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Sparks Fly At Connecticut GOP Debate, Yet Candidates Find Much To Agree On

Courtesy of Sacred Heart University
Republican candidates for governor on stage during a debate at Sacred Heart University on Tuesday. From left: Mark Boughton, Tim Herbst, Steve Obsitnik, Bob Stefanowski and David Stemerman.

With the Republican primary just three weeks away, all five GOP candidates for Connecticut governor tried to differentiate themselves at a debate at Sacred Heart University Tuesday afternoon.

Tensions ran high at times, with several of the candidates using the opportunity to criticize each other’s backgrounds and tax plans.

Former hedge fund manager David Stemerman of Greenwich clashed with fellow businessman, former GE executive and Madison resident Bob Stefanowski, who has pledged never to raise taxes and to eliminate the personal income tax.

“For Bob, who is somebody who’s been responsible in the business world for a bottom line, he should be ashamed for putting out a proposal that he knows the numbers don’t work,” Stemerman said.

Stefanowski responded by criticizing Stemerman as a hedge fund manager with no leadership experience.

“You should be embarrassed, Mr. Stemerman, and you should think before you speak. This guy has bought stocks his entire life. He’s never run anything. I’ve run big businesses.”

Stefanowski also criticized former Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst for taking part in public financing for his campaign, which he says is an unfair use of taxpayer money. Herbst responded by calling into question Stefanowski’s credentials as a Republican and his support for former Democratic U.S. Senator Chris Dodd.

“What would make you become a Republican one month before you announce your candidacy as governor, and exactly what did find about Chris Dodd appealing when you gave the maximum amount to his campaign?” Herbst asked.

When given an opportunity by the moderator, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, the Party-endorsed candidate, did not respond to criticism from Stemerman, who called him a career politician. 

While all candidates are in favor of repealing the state's personal income tax, there was disagreement on whether the next governor could actually do it. Connecticut's income tax, which was introduced 27 years ago by Independent Governor Lowell Weicker, was very unpopular at the time and ever since then, Republican candidates for governor have promised to get rid of it.

This year is no different. 

Questioned during the debate, Boughton reinforced his commitment to getting rid of it, something he’s believed in ever since he rallied against it in Hartford nearly 30 years ago when it was implemented.

“You know why it was a bad idea? Because they’re going to take your money. They’re never going to implement the cap that was supposed to go with it and you’re going to keep cranking that up, keep spending more money and that’s exactly what happened.”  

Stefanowski went further.

“I’m the only person on this stage that has both introduced a plan to get rid of the state income tax and signed a firm pledge to not raise taxes as long as I am governor of Connecticut.”  

Obsitnik hedged a bit.

“I would support it but I think we have to earn our way in that direction. That’s why my five-step plan to build 300,000 jobs…step 1 addresses spending, step 2, cost of living here.”

Stemerman said rolling back the tax at this time might not be practical.

“The personal income tax comprises half of our receipts. Half of them. The idea that we’re going to eliminate them is a fantasy. And it’s the same kind of empty promise that has led our government to now being in a position where we are in a position of defaulting on our debt.”    

Herbst, who had to deal with budgets when he ran Trumbull, agreed that eliminating the tax would be difficult without first dealing with the state’s deficit.

“So I’m in favor of eliminating taxes, but I’m not going to increase other taxes for the sake of eliminating other taxes cause at the end of the day taxpayers pay.”  

Herbst reminded everyone that former Republican governors, like John Rowland and Jodi Rell, might have wanted to but were unable to repeal the tax.  

All five candidates did agree with President Donald Trump’s policy to impose tariffs on U.S. trading partners in Europe, Asia, Mexico and Canada.

Boughton said for years American companies have not been competing on a fair playing field because of previous trade deals.   

“Our companies, like GM, and Ford and Chrysler, were at a competitive disadvantage as it relates to being able to share and sell our products into overseas market place. So I think he’s done a good thing.” 

Stefanowski concurred, saying the tariffs are a smart move.  

“President Trump is the perfect example. He’s recut all the lousy deals that prior administrations have put in. He’s putting America first. He’s challenging people. [Laugh] What a novel idea.”   

The candidates were also unanimous in their opposition to highway tolls, with Boughton saying he would sacrifice his body for the cause.

“I will strap myself to I-95 before I’ll let a toll be put in anywhere on our highways in our state. And there’s a reason for that. Each of you out there have already paid for infrastructure work in the form of one of the highest gas taxes in the United States of America. Why would you pay twice for the same work?”

Boughton also criticized Governor Dannel Malloy for asking for a $10 million study to implement tolls in the state.

Meanwhile, Herbst criticized Malloy’s spending on the CTfastrak bus rapid transit project.

“We are not spending money on the need-to-haves. But we are spending tens of millions of dollars on a busway to nowhere from New Britain to Hartford that nobody uses.”

None of the candidates proposed other tax revenue to pay for improvements to trains, roads or airports. They proposed using bond money or partnering with private lenders.

Missed the debate? Watch it now.


As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.
Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.