Gubernatorial candidates try to define themselves at UConn Law forum

After months on the campaign trail,the Democrats and Republicans hoping to be the next governor already have worked out their answers to toughest questions, particularly those about state government’s fiscal woes.

But with the nominating conventions just four weeks away, the 11 candidates who attended Tuesday’s forums at the University of Connecticut Law School in Hartford spent much of their time trying to separate themselves from the pack, often providing simple one- or two-sentence labels to make the point.

Greenwich businessman Tom Foley kept it simple: “I’m not a career politician.”

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Republicans Michael Fedele, Tom Foley and Oz Griebel wait their turns (Keith M. Phaneuf)

Fellow Republican Michael Fedele of Stamford, the lieutenant governor, made it clear he’s not his boss. Though he never identified Gov. M. Jodi Rell by name, Fedele said he would make tough budget choices without fear of criticism – something many of Rell’s critics charge she will not do. “The next governor has to have the courage and say, ‘I’m not concerned about the next poll, the next election,'” he said.

“It’s all about my values,” Meriden Democrat and universal health care advocate Juan Figueroa said, stressing greater investments in education and health care, and tax reform with greater contributions from big business and wealthy households. “Fixing health care is about fixing the economy.”

Virtually every point Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi made, except for his support of the current capital punishment system, could be linked to “that four-letter word: tolls. Tolls will provide revenue… We cannot address this (budget) issue… without revenue.”

According to Chester First Selectman Tom Marsh, he’s the one candidate from a town whose profile is most similar to the

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Democrats Dan Malloy and Rudi Marconi listen to Mary Glassman speak (Keith M. Phaneuf)

average Connecticut community. And Marsh said if he can produce a town budget this year that cuts spending by 3 percent, he can do the same for state government.

The rest of the Democratic line-up featured former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy and Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary A. Glassman. Other Republicans included Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, former Congressman Larry DeNardis of Hamden, Christopher Duffy Acevedo of Branford, and R. Nelson “Oz” Griebel, former president of the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance.

Seven Republicans and four Democrats sparred in separate, 45-minute debates that focused largely on the nearly 3.9 billion deficit that legislative analysts predict the next governor will inherit in less than 15 months.

“For 14 years I did the job which is most like being the governor of a small, diverse, New England state,” Malloy said, adding he’s also the only candidate unafraid to discuss all of the unpleasant steps the next governor must address.

That means spending cuts aimed at nearly all programs except those for the most needy, more sacrifices from state workers, and tax hikes, he said, adding the last step would be “mostly progressive,” though the middle class could be asked to pay more as certain sales tax breaks get canceled.

The former mayor accused both Rell and the Democrat-controlled legislature of setting Connecticut up for a “bipartisan train wreck” by making foolish decisions like cutting pension fund payments that must be made up, with interest, just to push budget deficits into the next term.

By selling future state revenues for pennies on the dollar to balance their last budget, the current leadership in Hartford “is stealing from its future,” said Glassman, who argued she is the only candidate prepared to lead by example.

Having taken a 10 percent pay cut to help Simsbury balance its budget, Glassman pledged to cut executive branch spending by $1 billion, largely through consolidation, and vowed to end the current practice of building “contingency accounts” into the budget that provide millions of undefined dollars for legislative leaders to dole out for “pork-barrel” projects in their allies’ home districts.  “Let’s be honest,” she added, “Connecticut’s government has been badly run for a long time and there are a lot of people to blame.”

Griebel, who is on leave from his post as the chief marketer of economic development activities in the Greater Hartford area, said he’s the only candidate prepared to make sweeping changes – cutting the state work force, privatizing services and replacing pension programs with a defined contribution retirement savings plan similar to a 401(k).

Equally important, Griebel said, is to invest in transportation, high-technology start-ups and education to make the state’s business climate competitive.  “If we don’t sell it, no one’s going to sell it for us,” he said.

Fedele called tax increases a “cop out” and said he could balance Connecticut’s finances by asking the entire legislature to join him in a “line item-by-line item” search for state budget cuts.

Foley said businesses “frequently take 5 or 10 percent out of their overall budget during a down cycle,” and state government certainly can do the same.

But DeNardis challenged several of his fellow Republicans’ promises to cut spending. “There are just simply areas you can’t cut by 20 percent,” he said. And while the former congressman wasn’t ready to propose tax increases, he was the only candidate Tuesday to suggest state government continue to put a portion of its budget problems on its credit card. “We will probably end up financing some of it as we have done in the past,” he said.

Boughton, who billed Danbury as “the safest city in the state of Connecticut” and the one with the best school system, said even if the next budget can’t be balanced entirely with cuts, any discussion of tax hikes now would send the wrong signal to a legislature that has no fiscal self-control.

“You give that money to this legislature, they’re going to spend it on every wacky program they can come up with,” he said.

Duffy Acevedo billed himself as the candidate most reflective of core Republican Party values, including “limited government” and “fiscal accountability.”

The fifth Democrat seeking the gubernatorial nomination, Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont, did not attend Tuesday’s forum because of a “scheduling conflict,” said campaign spokeswoman Justine Sessions, who declined to name the conflict.

But Sessions added that Lamont has attended more than 15 debates with other gubernatorial candidates, and will be in northwestern Connecticut on Saturday for another forum hosted by the Washington Democratic Town Committee.