LWV, GHS “We the People” Debate Prods Candidates on #BLM, Economy, Civility

On Friday afternoon about 550 Greenwich High School students and teachers attended a Zoom “We The People” debate – a collaboration between GHS and the Greenwich League of Women Voters – among candidates for State Senate District 36, State Rep 149th district, 150th district and 151st district.

The school’s We The People teacher is Aaron Hull, who introduced GHS junior moderators Veda Swaminathan, Marina Zelenz, Winn Glaser and Eva Marder. The girls stuck to a tight timeline, starting at precisely 1:54pm.

“Time’s up,” was the refrain every minute or two. There were no exceptions.

Kicking off, Democratic incumbent State Senator Alex Kasser and her challenger Republican Ryan Fazio, were asked by Veda Swaminathan about improving education during the Covid-19 pandemic.

GHS We The People moderator Winn Glaser via Zoom.
GHS We The People moderator Veda Swaminathan via Zoom.
GHS We the People moderator Marina Zelenz via Zoom.
GHS We The People moderator Eva Marder via Zoom.

Kasser said public schools were the foundation for the economy.

“It’s the reason people move to Connecticut,” she said. “And we have to do everything we can to keep them safe and open. That’s what I’ve been working on for months during this pandemic . …I’ve been trying to drive more resources to Greenwich Public Schools because during a pandemic, you actually need more resources, not fewer.”

“We are in a very, very critical stage where we could be going into a second lockdown, which I don’t want to see,” she added. “I want schools to be safe and open, which is why I have been fighting for more resources.”

Fazio, who said the debate was a homecoming for him because 15 years ago he was on Mr. Hull’s We The People team at GHS, responded, “I think keeping schools open safely needs to be a top priority.”

He said over the summer he agreed with the Governor that in-person school needed to be a priority. “Senator Kasser, by contrast wrote a letter to the Governor urging him to keep schools closed for the fall,” he said.

Kasser replied that she’d written many letters to Governor Lamont saying, “Don’t open schools until we have the necessary resources to keep them open, like private schools have. Ryan Fazio voted to cut $3 million from the public school budget, so you can ask him how he justifies that.”

Fazio said he had voted for a budget that “increased funding and resulted in no staff cuts and no programming cuts.”

“Your letter said, ‘We ask that you re-examine your decision. Keep schools closed and put all your efforts into supporting distance learning.’…That’s an argument for closing schools,” Fazio said.

Moderator Marina Zelenz asked Kimberly Fiorello and Kathleen Stowe, candidates for State Rep in the 149th district, about policies for improving the local economy.

“I just love the name of this program – ‘We the People,'” Fiorello said. “We have to lower taxes and lower regulations on our smaller businesses.”

Ms Stowe, who is vice chair of the Board of Education said the urban exodus from NYC to Connecticut created an opportunity.

“People are moving here,” she said. “Houses are turning over and now we have to get them to stay there. One of the reasons they’re going to stay here is because we have great schools.”

“People are working from home, but also businesses are leaving New York,” she added. “We need to be welcoming, and bring them here, and we can thrive again.”

Ms Fiorello said she didn’t believe in the government picking winners and losers, “and thinking there are more special people who need more special rules.”

Stowe said she would work to bring new companies to Greenwich and Connecticut. “For all of you who are maybe going to school in Connecticut, – whether it be UConn or Yale – we want you to stay here afterwards.”

Asked how he planned to bring businesses to the area, given vacant storefronts, Republican incumbent Harry Arora in the 151st district, who won the seat vacated by First Selectman Fred Camillo in a special election nine months ago, said, “We are going to encourage business to come here by making sure sure there is no regulatory burden, no excessive red tape.”

“We need to attract capital by using our tax policies, and we need to attract talent,” he added.

Democratic challenger for the 151st district, Hecor Arzeno, whose three older children went through Greenwich High and whose youngest attends GHS, said given so many new residents, it was time to “cut red tape and make sure new businesses have access to capital.”

Asked how they would improve the lives of Greenwich Public School students, Arzeno said he was on record, through his votes on the RTM, to finance Greenwich Public Schools.

“I voted against the cuts the BET passed last year for the Board of Education,” he said. “I believe our public school system should have access to any and all financing to be a top ranked public school system that we are.”

