GREENWICH — Going face to face in their only scheduled debate, incumbent Republican State Sen. L. Scott Frantz and Democratic challenger Alexandra Bergstein talked issues ranging from the economy to gun laws before a packed crowd that far exceeded capacity.
The two candidates for the 36th state senate district debated Wednesday night at Town Hall at a League of Women Voters of Greenwich event. And the focus on tolls was one of the more dominant issues Wednesday night as Bergstein continued to advocate for them.
“I would support installing electronic tolls which bear no resemblance to the tolls that we had 20 years ago,” Bergstein said. “Those were awful and they bring back traumatic memories for many people. But the technology has changed dramatically and we are the only state in the region that has not installed tolls. Up to 40 percent of the traffic from our highway is from out of state so they use our roads for free and we pay for the damage they do with our tax dollars.”
Bergstein said there was a reason why all the state around Connecticut have recovered from the recession while Connecticut has not and said installing electronic tolls and putting the money in a lockbox for infrastructure improvements, was the right way to go. Frantz disputed that, though, saying it would be another tax on Connecticut residents.
“I’m not sure how you can be a fiscal conservative and essentially raise your taxes by a whole lot by putting in tolls,” Frantz said. “You’ve got a situation in Connecticut where not only are you paying for the construction and maintenance of the roadways, bridges, railways etcetera, you also pay a ton in personal income tax. You pay a ton in gasoline tax. You pay a gross receipts tax. You pay a registration fee every time you go to renew your vehicle.”
Frantz said that money should be going solely to the special transportation fund in the state but it was being raided and Republicans have been pushing the lockbox. Frantz said tolls would hurt teachers driving an hour to get to Greenwich or the carpenter driving from New Britain to Stamford.
But Bergstein said that was not the case.
“I have talked to teachers and carpenters and firefighters who live in Greenwich and elsewhere in the district and they all say to me why don’t we have tolls yet?” Bergstein said. “They understand the big picture. They understand the opportunity cost of not having tolls is that our highways and rails are not getting better.”
Frantz said the plan Bergstein favored for using toll money for infrastructure improvements, including high speed rail from Stamford to New York City, was “pie in the sky thinking” that was not feasible. He said Republicans had the better plan to use revenue already coming in for transportation improvements and cancelling costly, unneeded projects would create improvements without having to add tolls.
Bergstein, an attorney and first time political candidate, is challenging Frantz, the founder of the Greenwich-based private investment firm Haebler Capital, as he seeks his sixth term in office. The debate attracted huge crowds, far exceeding the maximum capacity in the Town Hall Meeting Room of 110 people.
At least twice that level attempted to pack into the room causing large overflow crowds into the hallway and necessitating the intervention of the town’s fire marshal. At one point the fire marshal stopped the debate and said it would not be allowed to continue until the overflow crowd left so the aisles could be clear within the room and the hallway.
That forced dozens of people, including U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, town Tax Collector Howard Richman and Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein, away from the debate as league officials said they were surprised to see this much turnout.
The debate itself touched on the state’s economy over the course of several questions. When asked what reforms he would look to make in state government, Frantz said he had a “laundry list about 18 miles long” but kept his focus on fiscal matters, as he has throughout the campaign.
“We are in such bad shape right now after 48 years of one-party rule,” Frantz said. “It needs to come to an end and there absolutely has to be some order put back into the way that we manage our fiscal affairs.”
Frantz said under the current 18-18 split in the state senate, which gives Republicans power they have not had in decades, they were able to pass two bipartisan budgets within the past year that included a spending cap and a bonding cap as well as establishment of a rainy-day fund for the state. And he urged people to send him back for a new term to look at pension liability reform and cutting waste out of the state budget.
“I would keep that momentum up,” Frantz said. “It is so critical because nothing else matters if we can’t keep our fiscal foundation in one piece.”
Bergstein, who has campaigned as a fiscally conservative Democrat, said she has a plan to address the state’s fiscal woes including pension liability reform, investing in infrastructure to help attract new businesses and residents and reform the state’s tax system.
By electing her and putting her with a Democratic majority, Bergstein said she would be able to advocate for Greenwich and help drive the agenda in Hartford.
“Politics as usual is just not working and we need a fresh approach,” Bergstein said. “There are solutions to the state’s biggest problems.”
Bergstein said she agreed with Frantz that the state’s fiscal stability is paramount and said she would have also voted for the spending and bonding caps as he did in the budget.
“That is the first step to creating fiscal stability but we also need to go farther,” Bergstein said. “When we get all the levers of the economic engine really working everything will start to improve. Fiscal stability is just the beginning.”
As they have several times over the course of the last few weeks, the two candidates clashed over gun safety laws. Bergstein, who has been endorsed by Moms Demand Action and got an A rating from Connecticut Against Gun Violence, has accused Frantz of not being strong enough on the issue and said more had to be done to protect the state’s existing laws while also working to strengthen them at a time when the NRA was supporting candidates to get them repealed.
“This is a real and present danger,” Bergstein said. “The NRA is alive and emboldened in Connecticut as we see at the top of the Republican ticket (with gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski and lieutenant governor candidate Joe Markely) and well intentioned candidates who support them without standing up to their agenda.”
Frantz said he had helped save the state’s recent bump stock ban, which can turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons, from being defeated and said he was in favor of banning what are known as ghost guns, which are partially assembled guns which can be purchased online and, because they do not have serial numbers, are considered untraceable and can be purchased without a background check.
And he defended his record in post-Sandy Hook bipartisan gun safety reforms that he said earned him an F grade from the NRA that he was proud to get as he recalled comforting and helping families after the 2012 mass shooting.
“We put together a bill that has by far and away the strongest laws and put it into package where we could get a bunch of other (Republican senators) to jump on board,” Frantz said. “The bill has worked magnificently. We have not seen any kind of incident in Connecticut like that since then and hopefully never happens again in the world. I put my heart and soul into it and I believe in the bill.”
The debate was broadcast live on GCTV Channel 79 and is expected to be reshown several times more before Election Day.