Gov. Ned Lamont and Republican gubernatorial challenger Bob Stefanowski found more common ground during an online forum Monday than they have throughout this year’s campaign.
Appearing sequentially on a forum sponsored by the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut, the two candidates both welcomed Ukrainian refugees, stressed the importance of Holocaust history in Connecticut schools and maneuvered carefully around the question of expanding the state’s social safety net.
“This is not ancient history,” Stefanowski said of the genocide of European Jews during the Second World War. “This is relatively recent, when you think of the duration of the Earth. … We have to teach kids about these types of issues to prevent it from happening again, to understand that some people have had hurdles that they haven’t had.”
Stefanowski, who spoke during the first half of the hour-long forum, said he’s worried “about the direction, both of the U.S. and of Connecticut,” a direction that includes rising incidents of antisemitism.
Lamont, a Democrat seeking his second term, said “this is a disturbing trend out there, to start airbrushing our history, and a lot of that’s playing out in our boards of education.”
Holocaust education, the governor said, is vital for students to understand the diverse histories and perspectives that make up American society.
“This is who we are as Americans, and Holocaust education is not for just for Jewish kids, just like African-American history is not just for, you know, Black kids. It is for all of us. This is our history,” he said.
The gubernatorial rivals also found common ground on the need to help Ukrainian war refugees find temporary or permanent homes in Connecticut. Jewish federations nationally have raised more than $60 million to help Ukrainians, including potentially 2,000 who are in Connecticut or looking to come in the next few months, said Michael Bloom, host of the forum and executive director of the federation.
Stefanowski appeared to condemn two Republican governors, Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, for making a point about border security by shipping migrants to liberal areas.
“I think what some of these governors did in sending families,” Stefanowski said. “It’s just disgusting. You don’t want to play politics with families. It’s not right.”
DeSantis flew dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard two weeks ago, a day before Abbott bused others to the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., the home of Vice President Kamala Harris. Some of the migrants, Venezuelans in Texas requesting asylum in the U.S., say they were misled into thinking the relocation to the Vineyard was part of a coordinated effort, not a jab at the Biden administration and northern liberals.
“We were tricked,” one told the New York Times.
Asked to confirm he was referring to DeSantis and Abbott, Stefanowski replied by text they were not the only governors to play politics with the migrants.
“There have been others,” he wrote. “I don’t believe we should be playing politics with families regardless of who does it.”
Lamont said Connecticut already has hundreds of families that have expressed interest in hosting refugees, adding that New Britain’s Polish community already has done much to help.
“We’ve got an on-ramp ready to go,” the governor said, noting that Connecticut met an emergency need for congregate housing during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic by converting some of its unused hotel space.
“We can use them as well for some of the refugees as they get back on their feet, get their kids in school, make sure that they know Connecticut is someplace that they can go home,” Lamont added.
The governor appointed Bloom in 2021 to the Connecticut Hate Crimes Advisory Council and traveled with him in February as part of a trade mission to Israel.
But Stefanowski acknowledged any familiarity the federation held with Lamont in a friendly manner.
“I know this sounds corny, but I’m a good guy. I’m not what the attack ads present,” he said. “I know you don’t know me as well as my competitor. I know change is hard.”
Neither the governor nor his opponent had many solutions when challenged by Bloom to safeguard the state’s safety net of social services, especially those for Connecticut residents with disabilities.
Connecticut has resources to address this issue. State government closed the last fiscal year with an unprecedented $4.3 billion surplus, early projections call for $2.3 billion in black ink this fiscal year, and there’s another $3.3 billion in the state’s emergency reserve, commonly known as the rainy day fund.
On the other hand, the national economy is sliding dangerously close to a recession, and while state finances have been buoyed by about $3 billion in federal pandemic relief, that aid will have been exhausted by 2025.
“I think we learned or re-learned, you know, during COVID, that taking care of the most vulnerable in our society is doing the right thing for them, giving everybody the dignity and respect and the opportunity they deserve,” Lamont said to open his response.
From there, though, he spoke about health risks posed by having an unvaccinated homeless population but didn’t identify any health care or social service initiatives he would expand.
Stefanowski has been insisting throughout this campaign, and during his 2018 gubernatorial bid, that he could reduce the state budget by 5% by auditing all agencies and removing wasteful spending. And while he insisted he could shield core programs from painful cuts, he didn’t identify any programs to bolster.
“I’m not going to cut education, I’m not going to cut medical assistance,” he said. “I’m going to make it more efficient. And I’m going to invest that in things that matter.”