Foley in debate: ‘I’m not perfect’

WEST HARTFORD – Oz Griebel and Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele tag-teamed Tom Foley during a televised debate Wednesday night, quizzing the GOP front runner about past arrests and business struggles.

“I am not a perfect person, and anyone who wants a perfect governor probably shouldn’t vote for me,” Foley said. “But I have been very transparent and forthcoming.”

The three Republican candidates for governor debated for an hour at the studios of NBC30 in a meeting that was cordial until a closing segment in which they could pose questions to each other. Their primary is Aug. 10.

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Michael Fedele, Tom Foley, Oz Griebel. (Mark Pazniokas)

“Well, I’m the front runner, 27 points ahead,” Foley said after the debate, referring to last month’s Quinnipiac poll. “So, yeah, I would expect to be the target.”

A new Quinnipiac poll of likely primary voters shows him with a 35-point lead.

Foley, an independently wealthy businessman and a former ambassador to Ireland, is seeking elective office for the first time, as is Griebel, the president of a regional business group, the MetroHartford Alliance.

Fedele asked Foley about $20 million that he and his management team took in fees from the Bibb Company, a Georgia textile company that eventually failed after Foley lost control.

“Tom, this is a business question,” Fedele said. “You’ve said you want to do to Connecticut what you’ve done to your companies. But on your watch, you drove the biggest textile mill in America, the Bibb mill in Georgia, straight into bankruptcy.”

Foley lost control of the company during a bankruptcy restructuring. The company ultimately failed after his departure.

Foley, who made his personal fortune in acquisitions, did not address the fees he made, but he called the experience valuable.

“I tell people wherever I go that I learn a lot more from my, uh, things that haven’t gone well in my life more than things that were successful,” Foley said.

Foley said running a company under financial stress was relevant experience.

“I actually think the Bibb experience will make me a better governor in Connecticut,” Foley said.

Griebel asked about temperament and transparency in the context of press stories about Foley’s arrests in two motor-vehicle confrontations, one involving his ex-wife in 1993 and another after a party in 1981.

“Oz, thank you for letting me address these matters, which have been overblown and led to ridiculous and incendiary accusations, by your campaign in one case,” Foley said.

“I didn’t expect unfortunate and highly personal matters, such as a difficult divorce, would become cannon fodder to be used against me , particularly by opponents from my own party,” he said.

Griebel never directly raised Foley’s divorce.

“This isn’t personal,” Griebel said later. “We’re running for the governorship of the state of Connecticut. I think people are entitled …they are entitled to know the way we think, our backgrounds. We’re going to be entering one of the most turbulent times that you can imagine in the state of Connecticut.”

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Last-minute directions for the candidates. (Mark Pazniokas)

Fedele said after the debate, “When someone says one of the major factors he brings to the table is their business experience, you need to ask that question.”

The debate began with Fedele as the target of jabs by Foley and Griebel over his acceptance of public financing for his campaign under the Citizens’ Election Program, a reform passed in 2005, a year after the resignation of John Rowland as governor.

Fedele said the program should remain in place, despite a federal appeals court decision that struck portions of the law Tuesday, including a provision that gave Fedele supplemental funds triggered by Foley’s spending.

“For the taxpayers to be paying for Michael Fedele’s campaign, I think is ridiculous,” Foley said. “I don’t know why he is asking the taxpayers of Connecticut to pay for his election.”

Griebel said he opposed the law from the start.

“I think it’s an overreaction to some of the political corruption issues. The system worked. We’ve had elected official go to jail when they’ve violated corruption laws. I think this whole concept of public financing is an inappropriate use of taxpayers dollars,” Griebel said.

Griebel said he agreed with the court’s ruling that lifts a ban on contributions from lobbyists.

But that was the only mention of an issue that dominated the political news of the past 24 hours at the debate of the three GOP candidates on NBC30.

When Foley was on the attack, he tried to portray Fedele, who was elected lieutenant governor in 2006, as the member of an administration that has failed to control taxes and health costs.

Fedele repeatedly distanced himself from Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who is not seeking re-election. He said he would have vetoed budgets that Rell allowed to become law.

“I pledge to veto any piece of legislation or any budget that raises taxes,” Fedele said.

He also implicitly criticized the governor, saying in response to a question about green jobs that he never would have helped balance the budget by raiding a special fund for alternative energy projects. Rell and the legislature conducted such a raid earlier this year.

In response to a question emailed by a viewer, Fedele and Foley said they were opposed to tolls on Connecticut highways, while Griebel said that the state cannot rely on federal dollars to maintain its infrastructure.

“We are going to have to consider alternative funding sources,” Griebel said. “Clearly tolls have to be looked at as we go down the road.”