State Rep Arora said the district had done a good job offering in person classes for K-8 and hybrid at GHS, but, he said, “It didn’t start that way.”

“Our virtual programming was really problematic,” he said. “I was the one who basically organized and was the voice for constituents to make sure our BOE take good steps to take that course.”

“I am the most pro-education candidate here,” Arora said.

Mr. Arzeno disagreed. “Unfortunately, the school administration spent very valuable weeks looking for cuts that were totally unnecessary,” he said.

“There were real cuts available,” Arora said. “Leadership means you have to identify the issue, which is important. And many people missed it.”

“On the contrary, our BOE and administration had all the health specialists, and they were working very hard to open the schools the way we did,” Arzeno said.

Hector Arzeno, Democratic candidate in the 151st District.

Moderator Winn Glaser asked incumbent State Rep in the 150th district Steve Meskers and his challenger Joe Kelly for their opinions on the Greenwich Police force, given the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer and “systematic oppression by authority.”

Kelly said the police need to “evolve.”

“Action needs to be taken to the voices that are not heard,” Kelly said. “I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life listening to the voices that are not getting heard – as a coach. I work on the Board of Education, and listen to the voices that are not heard…We treat everyone very fairly at Greenwich High School, which is not a reflection of the rest of the country.”

Mr. Meskers said, the issues of racial justice and equality were “heartbreaking.”

“The issue that Black Lives Matter – we have to adjust our society to be reflective of inclusive space,” Meskers said. “I also respect our police force and understand they are working to protect us. But across the nation and the state, there are issues with performance that we have to review. We need to get to a better place. We need to move the arc of justice and improve our society.”

Mr. Kelly said “taking action” was more important than talking about a subject.

Mr. Meskers said students might think about where they sit in the GHS student center if they wanted an inclusive environment and a better society.

“Even in the cafeteria at GHS, ask yourself where you sit, who you sit with, why you sit there,” Meskers suggested. “We all have to grow and expand who are friends are.”

Joe Kelly, candidate for State Rep in the 150th district.

Moderator Marina Zelenz asked the candidates for the 149th district where they stood on the possibility of adding tolls to Connecticut’s highways.

Ms Stowe said she’d served on corporate boards, worked as an investment banker and in private equity, and would take the same approach to tolls that she did in her work.

‘Tolls are something we should consider,” she added. “It might be a solution. Whether it be on certain highways, or on out-of-state traffic. …I’d rather focus on how we grow the entire economy.”

Fiorello said tolls were a really bad idea.

“Tolls are basically taking money out of the people’s pockets,” she said. “Our economy in the state is going very poorly. …This is exactly the wrong time to think about tolls. You’re basically saying you’re going to have to pay money to go to work.”

Ms Stowe disagreed. “I don’t think it’s ever the reason that people will not move here,” she said of tolls.

“No matter which way you slice it, putting tolls back on our roads is taking money out of the pockets of hard working people,” Fiorello said.

Republican State Rep Harry Arora in the 151st district.

Moderator Veda Swaminathan asked State Senate candidates how they would attract skilled people to Connecticut.

“If we don’t fix the underlying structural problems, we will never create long term prosperity for the middle class and the working poor in our state,” Fazio said.

“We need to reduce taxes for everyone, eliminate it for the working poor, and cut it for middle income people and simplify the tax code,” he added. “We need to reduce regulatory barriers, reduce the state’s debt and restructure its unfunded pensions and health insurance obligations in order to make us solvent as a state.”

Senator Kasser noted that Connecticut had an inflow of new, permanent residents.

“It didn’t just happen because of luck, or because of Covid,” Kasser said. “It happened because of leadership.”

“But it’s not just taxes,” she added. “We have lower taxes already than New York or New Jersey.”

“People are moving here because of the quality of life, because of the modern values, because of the rights, and the protections and services we have instituted and codified in state law – all of which can be reversed.”

State Senator Alex Kasser

Kasser said she passed the first law in Connecticut to address student loan debt.

Fazio disagreed.

“There were no jobs created in the state in the last 20 years before this year’s recession started,” he said. “The writing is on the wall. Everyone knows it. Covid was a good fortune event that brought more people to our state.”

Kasser gave a rebuttal. “What’s bad for our state is this negative narrative we hear from Republicans – how bad the state is and all Democrats’ fault. Well you know what, you had a Republican in this seat for 10 years before I got here.”

