Hugh McQuaid photo

NORWICH — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sought Wednesday to keep the focus of the first gubernatorial debate on the business record of his opponent, Tom Foley, who dismissed the issue as irrelevant to Connecticut voters.

Malloy, a first-term Democrat, and Foley, his Republican rival, faced off Wednesday night before a crowd of about 400 people packed into a hot auditorium at Norwich Free Academy.

Although the debate covered several topics, moderator Ray Hackett, an editor at the Norwich Bulletin, allowed an open-format discussion between the candidates. During that discussion, Malloy returned several times to Foley’s record at a private equity firm and the closure of a Bibb Co. facility in Georgia, which shut its doors after it was sold by Foley’s firm.

The governor brought the issue up near the beginning of the debate, when Hackett asked both candidates if they considered their opponent dishonest. Malloy said records were important.

“I don’t think you told the truth about Bibb,” Malloy said.

During the 2010 election, Foley’s opponents used the Georgia textile facility’s closure against him and it has been the subject of several campaign ads already this year. Later on in the debate, he defended his record, saying the mill was shut down several years after he sold the company. He said the Bibb Co. did well during his tenure and he did not pay himself a salary while he was there. Foley said Connecticut voters were not interested in the issue. He called Malloy’s campaign ads revisiting the textile mill an “insult” to voters.

“You’re the governor of the state of Connecticut. People are feeling a huge squeeze . . . A lot of people can’t afford to live in our state anymore. Why are you spending so much time looking at some deal I supposedly did in the 1990s?” Foley asked, prompting applause from some of the audience.

Malloy said the mill’s fate was relevant to the future of Connecticut if Foley were to win the election.

“You told us it’s going to take eight years to solve the problems in the state of Connecticut. You had eight years to solve the problem at Bibb, to protect people’s livelihoods, to figure out how to get the job done. And you failed to do it,” he said.

Malloy also drew a line from the textile mill’s closure to a widely-publicized event Foley held in July outside the Fusion Paperboard Co. in Sprague, which was owned by a private equity firm when it closed and laid off 145 workers.

Hugh McQuaid photo

Foley insists he held the press conference, which devolved into a bickering match between he and Sprague First Selectwoman Cathy Osten, in order to highlight Malloy’s policy failures.

“Let me ask you Tom, when the companies that you owned failed did you go to their governors and blame them?” Malloy asked as the audience interrupted with applause.

The candidates also spent about 10 minutes arguing over the gun control law Malloy and the Democratic-controlled legislature passed following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Foley has said he would not push to repeal the law, but has said he would sign such a bill if the legislature passed it. He has called the bill inconvenient for gun owners, but has been vague about which provisions he opposes.

Malloy took the opportunity to quiz Foley about the law.

“Tom, should a person be able to buy a gun without a background check?” he asked. Foley answered “No.” Malloy kept going. He asked whether a person with a mental illness should be allowed to purchase a gun. Foley said it depends on the severity of the illness. Malloy asked about whether a gun owner with a protective order should be allowed to keep their firearm.

“Do you want to go over the whole bill,” Foley asked. Malloy said he would because Foley has avoided questions such questions. Malloy said he has been clear on the issue.

“I will never sign a repeal . . . If you’re talking about repealing the fundamentals of this legislation, which has led to lower crime, fewer homicides, and safer schools, teachers, and administrators — I want to be very clear, I would not repeal that,” he said.

Foley said he opposed one provision in the law that prohibited certain AR-15 style rifles and required gun owners who had already purchased them to register the weapons with the state or face felony charges. Foley said he would try to pardon anyone who was charged under that provision of the law.

“You say ‘If you don’t do something within two or three months, you’re going to be a felon?’ Governor, what were you thinking?” he said. “Absolutely, that aspect of the law, I would change.”

Education

Another hot-button issue in the governor’s race this year is education.

Foley has been critical of the increased amount of funding Malloy has spent on education.

Foley maintained during the debate that the percentage of education funding wasn’t as high as spending in other areas of the budget, even though dollar-for-dollar the funding has increased during Malloy’s tenure.

Hackett asked Foley why he thinks the percentage of education spending is more important than the actual dollars going to schools.

“It shows the actual commitment and priority of the governor,” Foley said. “Under Governor Malloy, he’s failed to do anything about state spending so it’s skyrocketing. It’s gone up 16 percent since he’s been governor.”

Foley has said he wants to keep spending flat and at the same time improve education.

“Not all of the things that affect educational outcomes for example cost money,” Foley said. “A lot of the proven, high-impact factors on education reform don’t actually cost money.”

Hackett also gave Malloy an opportunity to comment on a statement he made in 2012 that infuriated teachers and caused them to rally against his proposal on the steps of the state Capitol.

“I should admit that that was bad language,” Malloy said regarding his remarks. “It wasn’t actually about them, it was about tenure . . . I shouldn’t have said it. I apologize for saying that.”

Despite the comment, one of the two teacher unions and a number of other labor groups have endorsed Malloy this year.

Foley said Malloy’s problem with education isn’t just spending, it’s also a “style issue.” Foley accused Malloy of not engaging teachers in a dialogue about what works best in the classroom.

Malloy told Foley that after running for governor for five or six years he still doesn’t understand the legislative process because “we actually got a bill that people agreed to.”

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.