John Silver / ctnewsjunkie photo
Ruby Corby O’Neill, Manny Santos and Rich Dupont (John Silver / ctnewsjunkie photo)

TORRINGTON, CT — With the August 14 primary approaching, the biggest hurdle for each of the three Republican candidates in the 5th Congressional District is to get their message out.

That message, on issues from immigration to job creation, is something Manny Santos, Ruby Corby O’Neill, and Rich Dupont largely agree upon based on their first debate Monday at Torrington City Hall.

DuPont, a retired manufacturing consultant from Watertown, wants to grow manufacturing jobs back to the state to help cure its economic malaise. O’Neill, a Honduran immigrant and retired psychology professor of Southbury, railed against illegal immigration and excessive regulation, and made sure to note that ending the opioid crisis remains a central tenet of her campaign. The third contender, Santos, the former Meriden mayor and a Portuguese immigrant, let Republicans know he is a hard liner on illegal immigration, strongly supports Second Amendment rights, and believes his executive experience makes him the unique problem solver that the district needs.

They are running for U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s seat. Esty, who served three terms, decided not to run for re-election after drawing criticism over her mishandling of a domestic violence incident involving her former chief of staff. Before Esty, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy held the seat after unseating Nancy Johnson, the last Republican to represent the district.

On Monday, the candidates mostly agreed with each other, but they focused on different issues.

Dupont, who took to banging his hand on the table when talking about the manufacturing jobs in the state, said jobs were the cure for welfare dependency, slow economic growth, and even gun violence.

John Silver / ctnewsjunkie photo
About 50 people attended the debate (John Silver / ctnewsjunkie photo)

“Manufacturing builds wealth, that’s how you lift an economy,” Dupont said after the debate. “We have jobs available.”

Santos also agreed that making manufacturing a base of Connecticut’s economy is important. Possessing an engineering background, Santos agreed with DuPont on the importance of producing a product and not just services.

“For every manufacturing job, it has three times the impact of any other sector,” Santos said. “Manufacturing jobs have an impact on three other jobs. Connecticut, we are dead last in almost everything, including the ability to create manufacturing jobs in other high-paying industries. That is because of (excessive) regulation.”

O’Neill was not convinced.

She criticized DuPont for pledging to bring home money from Washington for job training and workforce development. She said improving jobs in the service economy — from information technology to insurance and healthcare — is the wave of the future. She said there has been minimal growth in manufacturing jobs in state over the last eight years.

“I already see a difference. I don’t want to go to Washington to loot the treasury. I don’t think that’s the way to do it,” O’Neill said. “That’s what career politicians will tell you. I don’t want to see your money end up in Washington. It’s ‘you make it, we take it’. (Congresswoman Elizabeth) Esty said we are going to bring money back, (Chris) Murphy said we are going to bring money back. That’s what career politicians do and the way insiders talk.”

Dupont, who serves in numerous advisory roles on manufacturing in Connecticut, shot back.

“The reason we are failing is we can’t fill the 15,000 jobs open and it will be 30,000 in two years,” DuPont said.

DuPont wants to run on his knowledge of the manufacturing space to bring high-paying jobs back to Connecticut. He has over 30 years of experience in manufacturing, training, and education and wants Connecticut to be at the forefront of the manufacturing revival in the Northeast.

John Silver / ctnewsjunkie photo
Rich Dupont, Manny Santos, and Ruby Corby O’Neill (John Silver / ctnewsjunkie photo)

Santos, a veteran of the first Gulf War, is running on his executive experience having served as mayor of Meriden from 2013 to 2015. He won the endorsement of the Republican Party in May.

“I am a mayor, immigrant, a veteran and an engineer,” Santos said. “I am a problem solver and can look at things differently.”

O’Neill’s motivations for running have a laser focus. While illegal immigration and profligate spending are high on the list, nothing is more important than solving the opioid crisis. O’Neill’s ex-husband became addicted to opioids and she said that experience cost her almost everything she had financially and emotionally. She moved to Connecticut to rebuild her life, but the sting remains. The topic of opioid addiction didn’t come up in the debate, but she said that “slaying the dragon” is her number one issue.

“I have seen people grabbed by the throat by this,” O’Neill said. “I saw it happen, and have seen it happen to friends.”

Monday’s debate was more of an introduction to the campaign than it was a chance for voters to make a final decision. A second debate is planned in the southern part of the 41-town district in early August.