Jepsen, Dean spar over guns, schools — and Blumenthal

Technically, Thursday’s debate at the University of Connecticut Law School was between state attorney general candidates Martha Dean and George Jepsen.

But given Dean’s relentless attacks on outgoing Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Jepsen’s efforts to defend his fellow Democrat, the hour-long forum seemed at many times more like a three-way contest.

The two candidates also sparred over gun control, states’ rights, education and the Connecticut economy.

“It’s about ending the job-killing practices of the current attorney general,” Dean, a Republican lawyer from Avon, said of this year’s campaign. “There is no room for politics.”

Dean charged that Blumenthal, a five-term attorney general who is now the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, converted his job into a political self-promotion machine through frivolous lawsuits against businesses, unnecessary press conferences, and excessive involvement in state legislative affairs.

“I really think our legislature, which is supposed to be part-time, is really too active,” she said, adding she expected to play a much smaller role than Blumenthal has when it comes to recommending new laws. Dean added she would “advise quietly when I think they are going to enact laws that are unconstitutional, or truly job-killing proposals.”

But Jepsen, a former state Senate majority leader with 16 years of experience in the legislature, responded that Blumenthal effectively used the office to protect state government, businesses and consumers, and that in a slumping economy, an activist attorney general is essential.

“When times are tougher the odds grow longer,” he said. “To make things right, the public needs not another voice. It needs a true legal advocate.”

Jepsen noted the state Supreme Court arguments over the minimum educational standard that must be provided in Connecticut public schools likely will be played out over the next four to seven years. As attorney general, he said, he would take an active role in seeking a solution that closes the gap between urban and suburban schools, a problem, “that threatens our economic future.”

But Dean said that while education “has to be one of the highest values of our free society,” as attorney general she also would “vigorously defend the state taxpayers’ pocket books.”

The ongoing court battle over the quality of Connecticut’s urban schools is a struggle over determining the minimum standards set in the state Constitution, she said, and not over equalizing educational opportunities in every public school. “We’re not talking about the ideal schools,” Dean added. “We’re not talking about the best schools. We’re talking about the constitutional standard, which is a minimum.”

The Avon Republican also charged both Jepsen and Blumenthal with failing to adequately protect law-abiding citizens’ rights under the U.S. Constitution to bear arms.

“I don’t believe there has been a stronger anti-gun advocate in the legislature than my opponent,” Dean said.

Jepsen, who oversaw passage of many of the state’s current gun control laws while in the Senate, said only “guns that have no purpose other than to kill people” were banned, and that weapons used by hunters and other sportsmen remain available.

“None of these laws take guns away from law-abiding citizens, but they do keep our streets safer,” Jepsen said, adding that he was proud of the “F-minus” rating he received as a legislator from the National Rifle Association.

At one point in the debate, when candidates were allowed to ask questions of each other, Dean asked Jepsen how “as a longtime career politician in Hartford,” he could have participated in one of the largest budget and tax increases in state history — a reference to the 2003 legislative session, which closed a nearly $1 billion budget gap with several measures, including a roughly 10 percent income tax hike.

Jepsen fired back that this solution to the state’s fiscal crisis seven years ago was developed in consultation with several of Dean’s fellow Republicans, including then-Gov. John G. Rowland.

“I’ve always had a strong working relationship with the other party,” Jepsen said.

Jepsen began his legal career working as general counsel to a carpenter’s union in Norwalk and continues to enjoy strong labor support, prompting Dean to charge her opponent would continue an anti-business trend in the attorney general’s office.

But Jepsen noted that he continues to take heat from organized labor for his decision to cancel arbitrated pay raises for state prison guards while tackling a budget crisis in the Senate in 1996.

“I’m a proud Democrat,” he said. “But when I think my party’s wrong, I’m not afraid to say so.”

The Ridgefield Democrat went on the offensive a few times himself during the debate, accusing Dean of hypocrisy when she said that, if elected, she would sue the federal government to challenge future requirements of national health care legislation that force some citizens to buy coverage. At the same time, Jepsen added, Dean has been criticizing Blumenthal for his own challenges of federal authority.

“I think some of Dick’s best work has been in challenging the federal government,” he said, citing efforts to gain more education funding for states complying with No Child Left Behind requirements. Dean “brings her own agenda,” Jepsen added, “and it’s an activist agenda like everybody else.”

Dean and Jepsen did find some common ground during Thursday’s debate.

Both agreed they would support Connecticut’s existing death penalty statute.

And they also agreed that if Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez’s corruption conviction is upheld after his appeal is heard, the attorney general should use authority granted under state law to seek revocation of Perez’s publicly funded pension.