New Britain –– It was like any debate, just a jump to the left, then a step to the right. Andrew W. Roraback and Elizabeth S. Esty took no notice they were debating taxes and Medicare beneath the iconic red lips of the “Rocky Horror Show.”
Their fight for the open 5th Congressional District seat shifted Saturday to the Trinity-on-Main theater for their second debate, finishing before theatergoers arrived for the campy musical about “a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania.”
Over 90 minutes, Esty used nearly every question to argue that the election of Roraback, a Republican, would empower a conservative GOP Congress at odds with the interests and values of Connecticut.
Roraback vigorously distanced himself from his party, describing his 18-year record in the General Assembly as one of independence, including being the only Republican on the Judiciary Committee to vote for gay marriage in 2007.
Their back-and-forth about ideology gave their debate an ironic undercurrent. In the Republican and Democratic primaries, each was accused of being ideological outliers in their parties, too independent to be trusted.
Esty, 53, of Cheshire, who was a one-term state legislator, faced criticism during a three-way Democratic primary that she was too fiscally conservative in the legislature, an accusation she is unlikely to face against Roraback.
Roraback, 52, of Goshen, dubbed a RINO (Republican In Name Only) during his four-way GOP primary, now has to regularly rebut Esty’s assertion that he will be a rubber-stamp for the likes of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“I think voters know that Andrew Roraback will always have the courage to be independent,” Roraback said.
Esty said she cast more tough votes in her brief time in the General Assembly than Roraback had in a career noteworthy for his never missing one of 8,468 roll-call votes on the floor of the House or Senate.
She defied Democratic leadership in 2009 on a budget proposal, saying it cut too little and raised taxes too much.
“I lost my seat in the legislature over a vote on the death penalty that was quite unpopular,” she said.
Esty unseated a Republican in 2008 and lost to the same Republican in 2010. In between, she voted to abolish the death penalty, an unpopular position in a district that was the scene of a notorious capital case, a home invasion that took three lives.
In their first debate, Esty failed to draw a contrast with Roraback, a longtime opponent of capital punishment who voted against repeal earlier this year, when it passed both Houses and was signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
At the time, she said, Roraback was running in the GOP primary, facing opponents trying to outflank him on the right, using his previous support for repeal as a club.
“Suddenly, Andrew Roraback’s lifelong opposition vanished,” she said.
Roraback conditioned his vote for repeal of the death penalty on ending an early-release program for prison inmates, a condition that Esty says Roraback knew would not be met. Repeal passed without his support.
Tying a vote on the death penalty to the end of early release was a matter of conscience, not convenience, Roraback said.
Esty said Roraback would be a vote to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires, but Roraback said he is opposed to raising or cutting taxes next year. Still, he left no doubt he is more comfortable with Mitt Romney than Barack Obama, calling the Democratic president a failure on the economy.
“There’s not a rising tide. These are failed policies. And the failed policies are translating into fewer opportunities, not just in New Britiain, but throughout the district,” Roraback said. “We need to unleash the power of the private sector to release jobs. We don’t neeed more taxes, more regulations.”
On a question about poverty, both praised federal programs like Head Start as an important early-education opportunity for children of the poor.
“But again, here’s where the reality in Washington matters. The House Republican-led Congress in Washington targeted Head Start,” Esty said, adding that the budget proposed by House budget chairman Paul Ryan would have eliminated 2,000 Head Start slots in the district.
Roraback said that is no reflection on him.
“I have said on the record that I would not have voted for Paul Ryan’s budget. I understand I say that at my peril, but I’m not afraid of sticking my neck out. So please don’t allow my opponent to mislead you into thinking I would have voted for something I said I wouldn’t have voted for.”
The pair had a sharp exchange on how to preserve Medicare, with Esty saying Roraback needs to say more than repeat his pledge not to touch Medicare benefits for those who are now in their 50s.
“He hasn’t told me what that means,” Esty said. She said Roraback seems to be telling younger voters to trust Congress, that there will be a “Kumbaya moment” before Medicare goes broke.
“There haven’t been a lot of ‘Kumbaya’ moments,” she said.
“Why don’t you offer something instead of chastising me?” Rorabck said. “I haven’t heard from you one idea. Do tell.”
“Maybe you weren’t listening,” Esy said.
Her ideas include allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices and maintaining the Affordable Care Act, which Roraback wants to repeal, she said.