundraiser, in hopes there’s an ambassadorship at the end of the rainbow, I’ve been in the legislature working hard for real people across the state of Connecticut,” McKinney said in his closing statement.
McKinney’s closing remarks came after Foley’s, meaning Foley did not have a chance to respond during the debate. The senate minority leader went on to tout bills he helped to pass in the legislature, sometimes working across the aisle with Democrats.
“There was no appointment at the end of my work, I did that because I love Connecticut . . . Tom, you may call that being an insider, if that’s being an insider, that’s a badge I wear proudly,” he said.
After the debate, Foley told reporters he was surprised McKinney would choose to criticize him based on the ambassadorship.
“I was very proud to serve my country overseas. He made it sound like it was a political payoff. Actually ambassadors work quite hard for the country and there are many challenges that they face overseas. I was pleased to do it. I’m surprised [McKinney] would be taking me on for my service,” he said.
Foley maintained that he considers himself a political “outsider” in Connecticut and said he did not consider his service elsewhere “relevant” to that point. He said both McKinney and Malloy have long served in elected office in the state.
“I think voters will see them as part of the problem and not the solution,” he said.
During the hour-long debate the candidates covered a range of other topics.
Asked about ongoing problems with the Metro-North rail line, McKinney said Connecticut has to pursue looking for a new operator.
“Metro-North has a terrible record as an operator. Gov. Malloy has failed to hold them accountable. We need to look for a new operator. We need to take control over our own destiny here,” McKinney said.
After the debate, Foley said he would not seek to replace Metro-North and suggested that Malloy’s dealings with the the operator were part of the problem.
“I prefer not to change operators. If you can work with somebody who’s there. I don’t know how much John has interacted with this operator. I know that Gov. Malloy has shown that he doesn’t have a very good ability to work with people. It’s either his way or the highway. So I’m not sure it’s the operator that’s the problem. It could be the governor that’s the problem,” Foley said.
The candidates were asked whether they would halt the implementation of the Common Core educational standards. McKinney said he would stop the Common Core. Meanwhile, Foley said he would only mandate the standards on schools which are not performing well.
However, Foley incorrectly accused McKinney of voting for the Common Core initially as part of an education reform bill proposed by Malloy.
“Sen. McKinney voted for Gov. Malloy’s education reform bill, which is what brought us Common Core,” Foley said.
In fact, the state Board of Education adopted the Common Core back in 2010. The legislature never voted on its adoption. McKinney pointed to the Board of Education vote during the debate.
“Look, Common Core was adopted before the governor’s education reform package passed. That’s a fact and why you fail to understand that is beyond me,” he said.
Asked about new firearm regulations adopted in Connecticut following the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, the two candidates differed sharply. McKinney, who represented Newtown in the legislature, said he would not seek to change the gun control provisions in the new law. McKinney voted for the bill last year.
Foley faulted the legislation for not doing more to address mental health treatment in Connecticut and suggested some of the gun control policies unfairly inconvenienced state gun owners.
However, Foley would not specify exactly which gun control policies he opposes. After the debate, he was asked by a reporter to detail which of the firearm policies he would have seen removed from the bill. Foley simply answered “No.”
Both candidates said they would not support legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, which they called a “gateway drug.”
The state already legalized medical marijuana and the program is expected to get under way this summer.
The Republican candidates were asked about a recent decision by the Malloy administration to deny a request from the federal government to temporarily shelter illegal immigrant children in the Southbury Training School. Neither said exactly how they would have handled the situation, but both were critical of Malloy’s handling. Foley criticized Malloy for quickly deciding against the request.
“I think when there are young people at stake, he probably should have thought about that decision a little more tactfully and a little longer,” he said.
McKinney suggested Malloy made the decision based on election-year politics. He pointed to the governor’s support of policies giving undocumented residents drivers licenses and better access to higher education.
“Now on the eve of an election, he makes a political decision at the height of hypocrisy to potentially abandon these kids,” he said.
Following the debate, Democratic Party spokesman Devon Puglia issued a short statement touting recently reported employment gains.
“Under the leadership of Governor Dan Malloy, Connecticut has made real strides, and the work ahead is too important to turn back to the failed policies offered by Tom Foley and John McKinney,” Puglia said.