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Former Congresswoman Nancy Johnson speaks on behalf of Mark Greenberg Tuesday at the New Britain Senior Center. (Matt DeRienzo photo)

NEW BRITAIN — Nancy Johnson, the last Republican to represent Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District, defended the latest Republican to seek it on Tuesday. She told a group of senior citizens in New Britain that first-term Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty is telling an “outright lie” in TV ads saying that challenger Mark Greenberg would take away their Social Security benefits.

However, in discussing a specific fix for the “down the road” Social Security insolvency issue that Greenberg warns about, Johnson spoke in favor of a plan Greenberg opposes and Esty supports. In one-on-one conversations with about 20 people who were eating lunch at the New Britain Senior Center, Johnson said that Congress should lift the cap on the amount of a worker’s income that is taxed for Social Security.

“Now that salaries are higher, you’ve got to tax up the ladder some,” she said.

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Former Congresswoman Nancy Johnson talks up the candidacy of Mark Greenberg, center, to Joseph Smyk of New Britain Tuesday at the New Britain Senior Center. (Matt DeRienzo photo)

Greenberg opposes that move, saying it would amount to a “tax increase,” and instead favors gradually raising the retirement age from 67 to 70, affecting the retirement of people who are 52 and younger today.

Johnson, who after 24 years lost her House seat to now-U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy in 2006, was among the last of a disappearing breed of moderate “New England” Republicans to serve in Congress. Greenberg is far more conservative on social issues, and after talking about Social Security, Johnson reiterated that she is a supporter of abortion rights and gay rights. She also feels strongly that the Supreme Court’s recent “Hobby Lobby” decision was in error, and that contraception should be a requirement of all health insurance plans.

She said that her common ground with Greenberg is on how to fix the economy and create jobs.

“The whole abortion issue is moving offstage both nationally and in Connecticut,” Johnson said. “Those social issues . . . are very separate from the rest of the Republican issues.”

Johnson urged seniors to “reject a campaign that is based on lies.”

She said no politician, from either party, “will cut the benefits of existing retirees.”

Appearing at her side, Greenberg said that he was trying to engage in an “honest discussion and debate” over protecting Social Security for current seniors’ grandchildren.

“I’m taking nothing away from you . . . That Esty commercial is false,” Greenberg said. “Please tell your friends this is not true. I will not take your benefits.”

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Former Congresswoman Nancy Johnson speaks on behalf of Mark Greenberg Tuesday at the New Britain Senior Center. (Matt DeRienzo photo)

Johnson said that Esty’s TV commercials are “pure partisan politics.”

“(Greenberg) was running a good campaign,” she said. “You don’t see him slandering other people.”

Esty’s campaign has defended their TV ads. Campaign spokesman Laura Maloney said again on Tuesday that Greenberg’s own words have cast doubt on his commitment to Social Security.

“The facts are very clear — Mark Greenberg called Social Security a ‘failure.’ And not only does he want to privatize it, but he fundamentally disparages those who have earned Social Security, saying seniors who have paid into the system and earned these benefits after lifetimes of hard work are ‘on the public dole’,” she said. “What Mark Greenberg clearly doesn’t get is that Social Security is a guarantee and a lifeline for seniors, keeping millions out of poverty. Instead, Mark Greenberg wants to dismantle it, and voters should know that.”

Greenberg said that if he is able to unseat Esty in November, he will call frequently upon Johnson to advise him on key issues facing the district.

Since leaving office, the 79-year-old Johnson has worked as a lobbyist in Washington. She said Tuesday that she has scaled back that work to “part-time.”

Matt DeRienzo is the editor of the Center for Public Integrity.

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