FAIRFIELD, CT — The five Republican gubernatorial candidates spent more than an hour Monday discussing the economy and their plans to turn around Connecticut — all without attacking each other.
With the Republican primary just days away, the candidates even surprised themselves with the tone of the debate hosted by the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, the Connecticut Mirror, Connecticut Public Radio, and NBC Connecticut at Fairfield University.
Could they all think they’re in the lead?
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who was endorsed by the Republican Party at the convention, said they feel really good about where they’re at in the field.
Typically, in debates the candidate who is in the lead is challenged by an opponent trailing in the polls.
“While it wasn’t mired in controversy or a slugfest I think we learned from the debate that when questions came up on public policy beyond a balance sheet there were candidates who understood those issues and candidates who did not,” former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst said.
Herbst was referring to a question about affordable housing.
“They don’t know how to get beyond their zone of a balance sheet,” Herbst said, referring to Bob Stefanowski and David Stemerman, the two self-funded businessmen in the race. “It’s the job of the governor to not only focus on the balance sheet, but issues of public policy that affect people’s lives like housing, like education, like infrastructure.”
Mark Pazniokas of the CT Mirror asked whether suburban towns should take on a greater share of affordable housing.
“I believe in supply and demand,” Stefanowski said. “I believe in certainty to the towns … We need to stop the unfunded mandates.”
Stemerman said he believes having local control over the issue is the best approach.
Asked whether he felt affordable housing was an issue, Stemerman said, “I do not.”
Boughton accused his opponents of not wanting to answer the question about affordable housing.
“We’re sitting in Fairfield surrounded by suburbs — people are afraid to stand up for what they think is right,” Boughton said.
He said communities large or small should get to decide whether they want to provide senior housing, workforce housing, or even veterans housing.
“We ought to work with them to allow them to do that,” Boughton said. “I don’t want to disallow a community, which has made choices about what type of community it wants to be in terms of zoning, I don’t want the state coming in and overriding them.”
Westport businessman Steve Obsitnik said the reality is Connecticut is a state of gaps.
“We have an achievement gap, an income gap, and a we have a skills gap,” Obsitnik said. “I agree that 8-30g has been more of a tool for developers to work around a system to make more money than to drive affordable housing.”
He said he doesn’t have a silver bullet for solving the problem. He said cities and towns should be allowed to be more innovative.
Herbst suggested that Stefanowski and Stemerman didn’t understand the question because instead of talking about zoning they defaulted to unfunded mandates and local control.
But that’s about as controversial as the discussion got Monday.
Stemerman, who had been the aggressor in previous debates, said he was “stunned” at how uneventful the debate turned out to be.
None of the candidates attacked or refuted things the other candidates said during their time on the debate stage. Stefanowski even ended up giving back 37 seconds at the end of the debate.
“I mean it was weird,” Stemerman said.
Stemerman said he had prepared to be attacked. He said he thinks following the Hartford Courant’s endorsement his campaign has gained momentum.
Maybe it’s because the debate was held at a Jesuit college that everyone was on their best behavior?
Stemerman said the last few debates had been exciting.
The Republican candidates will square off again at 3 p.m. Wednesday at WFSB’s studios in Rocky Hill for a televised debate.
Fairfield University has posted the whole debate on YouTube.