NEW HAVEN — Four Democratic candidates who are either exploring or already in the 2018 race for governor vied for the progressive vote Saturday during a debate at a school in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood.
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, Middletown Mayor Dan Drew, former Consumer Protection Commissioner Jonathan Harris, and former Democratic Party vice-chair Dita Bhargava took part in the debate, which was titled “The People’s Symposium: Advancing Progress in Connecticut.” and was organized by the CT Working Families Organization.
Former federal prosecutor Chris Mattei opted not to attend and said he’s still weighing his options. He’s expected to announce a run for attorney general soon and as a result bowed out of Saturday’s debate.
Sean Connolly, the former commissioner of Veterans Affairs who announced in October that he’s exploring a run, also did not attend.
A campaign spokesman said Connolly was serving in the Army Reserve on Saturday and as a result was unable to attend the debate. But it’s unclear whether he was invited since an official from the Working Families Party was unaware of Connolly’s candidacy on Saturday. Connolly’s campaign said they reached out to the party regarding the event.
More than 500 attended the event at Fair Haven School and they cheered at various times for the four candidates, even though many said after the event that none emerged as a clear frontrunner in the field.
Democratic candidates like Ned Lamont and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin are still considering getting into the race.
The first question of the debate about whether they would increase taxes on the wealthy set the stage for the questions that followed, but the debate got interesting as it reached the second hour mark when an audience member questioned Ganim about his city’s policing efforts.
Ganim was asked to defend his city’s immigration policies and he was asked about the recent police shooting of 15-year-old Jayson Negron.
Ganim said he wants to make sure that “justice is served” in the Negron case and that his deepest sympathies have gone out to the family. He said the state police and the state attorney’s office are investigating.
“I’m not going to be able to keep this one to 90 seconds,” Ganim said. “This is a sensitive issue and there’s a loss of a life here.”
He also disagreed with the statement that the Bridgeport Police Department has a notoriously bad relationship with black and brown communities.
Some members of the audience booed Ganim at that point.
“Efforts are being made by the Bridgeport Police Department in every way,” Ganim said. “Could we do a better job? Could every urban police department do a better job? Absolutely.”
Following the debate, Ganim said he didn’t feel the question was unfair. He said it comes with being a local elected official.
“When you’re a mayor and you’re a candidate for statewide office I think all these questions are fair,” Ganim said.
Earlier this week Ganim was dealt a setback when a federal judge ruled that he couldn’t use the state’s public campaign finance system to raise money for his race.
Middletown Mayor Dan Drew also was criticized for not having a good relationship with the black and brown community in his town.
“One of the things we have tried to do, but have not been as successful as I would like to be, is diversifying our police department and our fire department,” Drew said. “We’ve done very well on diversifying the city workforce.”
He said the civil service exam process sometimes hinders the ability of police and fire departments to diversify their rosters.
“Racial bias and imbalance is baked into the system very deeply and it’s something we need to be cognizant of,” Drew said.
As far as economic policy is concerned, the first question of the debate set the tone.
“Would you raise taxes on the top three percent?” Kica Matos, one of the moderators, asked.
Each candidate was asked to answer “yes or no” before being able to expand on their statement.
Harris, Ganim, and Drew answered “yes.” Bhargava answered “no.”
Bhargava, a former senior trader and portfolio manager, said she’s a big believer in diversity. The diversity she’s talking about is diversifying Connecticut’s economy beyond the financial, insurance, and defense industries.
“We absolutely need a progressive tax rate,” Bhargava said. “We have one.” She said the state has raised taxes twice over the last seven years, “but we need to do something beyond just rely on taxes.”
She said the state needs to bring more people to the state and more business to the state.
“What we need is stronger partnerships,” Bhargava said.
She said say she supports a $15 minimum wage and supports paid Family and Medical Leave, an issue the Working Families Party has failed to get legislatively approved over the past two years.
Harris said he also supports a $15 minimum wage and paid FMLA and believes the state needs to focus again on a progressive agenda, “an agenda that believes government has a role in helping people, In providing a basic safety net, in creating opportunities, and in leveling the playing field for businesses.”
He said it’s through that lens that the state has to look at the state budget.
He said they have to focus first “on getting our fiscal house in order” and then on building the safety net.
Drew supported a $15 minimum wage and paid FMLA. He also floated the idea of state-based single payer health care system without saying how it would be funded. The idea received loud applause from the audience.
The first public Republican debate will be Wednesday, Dec. 6 at Windsor High School.
The Working Families Party did a Facebook Live stream of the debate which can be viewed here.