On Tuesday night a debate among candidates in the Aug 17 special election for State Senate 36th district was hosted by My Voting Power Greenwich, a new organization founded by former BET member and former DTC chair Tony Turner.
The special election was scheduled after State Senator Alex Kasser resigned in June for personal reasons.
Turner welcomed guests to the Cone Room at Town Hall, which seats 60. Most, but not all of the audience complied with Turner’s request to mask.
Beyond the live group, others watched via Zoom, Facebook live or cable Ch 79.
The three-way debate was sponsored by Greenwich Sentinel, WGCH 1490 AM, and Moore Associates (founded by moderator Susie Moore).
Debate featured Democratic endorsed candidate Alexis Gevanter, petition candidate John Blankley and Repulican candidate Ryan Fazio.
Turner said My Voting Power was designed to help millennial voters become better informed about the political process. He noted turnout among Greenwich millennials was 55% lower than those age 36 years+.
Though the program was intended for millennials, and 10,000 postcards were mailed to that demographic, the assembled crowd was mostly familiar Republicans, clearly not millennials. There were loud rounds of applause for Mr. Fazio and some heckling of the other two candidates.
The format was unique. Questions were submitted both via Zoom and on paper from the live Cone Room audience and relayed through the three millennial panelists, Lexi Boccuzzi, Peter Negrea and Susie Moore. There was also a chance for candidates to question one another.
Both Fazio and Blankley had previously run for State Senate 36th district. In 2016 Blankley challenged then incumbent, Republican Scott Frantz for the job.
Fazio challenged Frantz’s Democratic successor Alex Kasser last November.
Alexis Gevanter was the newcomer to campaigning, and has been endorsed by US Senator Chris Murphy, Congressman Jim Himes, US Senator Richard Blumenthal and Governor Ned Lamont.
Blankley said he had spoken to millennials and said their concerns were about the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, though there were no questions about either.
Nor were there questions about voting, family leave or the opioid epidemic.
There were, however, questions about the new police accountability law, job creation, taxes, TCI and tolls.
Fazio emphasized that he was from Greenwich and attended Greenwich Schools. He graduated GHS in 2008.
“I worked most of my career in renewable energy in Stamford,” he said, adding that he had volunteered in inner city schools, and serves on both the First Selectman’s committee on Energy Efficiency and the RTM.
While he said he loved Greenwich, he painted a somewhat grim economic picture for the state.
“I also see our state has been hurting for many years. We have sky high unemployment and cost of living, rising crime, a hurting environment, divisive politics and an effort to take over more and more of our local prerogatives over zoning and schools.”
Gevanter, who said she would focus public health & safety, prosperity and progress, said she was excited to hear what was on the minds of millennials.
“I am a business attorney, a gun violence prevention advocate, and a mom of two young boys,” she said. “I spend my life advocating for others by listening, bringing people together and finding common ground, and I will bring the same approach to the State Senate.”
She was more optimistic, noting the exodus of businesses and residents from New York to Greenwich, and the bidding wars that ensued.
Zoning, Affordable Housing, Local Control
The first question was about possible statewide laws that might override local control.
Blankley, whose daughter Katie DeLuca is Greenwich’s Town Planner, said he favored local control and pointed to the affordable housing trust fund being proposed by Greenwich P&Z as a good idea.
“This community does not want laws and rules imposed from Hartford,” Blankley said. “It is important we recognize some of the needs they’re talking about, such as the need for affordable housing, but there are ways to accomplish it without having a mandate from the state.”
Fazio said he too stood against state control over local zoning.
“Just the other day the mayor of Hartford, who has been one of the most vocal advocates for state takeover of local planning and zoning rights, was down here to campaign for my opponent, Alexis,” he said, referring to Mayor Luke Bronin.
“It does frighten me that if one of my two Democratic opponents were to win this race while local control over planning and zoning is on the ballot, that the Democratic leadership in Hartford will be emboldened to push even further against local rights over local planning and zoning, schools and other issues.”
Ms Gevanter said affordable housing was key for teachers, firefighters, police, and nurses to live in town, as well as for young people to return after college, and seniors to retire and afford to stay.
However, she said, “I cannot be more clear that I fully support and would advocate for local control and would oppose anything to the contrary.”
– Alexis Gevanter
“I’m glad you brought up Mayor Bronin,” she continued. He, as Mayor of Hartford, has been fighting a gun violence epidemic.”
