MONTVILLE, CT — Republican Bob Stefanowski often appeared the odd man out during the final televised debate in the governor’s race Tuesday as Democratic incumbent Ned Lamont and Independent Party candidate Rob Hotaling disputed his positions on everything from law enforcement policy to the state surplus.
“They’re both two peas in a pod,” Stefanowski told reporters following an hourlong debate held before a live audience in a convention center at a Mohegan Sun convention just a week before the Election Day.
The debate, hosted by WTNH and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, hit on a host of themes that have dominated this year’s campaigns. The candidates traded barbs related to their positions on abortion, the state’s budgetary surplus and how best to increase affordable housing in Connecticut.
However, Stefanowski, who has trailed by double digits in nonpartisan public polling, often found his remarks rebutted by not just Lamont, who defeated him by about 3 percentage points in 2018, but also by Hotaling, a banking executive from Cheshire, who Stefanowski tried to remove from the ballot through an unsuccessful lawsuit earlier this year.
Lamont and Hotaling both accused Stefanowski of politicizing the recent slayings of two Bristol police officers after the Madison Republican cited the incident as reason to repeal elements of a state law on police accountability passed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in 2020.
Although Stefanowski said bad actors in the police force had to be held accountable, he argued elements of the 2020 bill went too far and created a “sense of leniency.” During the debate, he spoke of watching the families arrive at the funeral for the officers. Afterwards, he told reporters he had communicated with those families “indirectly.”
“You’re telling me after four officers getting shot in the same week, you’re standing by a bill that was passed at 7:30 in the morning that said it was going to be revised by the legislature. It’s unconscionable. It’s unconscionable to the people of Connecticut. It’s unconscionable to police forces. It’s unconscionable to their families and I don’t know how you two guys stand for it,” Stefanowski said.
Both of Stefanowski’s opponents said he was using a tragedy for political gain.
“I just think that is the cheapest grandstanding you can imagine. If you want to do something serious about guns, there was a mad man who was drunk with an AR-15 style assault weapon. That’s what happened there,” Lamont said. “Get those AR-15 style assault weapons off the streets if you really want to be serious about crime.”
After the event, Lamont said he would support legislation to outlaw AR-15 style weapons that were grandfathered under a ban passed in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Lamont tried to make the question about crime about guns and suggested getting AR-15 style weapons off the street would make things safer for police.
Hotaling, meanwhile, told reporters it was “unacceptable to politicize” the Bristol murders. During the debate said he would revise elements of the police accountability bill but generally supported the law. He said he was the only candidate on stage to experience racial profiling by police.
“Have either of you ever been stopped by police and threatened and shouted at? I have. Hand on a holster,” Hotaling said. “When you’ve gone through an experience like that, it makes you think differently but yet I still support the police 100% to give them the tools they need to be successful.”
Stefanowski also argued the state should spend some of the surplus funds, which he referred to as a “slush fund” throughout the debate, while the other two candidates argued the money should go to pay down unfunded pension liabilities or be held in reserve in case of a recession.
“I’m telling you, it’s pouring outside,” Stefanowski said. “When you’ve got people filling their oil tank halfway because they can’t afford food and they can’t afford to fill it. When you’ve got people eating into their savings every single month just to stay afloat, I’ve never seen a rainy day like this in Connecticut and I’ve lived here all my life. You need to give that money back.”
Lamont accused Stefanowski of sounding like his predecessors.
“‘Spend down the surplus, spend down the rainy day fund, hope for a better day.’ You know what that meant to each and every one of you? That meant you were screwed,” Lamont said. “That meant you had cuts to the state aid, that meant that tax increases were coming. John Rowland did it, Jodi Rell did it, even Dan Malloy did it. I’m not going to let that happen.”
Hotaling generally agreed but tried often during the debate to differentiate himself from his better-funded opponents.
“Just to be clear, I probably have the broadest financial experience of anyone else on this stage considering my wide breadth and depth in banking and finance,” Hotaling said. “But you want to keep your surplus reserves because often, historically, the first one to get cut is the assistance programs, those already in place.”