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Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty hit Republican challenger Mark Greenberg over his handling of a corruption scandal involving former Gov. John Rowland Thursday night in the first debate of the 2014 race for Connecticut’s 5th District congressional seat.

“I’m not trying to be negative, but character matters,” Esty said in response to a question about how she was ensuring her campaign would be positive.

Greenberg testified in a federal trial earlier this fall that led to Rowland’s conviction on seven campaign finance and corruption charges. He said he turned down Rowland’s scheme to work for his campaign through a secret payment arrangement through Greenberg’s animal shelter. 

Esty said there are unanswered questions about Greenberg’s handling of the situation, and criticized him for describing himself as “gutless” in not wanting to immediately reject Rowland’s plan outright. He was “unwilling to turn down a politically corrupt offer,” she said.

Greenberg responded with criticism of the negative tone of Esty’s re-election campaign. He cited a Hartford Courant story calling an attack ad she ran regarding his views Social Security as “misleading” and “false.”

The exchange occurred as Esty and Greenberg met for the first time in a debate sponsored by the News-Times of Danbury and the League of Women Voters at the Portuguese Cultural Center in Danbury.

Strong differences emerged in the candidates’ approach to immigration and foreign policy.

Esty cited her co-sponsorship of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would provide an “earned path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

She said it was the “number one” thing Congress could do right now to spur economic development and job growth.

Greenberg said the country first must “secure its borders” and then streamline the process for immigrants who are going through the proper, legal process to gain entry to the country. He said only then should the country do something to assist undocumented immigrants who entered the country improperly.

He said the country should be concerned about “diseases” and terrorists entering the country due to its “unsecure borders.”

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Greenberg criticized Esty’s approach on foreign policy, including her vote against arming moderate Syrians in an effort to combat the ISIS terrorist group.

“Two years ago I was on a radio interview and I warned of these people . . . radical, fundamentalists . . . who are out to kill us,” he said, referring to a 2012 WNPR interview in which he described Islam as “cult-like” and “not as peaceful a religion” as Judaism or Christianity. “I warned about that, and I was ridiculed for warning about that.”

Greenberg said that the problem in Iraq and Syria is the fault of President Obama and congressional Democrats.

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Esty said she supports the president’s approach on airstrikes. Greenberg said that doesn’t go far enough.

“We have to look at this as essentially an attack, an eventual attack, on this country,” he said. “We need to make sure that we try to prevent it in advance.”

Greenberg, a father of five who is “unapologetically pro-life,” raised eyebrows with a comment that seemed to indicate radical Islamic terrorists had an advantage over the United States because they have more children.

“We are in this country reproducing at a rate of 1.6 per couple,” he said. “We need 2.2, 2.3 to sustain. Some of those folks who are out to kill us are reproducing at a rate of 5 or 6 to 1.”

On gun control, Greenberg agreed “completely” with Esty after she called for universal background checks for gun purchases, closing loopholes for gun shows and online purchases and banning “straw purchases” of guns.

“This must come as a surprise to the NRA, which has given him an A rating,” Esty said, suggesting that no member of Congress who supported such measures would get those kinds of marks from the NRA.

Greenberg elicited laughter by saying that he didn’t even fill out the NRA’s questionnaire and was surprised himself that he got an A rating. “Maybe it will switch to F after tonight,” he said.

The NRA’s website, however, says its rating of Greenberg was based “solely on the candidate’s responses” to the organization’s questionnaire.

The candidates also tangled over Social Security. Greenberg criticized an Esty TV ad — the one the Courant labeled as “false” — for suggesting that he wanted to dismantle Social Security or take benefits away from those who are on it.

“I believe in Social Security benefits for all seniors. I believe the system should give back to the people who put in,” he said.

Greenberg said he supports increasing the retirement age from 67 to 70 so that the system won’t become “insolvent.” His plan would not affect anyone currently over the age of 52.

“I believe we should have a discussion about it. It is . . . clear that if we do nothing about it, this system will fail,” he said. “Let’s have a discussion about it. Let’s not bury our heads in the sand. Let’s not kick it down the road.”

Esty opposes raising the retirement age, and instead would look at increasing the cap on income from which Social Security is deducted. Greenberg called that a “tax increase” and defended his plan.

“We live a lot longer. We’re productive a lot longer. We work a lot longer,” he said. “Why is it wrong to raise the retirement age from 67 to 70 and ask younger people, younger people only, to work a little bit longer to make sure that the system remains solvent?”

Thursday’s debate was recorded for later broadcast on Connecticut Network.

Esty and Greenberg will meet for at least one more debate, sponsored by the Waterbury Chamber of Commerce, at noon Tuesday, Oct. 21, at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury.

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