Gevanter said that as the state chapter lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, she was glad that Mayor Bronin had acknowledged the work of her organization and endorsed her.
“Of course we don’t agree on every issue,” she continued. “This is what is unique about my candidacy. I am somebody who works with everyone. I listen. I find common ground. I build coalitions to create positive change. My God, I don’t know how you would get anything done in Hartford if we can’t work together on gun safety because we disagree on zoning.”
Police Accountability Law
Fazio who was endorsed by the Greenwich Police union last November when he challenged Senator Alex Kasser, announced durig the debate that, again, he had received that endorsement.
He posited the police accountability law had led to an increase in violence.
“I was vocally against the police reform bill swept into law in the middle of the night in 2020, and I warned, as did other candidates, that this would lead to a massive precipitation of more crime and violence, specifically in the most vulnerable neighborhoods in our state. What subsequently occurred was exactly that. In 2020 there was over a 30% increase in homicides in CT’s biggest cities and a 40% increase in car thefts. Local police have been undermined and demoralized…We need to support (police) by repealing this awful bill as soon as possible.”
Gevanter said that in her work for Moms Demand Action she had worked extensively with police. She praised Greenwich Police and praised their recent training in de-escalation tactics.
“I have been a full and vocal supporter of fully funding our police. As chapter lead of Moms Demand Action, a gun violence prevention group, I have fought to make sure we are keeping our communities, schools and families safe. I have done that by working with police.”
She pointed to the Connecticut law passed in June 2019 on safe storage of guns in motor vehicles.
“With a rise of car thefts, thank God we have guns secured in cars so those guns can’t be used in further escalating crime.”
“I also worked with the police on gun safety education,” she added. “I would work with them every day as I have in the gun violence prevention movement.”
Blankley described policing as one of the most difficult jobs. “As a member of the BET, of which I served two terms, I supported every police budget that came along, against, on one occasion, some Republicans who did not want to fund certain things our police chief wanted to do.”
He said there was a way to modify the police accountability bill without calling for total repeal.
The three candidates differentiated themselves on a question about public schools.
Gevanter noted CT was just ranked as having the second best schools in the country, and that schools are critically important to attracting young families to the state.
She said more can be done.
“We need to invest in our infrastructure, make sure our buildings are safe and improve their air quality,” she said. “We need to be supporting our teachers and students as we continue to navigate the pandemic.”
Mr. Fazio said for the money and resources invested in CT’s schools, they should be the best in the country. He said there should be a reduction in state mandates over local school districts.
He talked about school choice and said the State Board of Education had undermined the Stamford Charter School for Excellence.
Mr. Blankley said when his family moved to the Greenwich from England, one of the reasons was the town’s public and private schools.
He brought up the recent ceiling collapse at North Mianus School, referring to the incident as an “indictment of some of the infrastructure issues with local schools.”
Blankley said that while on the BET he was always supportive of school budgets.
“I walked the talk and often supported more spending for public schools that was often allowed by the BET.”
Noting his support of the GHS MISA (music instructional space and auditorium) project, Blankley said, “Two people were credited by the chair of the Board of Education when the auditorium was opened. One of them was the First Selectmen at the time, and the other was me, for certain political force I applied at the time to get the appropriation done.”
Marijuana Legalization and Retail Sales
Last month the Greenwich P&Z commission decided, for now, not add an amendment to prohibit retail Marijuana sales.
Blankley said he’d been in favor of the legalization of recreational marijuana. “Not because I’m not aware of potential physical harm caused by the use, but because it is already out there. People use it already. From the state’s point of view, if we can regulate the quality of it, the distribution of it and take taxes on it, that it seemed to me that on balance that was the way to go.”
“I personally would not oppose there being an outlet for this in our town,” he added.
He said there was a little discussed aspect of the recent marijuana bill, which was the severe restriction on cigarette smoking. He said at one time he was a cigarette smoke.
And, he said, “One time I did smoke cannabis as a student,” Blankley said,
“Did you inhale, Mr. Blankley,” Mr. Turner asked.
“I certainly did,” he said. “It didn’t do anything for me.”
Blankley said there are 57 officers trained in CT to recognize when a driver is impaired from smoking marijuana, and more were being trained.
