West Hartford – Joe Visconti, the petitioning candidate, arrived early. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy walked into the NBC Connecticut studio just in time. And Republican Tom Foley, well, he never arrived at all.
Until 15 minutes before air time, there was an empty stool on the set in case Foley reconsidered his decision not to attend a debate televised by a major network affiliate with 12 days left in a deadlocked race for governor. He missed quite a show.
Had he attended, Foley would have seen Visconti, a former Republican councilman and Tea Party activist, vigorously challenge the Democratic governor on fiscal responsibility and gun control, then write off Foley as a candidate too vague and too timid on the issues to be elected.
Malloy evidently thought Visconti made a good case.
Deadpan, he endorsed Visconti over Foley in his closing remarks.
“If you believe that I was wrong about guns, then this is the guy, Joe Visconti, that you should be voting for,” Malloy said, sitting next to Visconti on a stool. “If you believe that I’ve been wrong on some of the other issues Joe’s been talking about, then he is the person you should be voting for, not Tom Foley.”
Foley found an alternative venue, assisted by a rival station, WFSB, Channel 3. While Malloy and NBC gave Visconti 60 minutes of free television time, WFSB gave Foley a solo shot on “Face the State,” taped at their Rocky Hill studio to air Sunday morning.
WFSB says it didn’t intend to steal NBC’s thunder: It invited Foley and Malloy to each tape Face the State over the last two weeks of the campaign, and the show’s regular taping time is 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Gerry Brooks, the NBC anchorman who moderated the forum, noted Foley’s absence at the top of the show. He quoted Mark McNulty, the communication director for Foley, as saying the campaign and station could not agree on a format.
“We have been in constant touch with Mr. Foley’s camp in the weeks leading up to this event. They have never articulated a particular objection to tonight’s format,” Brooks said. “For the record, we were willing to welcome Mr. Foley, right up until air time.”
Foley was absent at NBC, but hardly forgotten. One of his commercials preceded the commercial-free debate. And Malloy, from start to finish, was happy to repeatedly remind viewers of the existence of another candidate. In fact, if “Tom Foley” were the lyric to a song, Malloy would have owed him significant royalties by evening’s end.
“The two of us are here. We made time available to be here. It’s a strange thing. I also think it’s disrespectful,” Malloy said, responding to Brook’s opening question — about Foley’s absence. Malloy turned to Visconti and said, “I think it has something to do with you, by the way. Just saying.”
He listed issues that he says Foley would like to avoid: shipping jobs at one of his companies to Mexico, opposition to a higher minimum wage, and how well Connecticut did rolling out Obamacare.
“I wish Tom Foley was here,” Malloy said at the close. “I think this has been a very useful discussion between Joe and I. I respect Joe. We may have disagreements, but at least he tells you what he is going to do. Tom Foley has been dancing around issues for many months now.”
Visconti confronted Malloy during the debate on a number of issues, including his habit of debating the absent Tom Foley.
“Governor, Tom Foley is not on the stage. Enough is enough. I’m here tonight,” Visconti said. “Please address me on the issues.”
Visconti said Malloy and the legislature overreacted after the 26 students and staff were shot to death in minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman using an AR-15 rifle and 30-round magazines. The state banned the retail sale of military-style firearms and ammunition magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. It also required a permit to buy ammunition, including shotgun shells.
“We went to the hunters. We went to the law-abiding gun owners,” Visconti said. “There is a liberal agenda…’a utopian world where we’re going to get rid of all the guns.’ They can’t stop illegal guns coming into New Haven, and this governor won’t stop that, either.”
Malloy paused before responding.
“I was there that day. I understand what a large-capacity magazine means to a person who wants to kill as many people as he possible can in a short period of time. I saw the result,” Malloy said. “I still wear bracelets, one for the Sandy Hook community overall and another one, purple, for a child who was the last funeral that I attended.”
Malloy said he is proud of the Sandy Hook legislation and would veto any effort at repeal. Visconti heatedly said the bill was flawed and does not protect children. A better solution would have been to require a police officer at every school, he said.
“I don’t know why liberals are so against that,” Visconti said.
But after the debate, Visconti credited Malloy for doing what few other governors would do – debate a petitioning candidate for an hour on television.
“The governor, I congratulate him for actually coming. I think it’s historic a governor would come for a petitioning candidate,” Visconti said. “It was great that he was here. I have to say it was so important he was here.”
Malloy’s generosity was not selfless.
Even though the Quinnipiac University poll indicates that Visconti draws equally from the Democratic incumbent and GOP challenger, Malloy is the likely beneficiary of a third candidate, given his inability to climb above 43 percent in a string of polls.
On air and off, Visconti said he is in the race to stay, despite entreaties from his old friends in the Republican Party, in the Tea Party and the state’s largest gun-owners’ group, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League.
“I can win this race. Please do not believe the cynics,” Visconti said. “This can happen.”
The debate will be rebroadcast Sunday at 10 a.m.