On Friday night, the League of Women Voters of Greenwich, along with LWV Stamford and LWV New Canaan, hosted a debate among the candidates vying to represent Connecticut’s 36th district in the State Senate.
The special election to replace State Senator Alex Kasser will take place on August 17.
The one-hour event took place at Greenwich Town Hall, with viewers watching at home via Zoom.
Democrat Alexis Gevanter, Republican candidate Ryan Fazio, and petition candidate John Blankley all took turns answering questions submitted in advance by the audience, which were reviewed by a screening committee of one Republican and one Democrat LWV Greenwich board member. Kay Maxwell, Past President of National and Connecticut LWV, moderated the debate.
Five themes ran through Friday evening’s forum: transportation issues, energy infrastructure and climate change, Connecticut’s unfunded pension debt, zoning and affordable housing, and unemployment and the economy.
When asked how they will tackle traffic and noise on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway, all three candidates agreed that addressing congestion is urgent. “This is one of the most important issues I hear frequently from voters,” Fazio said. “From exit 2 to exit 9 during the daytime, it’s almost persistently a parking lot. That’s totally unacceptable. I have lived in the district for almost my entire life and it seems like traffic only gets worse and worse in one direction.”
“We have to address congestion on our roads and improve safety,” Gevanter concurred. “This impacts not only our quality of life, of course in terms of noise, but also our health and our environment.”
But the candidates disagreed on how to approach the challenge of congestion. Fazio suggested noise and traffic studies by the State Dept of Transportation, with a focus on bottlenecks, especially at on ramps and off ramps. “Even marginal improvements to the traffic flow would substantially alleviate a lot of the traffic,” he said. “This is a very important thruway for not just our district but the entire region and the entire country.”
Fazio also underscored the need for investment in rail at the state level. “We need to make sure the state focuses its resources on the most high-value projects in the entire state, which is Metro-North. Metro-North is probably the most important railway in the country, and yet the state government under Democratic leadership for decades has focused its resources upstate on places like the Hartford line and New Britain busway, where each rider is subsidized in excess of $100 on the Hartford line. That’s unacceptable. I think we need to prioritize the highest value projects, which are primarily located in this district.”
Blankley talked about a bolder solution.
“My solution will remove trucks from the roads,” he explained. “It will relieve congestion, reduce pollution, it will create jobs, and finally what it will do is attract new businesses to our state.”
Blankley walked the audience through his infrastructure project proposal, which would focus on shipping.
By developing ports in Bridgeport and New London, as well as in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Blankley suggested diverting trucks from highways and onto “so-called roll-on, roll-off vessels” and transport freight more efficiently. He also recommended the construction of a railroad bridge across the Hudson, similar to the bridge built in 1890 to transport goods from industrial Connecticut to New York and Pennsylvania. Lastly, he proposed the continued promotion of 5G connectivity in anticipation of automatic vehicles.
Gevanter underlined the connections between transportation issues, the economy, and public health. “We have an opportunity here with an influx of money coming into the state, not just through a new law passed in Connecticut, but also our federal infrastructure bill, which is expected to be passed on a bipartisan basis in DC,” she said. “My top priority is to make sure that money comes to our district right away.”
Gevanter emphasized her strong relationships with federal and state delegations, and promised to direct as much funding as possible to roads and rail in the district on day one.
“I want to make sure we have quiet pavement technology and the other latest technology to reduce noise and pollution,” Gevanter said of I-95. “I also want to make sure in terms of our rail to invest in our Stamford transportation center and to bring more frequent direct services to New Canaan. And I will do all of this without raiding our rainy day fund or borrowing our way out of this, because we are finally improving our state’s credit rating and we can’t jeopardize that.”
Power and energy infrastructure
The candidates deviated strongly on the topic of how to handle power outages and energy resources in the state.
Blankley cited his experience studying alternative energy sources in the private sector, and his deep familiarity with solar power. He suggested that the state look at solar, as well as floating wind stations offshore in New London and Groton. He also mentioned his support of Governor Lamont’s efforts to reward and punish utilities for performance through the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA).
Gevanter used her time to emphasize the impact of climate change on the state.
“Climate change is here. It is an existential crisis for our planet, and every Connecticut resident and business is incurring the cost from it because of ongoing inaction in our government. That includes rising healthcare costs, soaring childhood asthma rates, flood damage to our homes, flood insurance going through the roof, unreliable global supply chains, soaring electricity bills. This is an absolute nightmare.”
TCI Transportation Climate Initiative
Gevanter called for bold, innovative solutions and endorsed the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI), a collaboration with neighboring states that would levy fees on oil companies to fund climate change action.
