Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Pre-debate scene outside Bethel AME on Tuesday. (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

A passionate debate for the support of the Democratic Party base got into the weeds Tuesday night — or, more specifically, into weed.

William Tong’s record on legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana became a focal point in the debate, among the three candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for attorney general.

Tong, a state representative from Stamford, former federal prosecutor Chris Mattei, and Wethersfield State Sen. Paul Doyle all made their pitches over the course of the hourlong event as to why the over 100 New Haveners gathered at Bethel AME Church on Goffe Street should elect one of them as Connecticut’s “people’s lawyer” who oversees 200 attorneys in advising the governor and legislature and pressing civil suits on consumer fraud, environmental protection, immigration, and civil rights.

The New Haven Independent and Connecticut Law Tribune cosponsored the debate.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Tong (at left, with Mattei and Doyle) recants pot vote. (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

Tong and Mattei have been competing intensely for the support of the party’s left-leaning grassroots. (Doyle is a conservative Democrat.) In prosecutorial form, Mattei pressed Tong Tuesday night about his current opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana use and his vote in 2012 against instituting Connecticut’s medical marijuana program.

Tong responded that he made a mistake with that 2012 vote. Six years later, he said, he has atoned for that mistake and earned his progressive bona fides in part by helping draft legislation to implement and expand the state’s medical marijuana program.

And if elected attorney general, he promised, he will defend the legalization of recreational marijuana “150 percent,” assuming the state legislature passes a recreational marijuana law first.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
A full house at Bethel AME. (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

The Democratic and Republican primaries for attorney general, as well as for governor, lieutenant governor, and treasurer, all take place next Tuesday, Aug. 14. State Republicans will also get to vote on candidates for secretary of the state and comptroller, while the Democratic candidates for those positions will not be on the primary ballot because they are running unopposed.

The three Democratic attorney general candidates largely agreed Tuesday on the big-ticket items they would tackle. All three promised to support a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, and then use settlement money from that case to bolster opioid addiction treatment services in Connecticut. They all lambasted the Trump administration for rolling back auto emissions standards, and promised to join lawsuits with other state attorneys general against big polluters responsible for climate change.

They sought to distinguish among themselves through a vetting of their ideological stances and past records on legalized marijuana, their leadership and legal qualifications for the position — and, at least for Tong and Mattei, their claims to being the most progressive candidate in the field.

Legalizing Marijuana

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Doyle: Let’s wait on legalizing recreational pot. (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

The conversation about where each candidate falls on medical and recreational marijuana began when one of the debate’s moderators, the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Robert Storace, asked Doyle to explain his reservations on legalizing recreational marijuana, and to respond to the argument that recreational marijuana legalization would reduce opioid addiction and deaths in the state.

“This issue is complicated,” said Doyle, who has positioned himself as the more socially and fiscally moderate Democrat in the race. He called out Hamden State Rep. Josh Elliott, who was in attendance on Tuesday night, for the latter’s so-far unsuccessful efforts to pass a bill legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana in the state.

“That’s indicative of the public’s misgiving,” he said about the bill’s failure to get a vote in the state legislature thus far. He said as attorney general he would certainly defend the law if Elliott is able to get it passed. But for now, he said, he wants to wait and see how other states’ experiments in recreational marijuana legalization and regulation play out before acting in Connecticut.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Tong: I’m a progressive. And I’m qualified. (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

“If the legislature passes it,” said Tong, who has personal reservations about the bill, “I will defend it 150 percent.” He said that over the past couple years, he has tried to raise a legalization bill in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, where he serves as the House chair, but that he has not been able to put together a bill that would garner enough support from his colleagues.

Tong touted his support for the state’s medical marijuana program over the past six years, and noted that he wrote and helped pass a law that expanded the program to provide medical marijuana for minors who suffer from epilepsy and other debilitating chronic medical conditions.

“One of the critical issues is the system of mass incarceration that we have in this state that results from draconian drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences,” he said, pivoting the conversation towards criminal justice reform writ large. He said he helped write and pass “Second Chance Society” legislation that eliminated mandatory minimums for drug offenses.

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Mattei: I’m more progressive. And I’m more qualified. (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

“I’m used to being in court where you can’t just dance around an issue,” Mattei jumped in. “You have to address it directly.” He noted that both Tong and Doyle have voted on a number of occasions against the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana. He also singled out Tong’s 2012 vote against establishing the state’s medical marijuana program.

Mattei said he is unequivocally in support of legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana from both a public health perspective and a criminal justice perspective.

Marijuana is “still used by police officers to stop people,” he said, “to search their cars, to search their purses, and it results in communities of color being overpoliced.”

