Forum organizers try to rein in gubernatorial candidates’ attacks

MANSFIELD – How do you keep six gubernatorial candidates from spending an entire forum attacking each other?

Answer: Don’t give them the chance.

The Windham Region Chamber of Commerce employed that simple solution Thursday during the first half of a forum held at the Nathan Hale Inn at the University of Connecticut.

In an unusual move, the chamber limited candidates’ responses to most questions to 30-seconds, and enforced the deadline with loud and decisive interruptions for those who tried to talk longer.

Organizers combined that limited time-frame with a battery of questions covering complex topics from the business climate and transportation to health care, energy, tourism promotion and the state budget crisis.

The result, with the exception of a few attacks launched primarily during closing remarks – when each candidate was given five minutes – was that Democrats Dan Malloy and Ned Lamont, Republicans Tom Foley, Michael Fedele and Oz Griebel, and independent Tom Marsh spent most of the forum battling over the issues rather than each other.

“It was intentional,” chamber executive director Roger Adams said of the format after the forum at the Nathan Hale Inn at the University of Connecticut had wrapped. “We wanted them to answer questions about what concerns us in northeastern Connecticut. That’s what we got.”

“It feels like speed dating here,” Fedele said Malloy was abruptly stopped in mid-answer.

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Dan Malloy speaks as Ned Lamont listens during Thursday’s forum at UConn. (Keith M. Phaneuf)

“I’ve never quite had this format,” Malloy said, chuckling. “I’m not sure I’d recommend it again.”

Some candidates, like Lamont, adapted by relying on short phrases.

What are some major factors behind the state’s budget crisis?

“Too many layers of management, too many layers of cronies,” said Lamont, quickly adding rising health care costs are breaking both government and private business budgets.

Malloy was similarly economical in describing his budget philosophy.

“Tell the truth,” said the former Stamford mayor, who has long argued state government relies on a system that underestimates debts and often uses one-time funds to cover recurring costs. “We need to draw a line in the sand.

Griebel, who has said labor concessions play a key role in his plan to eliminate the projected $3.4 billion deficit for the coming fiscal year, quickly explained his position on budget growth. “I would not allow spending to increase for all four years” of the coming term.

How can Connecticut attract more business?

Try cleaning up its fiscal mess, according to Foley. “Until that’s resolved, businesses are not going to be comfortable here.”

“Start talking up the state of Connecticut,” said Lamont, pledging to be a tireless promoter of the advantages to doing business in the state.

Is there anything good about state government is spending $1 on statewide tourism promotion this year?

“It means we’re not blowing a bunch of money,” Marsh said, adding Connecticut should invest more in regional promotion efforts.

How about expanding access to health care?

“I think the whole thing is bringing that cost down,” Fedele said.

Candidates acknowledged that as the forum continued they adapted to the rapid-fire format.

Malloy, who has long been critical of the state’s aging and congested transportation network, conceded during one answer that “it would take more than 30 seconds to discuss the problems at DOT (Department of Transportation.)” But then he quickly added before his time expired: “Many of them are management-driven.”

Foley didn’t have time to outline a new statewide transportation strategy, but he pledged, if elected, to ensure Connecticut adopts one right away. “We’d better do it very quickly,” he said, “because as a state we’ve fallen way behind.”

Griebel managed to squeeze a little humor into his answer to Connecticut’s traffic woes. “After I’m elected I’ll promise to drive a bus one day a week for free,” he said, but then immediately added that, if elected, the state would follow a comprehensive transportation strategy. “The governor has to be a leader in deciding what the priorities are,” he said.

Marsh joked that his short time behind the microphone Thursday was the best chance he would get to reach voters. The first selectman of Chester, Marsh abandoned his bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination and launched a third-part bid this spring, limiting his access to big campaign finance dollars and media exposure.

But he was able to briefly sum up the political terrain at the Capitol, where Democrats have controlled the both chambers in legislature for 22 of the past 24 years, and Republicans have controlled the governor’s office since 1995. “They’ve had opportunities and we are where we are,” he said.

There also were a few specific jabs worked into Thursday’s forum, despite the organizers’ best efforts.

Lamont has accused Malloy of exaggerating claims of jobs created in Stamford during his tenure as mayor. But Malloy said Thursday that Lamont “used to complement the city I ran. He used to complement me.”

And as Foley softly quipped, “those days are over,” Malloy added: “Maybe they’ll come back.”

Foley and Fedele aimed remarks at each other in their closing statements.

“People are angry,” at incumbent state officials “who got us into this mess,” said Foley, a Greenwich businessman. “They don’t trust the people currently serving in office to lead us out.”

Fedele, who has been lieutenant governor under Gov. M. Jodi Rell since 2007, and a target of Foley ads as one of the reasons state government faces a huge deficit, warned voters: “Do not get caught up in this wave of ‘throw the incumbents out.'”

The lieutenant governor, who has criticized Foley for not disclosing details about two long-ago motor-vehicle arrests, said the question to focus on is “who has the qualifications, who has the courage, who has the character to move the ball forward?”