Fazio sparred with Gevanter on this point and said that the TCI was actually a “gas tax” on Connecticut motorists.
“The Transportation Climate Initiative itself, the organization, actually says that the costs on consumers will rise anywhere from 5 to 26 cents from this new initiative,” he argued. “You can call it what you want, but a compulsory fee levied by the government on taxpayers, on regular families, is another tax.”
Gevanter did not agree. “Words have meaning,” she fired back at Fazio. “This is not a gas tax imposed by the state or collected by the state. This is not a gas tax imposed on consumers. I do not support higher taxes, but what I do support are bold solutions in order to keep our costs lower than they are in terms of what we are incurring because of climate change.”
She walked through the math of the changes proposed by TCI.
“When you give a fee to an oil company, they may pass on some of that cost to the consumer. If they do, it’s projected to be about five cents a gallon, which based on the average amount people drive in Connecticut, 656 gallons a year, that equals $32.80 over the course of the entire year. So that is certainly less than our children’s asthma medication, less than repairing flooded basements, so many people went through this just a few weeks ago, so much less than businesses pay in volatility costs. In the end I think that this would reduce cost and help save our planet.”
Blankley chimed in with his support for TCI.
He called climate change an “existential matter” of grave concern to millennials, and said that TCI is one small step in the right direction. “I say let’s take it.”
Fazio drew attention to high energy costs in Connecticut and “skyrocketing” electricity bills many residents received last summer. “The state government in Hartford has permitted Eversource, the electric utility and a very bad actor I think, to expand its monopoly power vertically into power generation.”
“Just a couple of years ago, the Democratic state legislature voted a new power contract that was 50% owned by Eversource into law, the cost of which outside of New London was three times as high as the average electricity generation costs in the state… We need an open and competitive bidding system for all electricity contracts. Currently I think they’re done too much behind closed doors. They should be out in the open for everyone to see.”
On Eversource, Gevanter agreed with Fazio.
“It’s a great thing that the legislature this year did pass a bill to hold Eversource to account,” she noted. “But in the end, the prices are too high and the services are too low, and so I don’t think we’ve gone far enough. I would also want to go further there.”
Unfunded pension debt
Next the candidates were asked about how to handle Connecticut’s unfunded pensions and other post-employment benefits liabilities.
Gevanter and Fazio disagreed strongly on the origins of the problem and how state leadership is currently tackling it.
Gevanter, who identifies as a Lamont Democrat, said that the state has made solid progress.
“The good news is that we are on the right path to recovery,” she said. “Governor Lamont has, along with our legislature, passed a bipartisan no tax increase budget that also goes to pay down our pensions and also contribute to our rainy day fund.” She stressed, “obviously this is a big problem, it’s going to take a long time to fix it, there’s no questioning that, but what we’re doing right now in terms of holding the line on taxes and being responsible in terms of paying down that debt, is how we’re going to get that done.”
Fazio suggested that Democratic leadership is to blame for the current debt crisis. “This is a consequence entirely of the failed leadership of the party in power in Connecticut.” He cited the volatility cap authored by Republicans in 2017 as an example of compromise measures only possible with a balanced State Senate. “If either of my two Democratic opponents win, there’s going to be a two-to-one Democratic super majority in the state senate, so that the type of reforms that occurred in 2017 in the case of the volatility cap will absolutely never occur again.”
As an example of Democratic leadership he disagreed with, Fazio called the 5.5% pay increase that state employees received in June 2020 “shameful and unfair.”
In her rebuttal, Gevanter hit back.
“Ryan, I just don’t think your rhetoric matches reality. What we had this last session is bipartisan (including) so many members of your own party—no tax increase budget that resulted in a surplus that then also went to pay down our pension debt and also invest further in our rainy day fund. That’s something that was done on a bipartisan basis.”
Gevanter also reiterated her commitment to fiscal responsibility.
“I will lower taxes, I will repeal the estate tax, and I will make sure that we do this while continuing to have a no tax increase budget where we pay down our debts. You’re implying, Ryan, that I can’t be trusted to keep my word and that I will somehow capitulate under the pressure of working with my own party up in Hartford. But you know my record! I took on the gun lobby and won. I think I can handle the heat of working with Democrats in Hartford. So as far as doing one thing and saying another, that’s just not me. I’ll be okay.”
In his response to the original question, Blankley referred to his previous experience running for State Treasurer in 2018 (Blankley eventually served on State Treasurer-elect Shawn Wooden’s 10-member transition advisory committee). He suggested that the only way to reduce the debt liabilities was “over time… by increasing economic growth in our state, by investing as I have suggested in ways which can alleviate congestion.” He also recommended investing “significantly more in alternative kinds of investments, private investments,” in the model of David F. Swensen, who ran Yale University’s endowment.