Picking up the microphone after Mattei’s attack, Tong admitted that he should have voted differently on the 2012 medical marijuana bill.

“That was a mistake,” he said. “And since then, I have atoned for that error in judgment by building out the medical marijuana program and expanding it for minors. That was not an easy lift, folks. I’m committed to making sure that we provide that medicine for people here in the state.”

I’m More Progressive Than You Are

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Debate questioners Babz Rawls-Ivy of the Inner-City News, La Voz Hispana’s Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, and Robert Storace of the Connecticut Law Tribune. (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

In response to a question about the biggest public misconception about his candidacy, Tong looked to solidify his progressive credentials.

“I’m proud to be the Working Families Party nominee for attorney general,” he said. “There is no more progressive party in the state.”

In addition to receiving endorsements from the state Democratic Party and Working Families Party, which supports left-leaning Democrats (except in New York City) with a third-party line, Tong also pointed out that he has been endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFSCME Council 4, SEIU 32BJ, and “all the major labor unions in the state that have made an endorsement.”

He said he has earned these labor endorsements because of his support for collective bargaining rights for working people throughout his 12 years in the state legislature.

“And the fact is that I have the strongest AFL-CIO rating of any candidate now or previously running,” he said. “I’m proud of my labor record. I’m proud of being a progressive. I’m proud of representing the Working Families Party.”

Mattei, who formerly chaired the financial fraud and public corruption unit of New Haven’s U.S. Attorney’s office, said he too has encountered some initial skepticism from Democratic voters who are wary of a former federal prosecutor’s progressive commitments.

But in fact, he said, he is the true progressive candidate in the race, not Tong.

“I’m in favor of a $15 minimum wage indexed to inflation,” he said. “William has voted against a 25-cent increase to the minimum wage when it was eight bucks. I’m for progressive taxation. William voted against increasing taxes on families making over $500,000 a year. I’m for making sure that workers can collect if they’ve been the victims of wage theft. William voted against allowing working to collect double wages when they’ve been victims of wage theft. I’m for a public health option in Connecticut. William has voted against it. So you decide who’s more progressive on economic issues.”

Tong replied that it is easy for Mattei, who has never served in the state legislature, to cherrypick votes on difficult issues. He said he voted against the minimum wage increase six years ago because the bill didn’t go far enough to protect restaurant workers, but that since then, he has voted three different times to increase the minimum wage.

“But that’s what happens in the legislature,” he said. “That’s what comes from the experience of serving. You have to say sometimes, something doesn’t go far enough.”

Is He Legally Qualified?

Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent
Tong and Mattei. (Thomas Breen / New Haven Independent)

At the end of the debate, Mattei launched his most pointed critique of Tong when he asked if Tong is even qualified, legally speaking, to serve as attorney general.

State law requires state attorney general candidates to be practicing attorneys with at least 10 years of active, legal experience in the state. Former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz famously ended her own bid to become attorney general in 2010 after the state Supreme Court ruled that she was not legally qualified to serve in the position. (Bysiewicz is currently running to be the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.)

Mattei said that Tong, despite working as a lawyer in the state for nearly 20 years and despite serving as the House chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, may not pass legal muster to be attorney general. The reason, he said, is that Tong has allegedly only been involved in one trial in his entire career as a lawyer.

“If that’s true,” Mattei said, “will you please seek over the next week a judicial opinion on your eligibility to serve?”

Tong responded by accusing Mattei of engaging in a “smear campaign” dating back to the state party convention in Hartford in May, during which he said that Mattei’s campaign volunteers spread rumors about Tong’s alleged ineligibility for the position.

“I’m the only candidate in this race who has done civil litigation for almost 20 years,” he said. He said he has represented hundreds of clients, and, through his leadership position on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, he helps oversee the state’s entire legal system.

Tong didn’t dispute Mattei’s allegation that he has only litigated one trial in his career. In a June interview with the CT Post, Tong called the accusation of his ineligibility to serve as attorney general “absurd” and “pretty offensive.”

“We’ve debated the Bysiewicz decision and the qualification issue in the Judiciary Committee!” he told CT Post’s Emilie Munson on June 15. “I’ve lived with this as a legislator and it’s absurd to think I would have decided to run for attorney general without thinking about it first and making sure that I was covered.”

“I don’t know what else I can say,” Tong said on Tuesday night in New Haven. “I’ve answered question after question after question. Would it help if I produced my long-form birth certificate?”

“I’m not saying this as a smear on you,” Mattei replied. “The Democratic Party needs a candidate who is viable.”

Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch the full debate.

Democratic Attorney General candidate debate at Bethel AME on Goffe Street

Posted by New Haven Independent on Tuesday, August 7, 2018