NEW HAVEN, CT — Ned Lamont prepared his lines for his appearance on the Shubert Theater stage Thursday night.
Asked how much a gallon milk costs, he raised three fingers. “Three dollars,” he said — then resumed tussling with Joe Ganim over who best understands and can fight for “vulnerable” and middle-class families.
Lamont and Ganim were on the famed New Haven stage to debate about which of them deserves votes in the Aug. 14 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
The same question about the price of a gallon of milk was asked Thursday night of the five Republican candidates for governor, who had their own debate at Mohegan Sun. One of the five, David Stemerman — like Lamont, a Greenwich millionaire financing his own campaign — botched his lines. He thought milk sold for $1.25. (The other candidates correctly answered in the $3-$4 range.)
The price of milk — or knowing the price of milk — is implicitly relevant to a governor’s race in which four candidates (Lamont and three of the Republicans) are wealthy businessmen with no real government experience pouring millions of personal dollars into trying to buy the state’s highest elected office.
It has explicit relevance in the two-man Democratic race. At Thursday night’s New Haven debate, which was hosted by the Connecticut Association of Realtors, Lamont and Ganim largely agreed on issues: a $15 hourly minimum wage, paid family leave, more investment in transportation and infrastructure, honoring labor agreements rather than reopening negotiations. They pummeled each other over the character issue, which may decide the primary: Whom voters can trust to run the state?
Trust An Ex-Felon?
In answering that question, Lamont and Ganim ended up speaking a lot to “Lois.”
They addressed Lois by name, even though she wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Lois spoke to them through panelist Mark Davis of WTNH, who read two questions Lois submitted for the debate through the station’s website. The questions cut to the core challenge each candidate faces in winning the trust question.
Lois reminded Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport, that he served seven years in federal prison. A jury found Ganim guilty of 16 counts of racketeering, extortion, racketeering conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud and other felony charges for pocketing a half-million dollars worth of kickbacks from city contractors in the form of cash, meals, clothes, wine, and home repairs.
“How can we trust you not to revert to your former behavior?” Lois asked, as channeled through Davis.
Ganim said that after serving his time for making “terrible mistakes,” he decided he still had much to offer Bridgeport, and voters gave him that second chance by electing him back to the mayor’s office. He spoke of hiring one of the prosecutors who sent him to jail as the head of an integrity unit at City Hall.
“Every saint has a past,” Ganim said. “I pray and hope that every sinner has a future.”
In the campaign Ganim has managed to strike a chord with some voters, especially black voters, with his appeal to second chances for people who have been locked up.
Perhaps mindful of that success, Lamont praised the voters of Bridgeport for giving Ganim that second chance. Then he criticized Ganim (for the first of two times during the debate) for spending his days running for governor rather than returning their trust.
“They gave you a second chance,” he told Ganim. “Fight for them” to revive Bridgeport. He promised that if elected governor, he’d happily help Ganim do that.
“I appreciate Ned’s comments,” Ganim responded, “to a certain extent.”
Trust A Self-Financing Plutocrat?
Lois asked Lamont about his boasts of being a government “outsider” who made a killing in private business. She noted that Donald Trump made the same boast when he ran for president, leading Lois to conclude that “running a business is not the best training for running a government.” She asked Lamont how his business experience and lack of government experience made him qualified for the job.
Lamont spoke of the difference a commitment to public service makes. “Donald Trump does not have an ounce of public service” in him, Lamont said. He said he does, because he ran for a a Greenwich town board, chaired a state pension board, and substitute-taught in a Bridgeport public high school.
He said his experience creating jobs will enable him to govern well with both business and labor. He argued that governors with similar backgrounds have done that in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts —specifically citing the latter state’s Republican incumbent, Charlie Baker.
Ganim wasn’t buying.
“Lois,” he said, “I have that same question and concern.”
He said that candidates who “step out of business a la Trump” (with whom he did business in the 1990s and whom he initially praised as a “good man” after the 2016 election before becoming a critic) turn out bring “disaster” to government.
In the debate, Ganim reprised his criticism of Lamont as an out-of-touch plutocrat with eight bathrooms in his house.
After he correctly answered the gallon-of-milk pricing question, posed by panelist Christine Stuart of CT News Junkie, Lamont responded to the bathroom criticism with humor, noting that he has the endorsement of the plumbers and pipefitters union. He argued that a person’s values, integrity and deeds matter more than his personal wealth.
He also sought to equate his economic status to Ganim’s. He said they “both had successful parents” and attended “good suburban schools” growing up.
Ganim responded by noting that Lamont’s personal wealth is estimated at $90-$300 million.
“We had eight children in my family,” Ganim remarked. “We never had eight bathrooms.”