Matt DeRienzo photo
CHESHIRE — As one might expect, 5th District Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty and Mark Greenberg, her Republican challenger, talk a lot about creating jobs and fixing the economy. But they each had a different answer when Cheshire High School students asked them Monday what their single most important issue would be if they are elected on Nov. 4.

Esty said she would focus on tightening federal gun restrictions, while Greenberg said he would strongly advocate for term limits on members of Congress.

“It’s not an issue I chose, but it’s an issue that chose our state and our congressional district,” Esty said, citing the December 2012 murders of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Greenberg, criticizing the money spent on negative attack ads against him by Esty and outside groups working on her behalf, said that something has to be done about politicians who get into office and “immediately start working on getting re-elected instead of working for the voters.”

Matt DeRienzo photo
A table with the banner of the Cheshire High School Young Democrats stood on one side of the stage and a table with the banner of the Cheshire Young Republicans stood on the other as the entire student body was gathered inside the school’s auditorium to hear from the candidates. It was organized “forum”-style, with no opportunity for Esty or Greenberg to respond to each others’ answers.

Esty represented the town as a state legislator and town councilor and was active in the PTA in Cheshire. She asked students to think about the 30,000 people who die in the U.S. each year from gun violence and how that’s bigger than the population of their town.

“It would be as if this entire community died . . . killed with a gun,” she said.

Matt DeRienzo photo
Esty repeated her call for adoption of a federal universal background check law that would close loopholes for online sales and gun shows, as well as banning “straw purchases” of guns and making the interstate transportation of illegal guns a felony.

She said that Americans can change laws and attitudes about guns in the way that Mothers Against Drunk Driving changed the laws and culture around drinking and driving.

“We’ve done this before. We did this with drunk driving . . . Some moms got really frustrated with the law, with the politicians, with the car companies,” she said, and drunken driving deaths have been cut in half since MADD was founded, from more than 21,000 in 1980 to 10,322 in 2012.

She criticized Greenberg for not answering whether he would support a universal background check law she has co-sponsored. Greenberg surprised many in the candidates’ first campaign debate a few weeks ago by saying he agreed with Esty on universal background checks, but he’s been reluctant to get into the specifics. Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, which has endorsed him, has said he believes Greenberg will oppose the law after he hears from gun rights organizations in Washington about all of its ramifications.

Greenberg told the Cheshire students that he’s a different kind of candidate because he’s not aiming to make a career out of serving in Congress.

“We have to have term limits. We have to make everyone know they’re there for a limited period of time,” he said. “I would be a champion of term limits.”

Greenberg thinks U.S. House members should serve no more than eight years, and favors converting terms from two to four years so that a congressman would run for re-election only once and then leave office.

He said that Esty and groups working on her behalf, including House Majority PAC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, have spent $4.5 million on the campaign, to his $1.6 million.

“These groups come in and put absolute lies on TV,” he said.

Laura Maloney, Esty’s campaign spokeswoman, said that she’s opposed to Greenberg’s four-year term proposal and that she is “skeptical about unintended consequences of term limits, such as empowering lobbyists and political insiders rather than ordinary citizens.”

Both candidates said Monday they are opposed to the idea of moving to a federal “flat tax” that would have all Americans paying the same percentage tax rate on income. Both said the tax code must be simplified and reformed.

Greenberg wants a lower corporate tax rate, and believes that would spur economic development and eventually lead to higher overall tax revenue.

“If the rates are lower, there would be more money coming in, so it would be a win-win situation,” he said.

Esty said she wants to close loopholes and incentives that are leading to big profits for oil companies and other industries.

“GE should not be able to make more money hiring 950 tax lawyers (to find loopholes) than 5,000 engineers,” she said. “We’ve allowed that system to develop.”

They disagreed on a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage.

Similar to the argument she makes for spreading Connecticut’s paid sick leave law to the rest of the country, Esty said the federal law needs to change so that businesses won’t move jobs from Connecticut to states with a cheaper labor force.

“It is really hard in this country to raise a family on the minimum wage,” she said. “No one should be working a 40-hour work week and raising their children in poverty.”

Greenberg said that he defaults to the Constitution’s call for states to be able to make their own laws. He said that makes sense in the case of the minimum wage because Connecticut is a much more expensive place to live than some other states.

He downplayed the impact of the minimum wage, though, saying that, “Minimum wage jobs are not the end of a career, they are the beginning of a career.”

Both candidates expressed concern about too much testing being required in public schools, but Greenberg came out strongly against federal “Common Core” education standards.

“I am dead set against Common Core,” he said. “The best education is defined at the local level.”

Esty said that having standards are important because the quality of education in every school system is not as good as it is in Cheshire.

She sympathized, though, with complaints about over-testing. “We are in danger of crushing an interest in learning . . . when teachers spend so much time filling out paperwork and checking off boxes,” she said.

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

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.