Stefanowski kept Lamont on defensive in first debate

September 16, 2018

I encountered a sense of concern, if not panic, among some Democrats I talked to after last Wednesday’s debate at the Garde Arts Center in New London, while Republicans were exhaling sighs of relief.

The reactions in both cases were tied to the performance of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski in his first debate with Democrat Ned Lamont. Democrats were betting on Stefanowski being out of his element and struggling. While Lamont has had a couple of runs at state office, Stefanowski has jumped from the job of business executive to politician. And while he did do some limited debating in the Republican primary, those were five-person affairs.

A one-on-one confrontation, aired live on TV, in front of a sometimes boisterous crowd, that’s a different animal. Republicans weren’t sure what they would get from their candidate.

Then Stefanowski nailed it. He came out strong and remained unflappable. No matter the questions asked — I was among the three panelists asking them — he returned to the same themes. He will cut spending and reduce taxes; he won’t install highway tolls; and as a repeat of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration, Lamont will be more of the same and do both.

The approach kept Lamont on defense for much of the hour-long debate. And it started with the opening statements.

“I love Connecticut but we have a lot of work we have to do,” began Lamont, tempering the challenges Connecticut faces with some cheery endearment for his state.

And, hey, suggested Lamont, let’s not get bogged down about who is at fault but roll up our sleeves and fix it.

“No need to play the blame game, we know it has been a bipartisan fiscal wreck for a long, long time,” Lamont told the Garde and TV audience, vowing “to be someone who brings real change.”

Stefanowski was having none of it. He was more than willing to affix blame.

“Dan Malloy has absolutely ruined this state and its economy and we are losing our friends and family by the day. And, Ned Lamont? It’s actually going to be worse,” said Stefanowski. “He is going to try to deny it tonight, but he’s been on radio saying he’s going to raise taxes and put up tolls. Ladies and gentlemen, enough is enough.”

I thought I heard Lamont gulp, but it was probably my imagination.

Later, seeing the nice guy let’s work together approach was probably not working, Lamont sought to link Stefanowski to the Trump agenda — and those links are genuine — and distance himself from Malloy. But the theme had been set, and Lamont couldn’t shake it.

Now, did Stefanowski offer any information on how — with the state facing a $2.1 billion, 10 percent hole in its projected budget the day the next governor takes office — he will find enough cuts to not only avoid any tax increases but begin his fantastical pledge to eliminate the income tax? Did he say how he would begin repairing and improving the state’s transportation system without the revenue from tolls? (Lamont would impose tolls on large trucks.)

No, Stefanowski did not. And in post-debate comments he told reporters he doesn’t intend to because he doesn’t know. After he wins, he said he will appoint the right people to lead departments and they will use zero-based budgeting to find the waste and improve efficiency, closing the massive budget gap and providing for the tax cuts.

“Before I do that, I can’t tell you” about specific cuts “from XYZ department,” Stefanowski said.

And we will all live happily ever after. That’s how fairy tales end, right?

The two men have several more debates, and independent Oz Griebel will continue to fight to try to get into some of them. The next is Monday, again from 7-8 p.m. on MyTV-9. The Connecticut Association of Realtors is the sponsor of the debate at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. As for the Garde debate, if you missed it you can find that on theday.com, embedded in our news story about the event.

It will be interesting to see how Lamont recalculates Monday. As for Stefanowski, expect him to stick with the script, as vacuous as it may be.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.


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