Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
East Hartford Democratic Town Committee Chairman Craig Stevenson thanks the candidates (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

EAST HARTFORD, CT — More than 100 Democrats from the Greater Hartford area gathered at the Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy to hear from eight of their gubernatorial hopefuls.

It was one of several forums being organized by local Democratic Town Committees around the state, whereas the state Republican Party was hosting its third of five debates in West Haven Wednesday.

Democratic officials suggested their party’s decentralized approach to scheduling debates will be helpful to the candidates who know what happens in the next step.

East Hartford Town Committee Chairman Craig Stevenson said he thinks the local debate will increase voter participation in town and get people excited about the election.

That being said, “I still don’t think there’s a clear frontrunner,” Stevenson said.

And none emerged Wednesday, according to those who attended.

The eight Democratic candidates disagreed on tolls and some struggled with a question about what was the most unpopular decision they have ever made.

Sean Connolly, the former Veterans Affairs Commissioner, said he couldn’t come up with an answer about the most unpopular decision he’s ever had to make.

“You can ask my Mom who is here,” Connolly said. “Maybe in her eyes going into the military from a safety and security standpoint was not so popular at first.”

Connolly, an East Hartford native, had a lot of supporters in the room Wednesday.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, without directly attacking Connolly, said, “if you haven’t made a lot of unpopular decisions then you’re not ready for that job.”

Bronin said in Hartford he faced an unprecedented fiscal crisis honestly, and made the tough decisions.

“It meant making very deep and painful reductions to what we did as a city,” Bronin said. “It meant asking our partners in labor to be a real part of the solution.”

Guy Smith, a retired executive from Greenwich, said the most unpopular decision he had to make was how to get out of Baghdad in March 2003 after delivering 100,000 pounds of medicine. The route he chose was not the safest and he said the 17 members of his team expressed concern.

Ned Lamont, another Greenwich businessman, said the most unpopular decision he had to make was how to save his company from one of the biggest economic downturns.

“Looking in people’s eyes every day knowing the fear that they had,” Lamont said. “And dealing with it in fair and honest way.”

Jonathan Harris, a former West Hartford mayor and state senator, said one of the most unpopular decisions he’s had to make involved combining some administrative functions between the school and the town as a mayor. He also had to negotiate bringing the administrative services of some town functions back in house after they had been outsourced to a private company by the previous administration.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Susan Bysiewicz with Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and Guy Smith in the background (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz said the most unpopular decision she ever had to make was during her time in office when she had to decide which voting machines should be used for elections, because the Help America Vote Act was retiring the old lever voting machine.

“You would be amazed at the negative reaction that I got,” Bysiewicz said.

She failed to mention that she received so much pressure that she canceled the first RFP for an ATM-style voting machine and went back out to bid for the optical scan voting machines Connecticut uses today.

Jacey Wyatt of Branford said she’s the first transgender candidate to run for governor and the toughest decision she’s ever had to make in her life was to leave Arizona to come back to Connecticut and care for her mother.

Lee Whitnum of Greenwich said she’s never cared if she was popular or unpopular, and “it’s probably to my detriment.” 

The issue of guns and whether Connecticut’s schools are safe was not raised during the debate.

Dita Bhargava of Greenwich and Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim did not attend the forum.