He also contrasted himself with Fazio and Gevanter. “Both candidates have said that they are in favor of lower taxes. I have to say on that particular point… baloney.”
Residential zoning and affordable housing
All three candidates emphasized their support of affordable housing, as well as the importance of local control of zoning decisions.
“We don’t want control of what we do in this district from Hartford,” Blankley stated. “There is one thing that can be done, however, when it comes to affordable housing. We need to comply with something called 8-30g, which requires that 10% of our housing stock should be placed in this affordable category. Currently we’re at 5.4%.”
Blankley suggested that fixing the “arbitrary and completely random way in which existing affordable housing stock is not included in the calculation” would bring the town much closer to the 10%. He also praised the housing trust fund of Stamford, and expressed his support for the Greenwich version currently going through the town BET and RTM.
Gevanter echoed the importance of the issue. “Affordable housing is good for residents and our community…. I can’t be more clear that I also fully support and would advocate for local control, and this is because our towns are best equipped to be innovative, to add affordable housing in a way that preserves our green spaces and our New England feel, and insure that any new construction fits within the scale of our economy. I think there are going to be a lot of things we disagree on as this debate continues, but this is some good news for our district and Connecticut that we’re all on the same page here.”
“We all want affordable housing, I agree with that,” Fazio said. “But the sleight of hand that’s played at the state government with the governing party is that they call something affordable housing, but they have very, very specific and tightly regulated definitions around it, so it actually isn’t reflective of reality.” He suggested that voting for him would send a message to the state government that “enough is enough, that our towns deserve local autonomy.”
Unemployment and the economy
Lastly, the candidates were asked what steps they would propose to expand the Connecticut economy, keep young people in the state, and reduce unemployment.
Again, Blankley pointed to his private sector experience. “If you look at my experience from my big corporate company days, and my experience as an entrepreneurial capitalist, I have skills which my two opponents do not have to grow the economy.”
He referred back to his infrastructure plan as a possible solution. “In the end it is the bold stroke, it is the capital investment in our ports and getting trucks off our roads that will do the trick.”
Gevanter detailed her years of experience as a business attorney. “I spent over 8 years advising companies on how to grow their businesses and expand across the country, navigating a variety of regulatory environments. I know what businesses are looking for when they want to relocate or headquarter in a state.”
She emphasized the state’s resilience in spite of current challenges. “Of course the pandemic has been devastating to our economy and for really our entire country. Here in Connecticut we have managed to weather it better than most because of the leadership of Government Lamont and because of the strength of our rainy day fund.” While unemployment may be high, she pointed to signs of progress. “We have an influx of new families moving to Connecticut, and by the way, choosing Connecticut over nearby Westchester and New Jersey. They’re choosing Connecticut. We’ve had four large companies announce their plans to relocate their HQs right in our district. This is going to bring 500 new jobs. This is just over the past couple months!”
Fazio disagreed with Gevanter’s perspective.
“I have a significant difference with my Democratic opponents,” he said. “They paint a much more rosy picture of the economic landscape in Connecticut than just actually exists.”
He spoke of conversations with business owners in Stamford, Greenwich and New Canaan, who told him that “demand is falling, the cost of doing business is rising, that their taxes are too high, that it’s difficult to find workers, even though our unemployment is tied for the highest in the country.”
Fazio shared a laundry list of changes he would advocate for in the State Senate.
“We need a tax reform plan where we can finance an across the board income tax cut for middle class families in this state. It can be financed in part by reducing tax expenditures, carve outs and deductions in the tax code… We can reform our budget and budgetary process, put our state on a debt diet, divest the state of non productive non core assets, which drain hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Also, he said, “We could reform our unfunded pension and health insurance liabilities, and we can improve regulations in order to reduce the cost of healthcare by focusing on the supply side and generating more healthcare itself, and also improve regulations over electricity to reduce the cost of electricity and the cost of living generally for all families.”
“Once again, I just don’t think that Ryan’s rhetoric matches reality. I think that the voters in our community can feel the turnaround. You can see it. There are bidding wars on our homes, there are companies moving here, there are jobs created here, there is a thriving downtown in all of our cities. So you’re right, I do think that we have a very different view of Connecticut and on where it’s going.”
Blankley hit a more somber note in his follow-up on the economy.
He argued that regardless of the progress that Connecticut has made under Ned Lamont, the state will never rebound to unemployment levels from before the Great Recession due to automation in the financial sector.
“These are issues outside our control, and it’s not just Connecticut,” he said. “It is all the states in the north east and this is something that has been happening for decades.”
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