Malloy and Lamont: On message

Any voter who had glanced at the campaign web sites of Dan Malloy and Ned Lamont would have instantly recognized the two Democratic gubernatorial candidates, who stayed firmly on message during their first one-on-one debate Tuesday.

Malloy is the dyslexic child who grew up to become mayor of Stamford, coping with all the issues facing the next governor. Lamont is the businessman, an outsider who took on Joe Lieberman four years ago and promises to shake things up again.

“I’ll be nobody’s man but yours,” Lamont said, borrowing a line from one of his prominent supporters, former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

“This is not a time for on-the-job training,” said Malloy, who stepped down last year as mayor of Stamford after 14 years. “The difference is I am ready to lead the state on day one.”

lamont-malloy debate 6-23-10

A technician adjusts Ned Lamont’s microphone as Lamont and Dan Malloy, left, prepare for Tuesday’s debate (Mark Pazniokas)

The 60-minute meeting in the West Hartford studio of NBC 30 was the first opportunity for a televised audience to see the two candidates side by side since the Democratic field narrowed to two: Malloy, endorsed by the Democratic convention for the second time in four years, and Lamont, the challenger for statewide office, also for the second time since 2006.

“Debates are good for people to catch a flavor,” Malloy said.

Malloy, who is living on a campaign budget of $2.5 million in public financing and $250,000 in qualifying funds he raised, has committed to accepting any opportunity to debate Lamont.  Three other television stations have expressed interest in broadcasting additional forums, according to the Malloy campaign.

Lamont, who has higher name-recognition thanks to his challenge of Lieberman in 2006 and a fatter budget thanks to his personal fortune, offered a one-word answer when asked Tuesday night about his willingness to participate in further debates: “Maybe.”

The two Democrats face each other in an Aug. 10 primary, as do three contenders for the Republican nomination: Tom Foley, Michael C. Fedele and Oz Griebel. NBC 30 will televise a GOP debate July 14.

On the issues Tuesday night, Lamont and Malloy each spoke over the Democratic primary voters to the general electorate at times, promising to cut spending and hold the line on taxes, answers unlikely to generate enthusiasm among the liberals and union members who turn out for primaries.

The two downstate politicians – Malloy is from Stamford, Lamont from Greenwich – each said they opposed reinstituting tolls to raise revenue, even though the next governor is likely to face a budget gap of $3.4 billion as he drafts his first budget.

Malloy said that government could not be trusted to use toll revenue for transportation, instead of grabbing it to fund general government programs. Lamont agreed.

Asked about the fairness of Connecticut’s tax structure, neither man took the opportunity to push for a more progressive income tax, a goal of Democratic legislative leaders.

“I don’t think the politicians have earned the right to raise people’s taxes,” Lamont said.

Malloy said the middle class is “under tremendous pressure,” but he did not promise to relieve that pressure with higher taxes on the wealthy.

At other times, the candidates delivered safe answers for a Democratic primary.

On a day when the state’s largest teacher’s union announced its endorsement of Lamont, both men said they were opposed to state government providing school vouchers that could be used for private education.

Vouchers are not a serious issue in Connecticut. A more likely area of potential conflict for the next governor, especially a Democrat, is the debate over expanding charter schools with flexible work rules.

“We have to find a different way to pay for education,” Malloy said. “I am ready for this challenge. I will be a governor who leads this reformation.”

Malloy used the question about vouchers to talk about the importance of education to him, growing up with severe learning disabilities.

Lamont talked about his volunteer work as a teacher at Harding High School in Bridgeport, and his current post as an adjunct professor at Central Connecticut State University.

Each promised to eliminate the jobs of political appointees. Neither called for the elimination of unionized jobs.

Lamont said he would try to attack the high cost of health care, which consumes about a third of the state budget, not by offering fewer benefits but by being more efficient.

On Monday, Malloy proposed expanding health coverage under Medicaid in Connecticut, a potential major new cost.

Lamont, who founded a successful cable-television business, said the state needs a governor with a sensitivity to the needs of small business.

In response to a question posed by a small business owner, Lamont said he would reduce taxes and fees and attack the high cost of health care by helping small businesses pool together to buy health insurance for employees.

“That is the most important question of the day,” Lamont said.

Malloy agreed.

Both men said they favored a repeal of blue laws, including the ban on the sale of alcohol on Sundays.

“We have to get out of the way of business,” Malloy said.

Both reiterated their longstanding opposition to the death penalty, saying they would sign a bill repealing capital punishment. Gov. M.  Jodi Rell vetoed an abolition bill last year.

Malloy, who was a criminal prosecutor in New York before moving back to Connecticut, said he might feel differently if there was evidence that the death penalty was a deterrent.

After the debate, each candidate was given a chance to play political analyst.

“I think the headline was Lamont’s an outsider who represents real change up in Hartford, not afraid to shake up the status quo, and Dan represents 14 years of experience in Stamford,” Lamont said.

“I think people know I’m not afraid to go up there and challenge the Democrats and Republicans,” Lamont said. “I hope I made that repetitively clear.”

“If I was Ned, I supposed I’d say something like that,” Malloy said. “I mean, this is a guy who’s run for numerous offices in the past and has been defeated. He has chosen to spend a small portion of his vast fortune on elections.  I suppose he wants to own the brand of being an outsider.”

“I’ve never served in state government, but I’ve accomplished a lot of things,” he said.