U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Republican challenger Mark Greenberg.
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Republican challenger Mark Greenberg. Keith Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Danbury — Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District candidates clashed on personal ethics, foreign affairs, energy policy and gun control Thursday during their first public forum.

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Cheshire Democrat, and Litchfield businessman Mark Greenberg, the Republican nominee, found little common ground – though they came close on gun control – as they sparred before a crowd of nearly 200 gathered at the Portuguese Cultural Center.

“I believe that character matters,” Esty said after pointing out that Greenberg had had a series of conversations with former Gov. John G. Rowland about having him work behind the scenes as a consultant to Greenberg’s 2010 campaign for Congress. Last month Rowland was convicted of entering into a conspiracy to hide consulting work done for 2012 congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley.

Greenberg has said he didn’t hire Rowland because it was too expensive and didn’t make sense politically. But Esty labeled Greenberg’s failure to immediately report Rowland’s behavior to authorities as “gutless.”

Greenberg fired back, saying that an Esty commercial accusing him of favoring the reduction of Social Security benefits was false — and described so in a Hartford Courant analysis.

“I believe in Social Security benefits for all seniors,” he said. “I believe the system should give back for those who put in.”

Greenberg added, though, that Esty and others in Congress are afraid to acknowledge that the system is heading for insolvency and that the problem must be addressed. “If we do nothing about it, this system will fail,” he said. “I have the guts to say that to you. … Let’s not put our heads in the sand.”

Greenberg said he favors increasing the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 70.

Esty said she opposes the age change, adding that it is difficult for many of those performing physical tasks to work for another three years.

But Esty said she would consider raising the cap on taxation to support Social Security. Currently, only the first $117,000 earned annually is subject to the Social Security tax.

Greenberg opposes any change in the cap, arguing federal taxes already are high enough.

Agreement, but not

Both candidates agreed that stable, secure, clean energy is essential to bolster the nation’s economy, but disagreed on how to achieve that objective.

Greenberg chastised Esty for voting against a bill whose title includes the claim: “Lowering Gasoline Prices to Fuel an America that Works.”

The measure would have allowed new drilling off the continental shelf. “We could be that much closer to energy independence,” Greenberg said.

Esty, whose husband, Dan Esty, only recently left a job as Connecticut’s environmental and energy commissioner, countered that the key to successful energy policy lies in promoting efficiency and innovation.

“Doubling down on our dependence on gasoline is not wise for us,” the congresswoman said. “… It’s not as simple as destroying the environment by drilling off the coast of Alaska.”

Thursday’s debate took place only a short distance from Newtown, the community rocked in December 2012 by the shooting of 26 students and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

On guns, near agreement

With some residents of that community in the audience, it seemed for a moment that the candidates would not clash over gun control. Both insisted they favor universal background checks for those seeking to purchase firearms.

But Esty said that the representative from Connecticut’s 5th District – which includes Newtown – has “a special responsibility to stand up and do what is right.” And she questioned why Greenberg, given his stated support for universal background checks, had receive an “A” candidate rating from the National Rifle Association.

“This must come as a surprise to the NRA,” she told Greenberg. “I do wonder if you sought and received the support.”

“I was as shocked as anybody,” the Litchfield Republican responded. “I didn’t even fill out a questionnaire. I’ll be downgraded to an “F” after tonight.”

Greenberg added that “I’m an independent kind of guy,” and said he also believes Connecticut must provide more services to combat mental illness if it wants to prevent future tragedies like the events of 2012.

The two candidates also clashed about the United States’ role in opposing militant Islamic rebels in Syria and Iraq.

The ISIS faction is comprised of religious fundamentalists “who are out to kill us,” Greenberg said. “Let’s be clear about that.”

Greenberg also said he’s skeptical that American air strikes will be sufficient to suppress the rebels. “We have to stop them by whatever means are possible,” he said, adding that he is open to arming Islamic and political moderates to combat ISIS forces.

Esty agreed that “ISIS poses a national security threat to America and it poses a threat of chaos to the world.”

But the congresswoman opposes the arming and training of the so-called moderates, adding she doubts the opponents of ISIS are tolerant of Israel and interested in bringing true stability to the region. “Who are these Syrian moderates?” she said. “Are there any left.”

Esty added that “I am very wary of putting young American men and women in harm’s way unless we have a clearly achievable military objective.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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