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‘Side issues’ are the economy

September 26, 2018

Heading into the third debate between governor hopefuls Ned Lamont and Bob Stefanowski Wednesday, here’s the tally from the first two battles on Sept. 12 and 17.

Stefanowski spoke a grand total of 44 times including rebuttals, opening and closing statements; twenty-two times in each debate. He mentioned taxes in 34 of those responses.

“Taxes,” the actual word, as in his childish promise to cut state taxes by more than 60 percent — not just code words like “reform” or “fundamental change.” No, he’s sticking to that T word almost no matter what the question.

That included responses about paid family leave, the racial achievement gap in schools, health care costs, union contracts, the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, legalized marijuana, immigration enforcement and on and on.

We get that Stefanowski, the Republican, understands the sluggish state economy is issue No. 1 and he’s right. Guess what — Democrat Ned Lamont agrees.

We get that lowering taxes is Stefanowski’s answer to every problem — hey Bob, if a Connecticut resident falls off a building, what should we do? Lower her taxes!

But here’s the rub: All these “side” issues Stefanowski refuses to address fully, if at all — they are the economy. Women’s reproductive health? Economy. Drug policy? Economy. Casinos? Economy. Protecting immigrant rights? Economy. Housing policy? Economy.

The concept isn’t hard.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re liberal or conservative. The pieces of our lives that make us care about where we live come in all shapes and sizes. And right now in Connecticut, the giant economic puzzle we’re trying to solve is that not enough people want to be here, so those pieces matter — all of them, not just taxes.

Stefanowski wants to sneak a fast one past the voters by denying that the job of governor is multifaceted. Take legalization of marijuana, for example. “Maybe at some point we look at it but we’ve got so many fundamental economic problems in this state right now we need to focus on fundamental tax reform,” the Madison resident declared at the Garde Arts Center in New London on Sept. 12.

Or the shortage of lower-cost housing, which is quashing job growth nowhere more than lower Fairfield County. “I think we should leave it up to the towns,” he said at the Shubert Theater in New Haven five days later.

No, Bob. The answer to everything isn’t let’s do less and give money back to residents. It’s not that I think an anti-government approach to everything is wrong. It’s not about ideology at all.

No, the issue is that by funneling every possible answer through a lens of cutting taxes, this candidate is doing worse than starving the campaign of ideas. He’s shortchanging the very issue we all agree is No. 1.

It’s smart politics because he’s forcing Lamont to play tit-for-tat on taxes while all other issues wither away.

Even in the big picture, a governor’s ability to cut taxes depends on his or her ability to manage, as much as ideology. Stefanowski claims he’s got the great management resume but sadly, he knows almost nothing about the very agencies he hopes to target. Instead he uses his imposing size and deep, sarcastic voice on stage to try to intimidate as he avoids all issues except taxes. That worked in fourth grade and sadly, it’s working for him here.

He’s right. Taxes are too high. But details matter and he ain’t got none because he hates government so much he hasn’t taken the trouble to study it.

To repeat, it’s not about ideology and it’s not about experience. David Stemerman and Steve Obsitnik, the vanquished, neophyte Republicans from Greenwich and Westport, respectively, took the trouble to study exactly what state government needed, one small piece at a time. Liberals didn’t agree with much of what they said but they both understood the economy has many parts.

So does J.R. Romano, the Republican state chairman, who can and will argue all issues. But he also knows the path to victory is narrow. “If you go into a diner right now and ask them what the No. 1 issue is, it’s taxes, it’s high taxes,” Romano said. “So why shouldn’t we be talking about the biggest issue in our state right now?”

This week, Lamont wants Stefanowski to speak up about women’s reproductive rights. That matters to the economy if we want to attract more young, professional women.

Good luck getting Stefanowski to focus on it, Ned. We desperately need a look at all the pieces and we won’t get it in this campaign as long as voters believe an $11 billion tax cut is possible.

dhaar@hearstmediact.com

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