NORWALK — Richard Blumenthal and Linda McMahon attacked each other today over Blumenthal’s tax votes and lawsuits and McMahon’s lobbying Congress against broadcast rules to protect children from sex and violence.
In a debate before a business audience, the two U.S. Senate candidates engaged more directly than during their only previous forum, often ignoring the questions posed by a panel of three Fairfield County journalists.
McMahon did not answer a question about whether she would weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act as sought by a business group that endorsed her last week, the National Federation of Independent Business.
Blumenthal did not directly respond to a pointed question about allegations he has overreached as attorney general in pursing civil cases against small businesses targeted by his office.
Each candidate was more aggressive in their second debate in trying to undermining the other’s credibility and their nationally watched campaigns to succeed the retiring five-term Democrat, Christopher J. Dodd.
McMahon, a Republican, portrayed Blumenthal’s 26-year record as a state legislator and attorney general as indifferent to business interests, while Blumenthal, a Democrat, characterized McMahon’s leadership of World Wrestling Entertainment as counter to the interests of her wrestlers and public.
“She claims to be different. There is nothing different about hiring lobbyists to strong-arm Washington,” Blumenthal said.
His campaign has pointed to public records in recent weeks that show the WWE relied on lobbyists to oppose a law that would give the Federal Trade Commission powers to fine companies that market adult content to children. It also used a Washington marketing firm, APCO Worldwide, to devise a voter-registration campaign, “Smackdown Your Vote,” to counter the WWE’s poor image.
McMahon characterized the WWE’s lobbying against the adult-content law as a matter of “free speech.”
After being on the defensive for much of the first debate, McMahon seemed more comfortable and better-prepared today. She used humor to needle Blumenthal as a career politician with a history of misstatements.
And for the first time, Blumenthal directly confronted McMahon about a previously reported memo in which she directed a WWE subordinate to tip off a doctor about a federal investigation of steroid use by wrestlers. He dropped whatever reservations he had about personally arguing that McMahon was accountable for the WWE’s more controversial history, including its implication in the abuse of steroids by its wrestlers.
“Mr. Blumenthal, I think you want to constantly focus on WWE, because it’s really difficult for you to focus on the economy and creating jobs,” McMahon said. “WWE is certainly a company of which I am very proud.”
McMahon pressed the case that Blumenthal’s overlooked record as a legislator covered a vote for one of the state’s biggest tax increases. “We continue to pay for that today,” she said.
Actually, some of the sales-tax and investment-tax increases approved during Blumenthal’s tenure were rolled back in 1991, when the legislature instituted a broad-based tax on wages.
Blumenthal used McMahon’s criticism of the 1989 tax vote to talk about steroids. Blumenthal countered that while he was struggling with the state budget, she was spending her time trying to thwart a federal investigation of steroid use in the WWE by tipping off a WWE doctor.
McMahon did not respond during the debate about informing the doctor of the federal investigation. After the session, she called it the memo old news. She declined to say if she regretted informing the doctor of the federal probe.
Blumenthal said after the debate that he did not regret any of the lawsuits filed during his tenure as the longest-serving attorney general, including one that resulted in millions of dollars in damages won in a counter-suit won by a small business owner.
“I am proud of my record of zealously and vigorously protecting the people of Connecticut and using the law to recover hundreds of millions for them, putting money back in their pocket,” he said.
But did his office overreach even once in 20 years?
“I am very proud of our record,” he said. “No litigator wins 100 percent of the time.”
McMahon, who came under intense criticism last week for initially failing to rule out voting to roll back the federal minimum wage during a press conference, told reporters today she had no problem with the Family and Medical Leave Act authored by Dodd.
“I know at WWE, Family and Medical Leave Act has come up several times, and I think it’s been beneficial for those employees,” she said. She added, “I’ve had no reason to look at it and roll it back at this time.”
When Blumenthal mentioned that the WWE was the target of a state investigation about its practice of classifying wrestlers as contractors, which saves the company from health and unemployment-compensation costs, McMahon turned the issue on Blumenthal.
She said he mischaracterized the investigation as a criminal probe during their previous debate.
Blumenthal denied it.
“Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you just misspoke again,” she said, “like the time you talked about how you had served in Vietnam, like the time when you talked about, you were not going to Vancouver for the trial lawyers for a fundraiser.”
The jibe prompted Blumenthal to once again apologize for misstatements on at least five occasions about serving in Vietnam, when he was a stateside reservist.
“It was unintentional. That’s no excuse. I take full responsibility,” he said. “I apologize, as I have done before to the people of Connecticut, most particularly to our veterans.”
The one-hour debate will be televised tonight at 8 on Cablevision’s News 12, the regional cable system. It also will be availableon Cablevision’s On Demand channel. CT-N will rebroadcast it on its statewide cable channel.
McMahon and Blumenthal found agreement on a back-burner topic. Each said they were open to ending the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, an issue that might turn an election in Miami, but not in Norwalk.
Asked how they would reduce fossil fuel emissions, each cast themselves as supporters of clean energy, such as wind and solar. But their positions were self-contradictory: they are opposed to an energy policy that would raise the cost of electricity, and alternative energy is more expensive, at least for the immediate future.
McMahon also said she favored additional nuclear energy.
McMahon engaged in some WWE-style showmanship, making an entrance through the audience at a catering hall as her supporters chanted, “Linda! Linda!.”
Blumenthal walked directly to his lectern.
The debate closed abruptly. McMahon went slightly long in her closing remarks, and the debate organizers appeared to lose track. Blumenthal was cut off in mid-sentence.
“I just want to finish my closing statement,” he told reporters after the debate. He smiled and said, “I had 30 seconds left. I was all set to blow you guys away.”
A WCBS radio reporter invited him to complete his closing remarks for her audience. He did.