Torrington — Democrat Elizabeth S. Esty and Republican Andrew W. Roraback agreed on one thing Tuesday night in their first debate: Voters have a clear choice for a successor to U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-5th District.
The candidates for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat disagreed on taxes, the Keystone pipeline, the Affordable Care Act and giving young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship through education. Both fudged on spending cuts.
Roraback vs. Esty is the state’s the political undercard, getting second billing all year to Murphy’s contest with Republican Linda McMahon for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. Theirs is the other TV commercial slugfest.
From the first words of their opening statements, Roraback distanced himself from partisan politics and the GOP leadership, while Esty tied him to McMahon and the Republican presidential ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
They addressed a polite audience of 650 in the Warner Theater, a renovated art deco landmark in downtown Torrington, and a television audience on cable television’s public affairs network, CT-N.
While the 5th District has been trending Republican — the district went solidly for Republican Tom Foley in the 2010 gubernatorial race — Roraback and Esty each are acting as though the national GOP brand is a negative.
“I am a fiscally prudent, socially moderate legislator who has always had the courage to be independent and to do what is right for the people I represent,” Roraback said.
Roraback, 53, of Goshen, has been a state legislator for 18 years, the last dozen as a state senator representing a sprawling district that runs from the Massachusetts line along the New York border to the Danbury suburb of Brookfield.
“Tonight, you will hear two very different visions of our country,” Esty said. “My vision is of an America that gives the middle class a fair shot. My opponent will propose a very different vision. And if it sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It is the same Republican talking points we’ve heard in debates this fall, just recently from Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Linda McMahon.”
Esty, 53, of Cheshire is a former town council member who was a one-term state legislator, unseating a Republican incumbent in 2008, then losing to the same Republican in 2010. She pointed to her loss Tuesday as a measure of her commitment to principle.
She voted to abolish the death penalty in 2009, even though she represented Cheshire, the scene of a home invasion that resulted in the horrific triple homicide of a mother and her two daughters. The sole survivor, Dr. William Petit, was a crusader to keep the capital punishment.
“I cast a vote that I knew probably would cost my seat,” Esty said.
Roraback was the only Senate Republican to vote for the repeal of the death penalty in 2009, but he opposed repeal this year.
On the first question, the candidates disagreed. The topic: the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Roraback favors repeal, while Esty praises the law.
“The Affordable Care Act promises too much and delivers too little,” Roraback said.
“I fully support the Affordable Care Act,” Esty said.
Roraback embraced elements of the law, including allowing young adult children to stay on their parents’ health policies and a ban on insurers’ discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. But those should be tackled as state laws.
But Esty said those provisions assume a broad pool of insurance purchasers, including the young and healthy, mandated to buy insurance.
“It is simply not possible to cherry-pick all the things you like,” Esty said.
On taxes, Roraback lined up behind the GOP leadership, supporting an extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts, while Esty favored extending only the cuts for the middle class.
“My approach is we should not raise taxes on anyone on Jan. 21,” Roraback said, proposing a one-year moratorium on tax changes while Congress considers an overhaul of the tax code.
“I believe we should extend the payroll tax cut and extend the Bush tax cuts on the middle class,” Esty said.
As Esty repeatedly mentioned Roraback in the same breath as Romney, Ryan and McMayon, Roraback described her several times as following the same tax policies as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who took office after Esty’s defeat.
“Perhaps you should run against Dan Malloy. You certainly talk a lot about him,” Esty said.
Esty said she supports the Dream Act, which would give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Esty voted for a state version, which gave immigrants living in the state access to the in-state tuition rate at public universities and colleges, regardless of citizenhip. Roraback voted against it.
“What I said in the debate and what I hold to today is we need comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “I am ready to jump into the national debate.”
Roraback endorsed the proposed Keystone pipeline, which would deliver oil extracted from tar sands in Canada to a port in the Gulf of Mexico. Esty is opposed, calling the project an environmental disaster.