Democratic State Senator Alex Kasser in the 36th district.

Asked about the electricity generation in Connecticut Kasser said the situation with Everource was “out of control.”

“That happened before we got to the legislature,” she said, But, she added, “We passed the ‘Take Back Our Grid Act,’ one step toward having more regulatory oversight over Eversource.”

“We have to adapt and advance wind and solar energy because climate change is real,” she added. “We can’t just put our heads in the sand or do what Ryan Fazio suggests which is more nuclear power plants. That is really bad for the environment and human health.”

Fazio said Connecticut had the highest electricity rates in the lower 48 states mostly due to mandates and regulations placed on the consumer by the state government. He said electricity prices were a regressive tax.

“The reason that France, for instance, has such low carbon emissions and such low electricity is because it has an ‘all of the above’ renewable strategy, which includes nuclear.”

Republican candidate for State Senate Ryan Fazio

Kasser said she had passed a bill in the Senate that would allow more solar energy projects in Connecticut, and supported a law on wind energy.

Fazio said the wind bill, included electricity prices that were higher than the regional price. He said it amounted to a regressive tax on the working poor in the state.

Republican challenger for Sate Senate in the 36th district, Ryan Fazio.

Asked about the policies of outgoing State Rep Livvy Floren, a Republican, Fiorello said she would continue Floren’s advocacy for fiscal responsibility.

“That is a vital role that representatives from Greenwich have played in Hartford,” Fiorello said. “She’s also been a vital voice for democracy, which will be critical when we face threats including regionalization of schools and local zoning control.”

Ms Stowe said she hoped to carry on Floren’s legacy of being a moderate.

“She always found the middle,” Stowe said, adding that Floren had at one point served as GHS PTA president, and was always very supportive of public schools.

Stowe said Floren crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats on the nomination of Andrew McDonald for Chief Justice of CT Supreme Court.

Stowe, who is endorsed by Moms Demand Action for Gun Safety and Planned Parenthood, noted that State Rep Floren was supportive of both gun safety and Planned Parenthood.

Fiorello said that like Floren she cared for the environment.

“I got a patent and invented a plastic bag to reduce reliance on one-time use plastic bags,” she said. “That’s the kind of innovation I would bring to Hartford.”

Incumbent Democratic State Rep in the 150th district, Steve Meskers.

Meskers and Kelly were asked about civility.

“I’ve crossed not only lines politically, but cultural lines,” Meskers said. “I’m fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.”

Meskers noted he and his opponent maintained a civil dialogue.

“The differences in personality should not be the question,” he said. “Absolutism does not work.”

Mr. Kelly said society and politics remove the ability for people to discuss topics they agree on.

“So often we jump into what we disagree on, and nothing gets solved,” he said. “I’ve been a championship coach, getting kids to work together on a common goal.”

Democratic State Representative candidate for the 149th district, Kathleen Stowe.
Republican State Rep candidate for the 149th district, Kimberly Fiorello

The State Senate candidates were asked what policies they’d support for CT to transition to a net zero carbon economy.

Fazio said he’d spend his career to date in renewable energy.

‘I want an all-the-above energy strategy…I want regulatory fairness for all types of clean energy. I want an open competitive bid process for power generation in the state. I want to eliminate Eversource’s monopoly power in the state. …We can meet the competing interests of both the environment and the economy that won’t break the back of the middle class and working poor.”

Ms Kasser said she’d spent most of her career as an attorney at a large New York law firm, but had pivoted to non-profits to use her advocacy skills for better environmental policies for the future.

“So that we have a sustainable future. So that you have a planet and clean air and water that you inherit,” she said. “There is so much that we should be doing.”

“A couple of things that Ryan Fazio just mentioned, we are already doing,” Kasser said. “We’re already limiting Eversources’ power. We’re already using an open competitive bid processes for our new contracts.”

“We can expand our environmental infrastructure, not nuclear, which is not the right answer,” she said.

See also:

Kasser–Fazio Debate Highlights: Infrastructure, Gun Safety, Early Voting

Oct 10, 2020

Greenwich State Rep Candidates Face Off: Economy, Infrastructure, #BLM, Abortion

Oct 11, 2020