GOP gubernatorial candidates debate guns, taxes, corruption and TV shows

This is a photo of GOP candidates debating.

Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

Five Republican candidates for governor debated at the Mark Twain House & Museum. Above then on the wall was a Twain quote: "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything."

The five Republican candidates for governor who faced off in a debate Friday signed a pledge to treat each other with respect, and they did: The jabs were reserved for the man each hopes to replace, first-term Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Their answers varied more in degree than broad strokes on questions ranging from taxes to corruption to — with one exception — gun-control legislation. They favor local control in education over the new Common Core state standards and reducing state spending and taxes. (They consider Malloy’s proposed $55 tax rebates to be a gimmick.)

One of the widest divides came in their answers to a question about their favorite TV show. (One favors programs featuring zombies and meth dealers; another said her parents prohibited television because they thought it ruined the brain.)

Still, their answers revealed differences in how the candidates hope to position themselves in advance of the GOP’s May 17 nominating convention.

The debate, held at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, was sponsored by The Hartford Courant and FoxCT, and will be televised at 10 a.m. Sunday.

The candidates

State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield emphasized his experience, calling himself the only candidate in either party who created a balanced budget that didn’t raise taxes. Speaking of his work on a controversial gun-control bill adopted in response to the Newtown shootings, McKinney said leadership requires working to improve the product, “not sitting on the sidelines and simply saying no.”

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, too, touted his record, describing his focus on employment as Danbury mayor and his experience teaching high school. He mentioned the concurrent permit-review system his city uses to speed up the process and the taxes he wants eliminated or cut (business entity tax, the gasoline tax and property taxes for seniors).

Boughton, who came in second among Republican voters in a March Quinnipiac poll, was the only candidate to refer to the absent frontrunner, Greenwich businessman Tom Foley, who isn’t participating in debates before the convention.

“You lead from the front, you don’t lead by hiding,” said Boughton, who ran for lieutenant governor on Foley’s ticket in 2010. (After the debate, he took another jab at his wealthy former running mate, saying, “It’s not like he’s doing anything else today but hanging around the estate.”)

Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti described the limits of what government and legislation can do, emphasizing the need to focus on the way people treat each other and the family structure. He touted his 23 years as mayor, which he said included 22 balanced budgets with surpluses.

Former West Hartford council member Joe Visconti offered the most vivid wording, describing the state’s finances as “a ship, sinking, on fire, that’s drifting into the rocks.” (He wants to freeze spending, build the state’s rainy day fund, lower the gas tax and phase out the sales tax.) He calls Common Core “the Obamacare of education.” A builder by trade, he said he can create something from a blueprint without overspending or overtaxing.

This is a photo of Mark Boughton (left), Martha Dean and Mark Lauretti before the debate

Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

From left, Mark Boughton, Martha Dean and Mark Lauretti before the debate

Avon Attorney Martha Dean offered specific ideas (among them, eliminate the income tax, honor existing commitments but end public sector unions, increase nuclear power and reform the family court system), but spoke often about larger themes such as principles and freedom.

“Whoever is governor next is going to be very unpopular, and they need to be comfortable with being unpopular because there are tough choices ahead,” Dean said, adding that she’s never tried to be popular.

Gun law: veto or sign?

One of the debate moderators, Courant Capitol Bureau Chief Christopher Keating, asked the candidates if they would have signed or vetoed the controversial gun-control measure passed last year in response to the Newtown shooting.

On this question, one candidate — McKinney — differed from the rest.

Four were critical of the law.

Boughton said he’d have sent it back to the legislature. It was focused too much on specific elements of firearms and didn’t do enough to address what he called a mental health-care crisis and to make schools safer, he said.

Dean said she likes to deal with facts and principles. The principle, she said, is that citizens have a right to bear arms. And the fact, she said, is that “When you increase gun ownership to law-abiding citizens, crime goes down.”

Lauretti said he’d have opposed the bill, saying he didn’t think it solved anything and that it failed to address mental health or video games. The issue, he said, is how people treat one another. “It’s not weapons that could jump off the shelf and do things to people,” he said.

Visconti pledged that if he were governor, he would not enforce any confiscation of weapons under the law. “Gun owners are not your enemy,” he said.

John McKinney after the debate

Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

John McKinney after the debate

McKinney was different: He helped craft the bill and voted for it.

McKinney noted that he represents Newtown. He was with families of those killed at the school on the day of the shooting.

“Leadership’s about making difficult decisions,” he said. “There’s no easy decision after something like Newtown happens, but you have to make decisions. It’s about standing up and doing what you believe in for the people who elected you.”

Because Republicans are outnumbered in the General Assembly, McKinney added, it was clear a bill would pass. The question was what it would look like. Leadership, he said, is about trying to make the product better.

‘Corrupticut’

The debate was held a day after former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland was indicted in connection with allegations that he tried to solicit secret payments from congressional candidates. When asked about the state’s reputation for corruption, some candidates took jabs at the Malloy administration.

Visconti accused Malloy staffers of trying to skirt freedom of information laws by using personal email addresses to conduct business. Boughton criticized the administration’s use of state tax incentives for companies that move from one town to another. McKinney said he’s fought Malloy as he’s weakened campaign finance and freedom of information laws, and noted that Democrats are raising money from state contractors.

This is a photo of Joseph Visconti

Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

Joseph Visconti speaks with Kristin Fox, John McKinney's fiance, after the debate.

Dean took a broader approach: People are frustrated and many productive citizens have left the state, she said. “People who are honest and hardworking know the game is rigged and they get out,” she said, adding that those who remain are left to pay the bills.

And Lauretti said legislation can’t solve it all; people need to take responsibility.

As for their favorite TV shows?

Boughton said he’s torn between The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad.

McKinney picked Seinfeld.

Dean said she hadn’t been allowed to watch television as a child. (She later acknowledged that she watches C-SPAN while running at the gym.)

Lauretti said he doesn’t watch much TV.

Visconti had the last word on that one: “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

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