Fazio said there were circumstances in which he’d “favor a legalization regime in CT,” but that the bill that passed the state legislature in the last year was “full of pork, carve outs, and the regulatory regime is probably not tight enough to keep marijuana out of the system of motorists.”
Gevanter said she had concerns about the legalization of marijuana, and that children’s brains continue to develop until they are 25 years old.
“It’s fair to say if it’s regulated we’re getting a safer product. There is a lot of concern about kids getting marijuana that is laced with Fentanyl, and taxes are being lost to other states and people are buying it anyway.”
“I’m also very concerned about driving under the influence and the police have said they’ll have a hard time to detect whether someone is under the influence and it makes it harder to prosecute them.”
Blankley touted his business background and the IT company he runs out of Shelton, which he said was hiring.
He said job creation was important but that technical colleges in the state not producing enough engineers and young qualified technical people for the jobs available, particularly for Electric Boat in Groton.
Fazio said CT’s unemployment rate was tied for the highest in the country and the rate of economic growth was fourth lowest in the past decade. He blamed the Democrats.
“They’ve used their power to raise your taxes over and over again,” he said. “Connecticut now has the second highest tax rate in the country.”
“Ryan’s assessment is outdated,” Gevanter said, adding that CT is on the right path.
She said in July CNBC moved up CT as one of the best places to do business from 35 to 24.
“In just the past few months we have brought in four large companies, right into our district, with over 500 jobs. We’re seeing office space through the roof in terms of the real estate boom, with companies wanting to come into Connecticut.”
Fazio disagreed about CT being on the right path and it being fertile ground for business creation.
“That’s impossible to square with the fact that we are tied for the highest unemployment rate in the country, and that we have the fourth lowest population growth according to the US Census, and we have the fourth lowest rate of economic growth according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. ” he said. “These are the facts. If you think it’s good enough, then you have a low standard for people in this district and this state.”
“We can do better. The only thing we’re missing is the right leadership in Hartford. We need to send a message that it’s time to change to our policies in Hartford.”
Gevanter was allowed a rebuttal.
“We are dealing with 40 years of mismanagement here in CT,” Gevanter replied. “That is why we’ve had underfunded pensions. That is why we have had more taxes.
“However, to ignore the effect that CT is in the middle of a huge turnaround is ridiculous,” added Gevanter who has called herself a Lamont Democrat.
“People in the 36th district can see, even in the midst of a pandemic, that we are having a flood of families moving here, bidding wars on our homes and businesses escaping NY to come to CT. We had a no tax increase, balanced budget that passed with bi-partisan support.”
“We don’t need to send a message,” she said. “We need to work together to continue to keep our taxes low, and even lower them, to pay down debt and invest in critical things like education.”
Blankley said there was a change in trends in the state’s employment.
“One of the trends we’ve seen over the past dozen years is the trend away from employment in banking. We will never get back to the employment levels we had in the capital industry we had before 2008. It is not because of tax policy. It is because of trends generally in the marketplace.”
“Let us face the fact that there is no possibility of reducing taxes in our state,” Blankley added. “The best we can do is to hold the line on taxes…If I hear anything about $4-6 billion you said once, Ryan, in tax carve outs, they do not exist. As for over regulation, It’s an old Republican saw. In my business there has been no regulation that had held me back.”
Fazio asked why Connecticut can’t lower taxes.
“When I talk to small businesses in Greenwich, they are telling me is it’s impossible to hire people, even though we have the highest unemployment rate in the country. The cost of doing business is getting higher.”
“I just do not believe the marketing or the spin that’s coming out of Hartford that we’re hearing tonight about CT on the right path economically,” Fazio said.
Climate Change, Sustainability
“The governor has looked into TCI, the Transportation Climate Initiative. I think it’s really interesting to work together with other states to combat climate change. That’s something that may or may not increase the gas price by 5 cents. Right now there is no legislation, so that’s something you can get in early to craft to be fair from a pricing perspective.”
Gevanter described climate change as an existential crisis and said it would be irresponsible not to look at all options, including working with other states.
“It’s a once in-a-generation issue and we need to be open minded and creative to find solutions.”
She said investment in rail should be promoted to keep roads safe and limit congestion.
Fazio called TCI “a new gas tax.”
“I don’t think a 5¢ increase on anything in the state is tolerable,” he continued going on to describe a 5¢ increase on tax as regressive.
He said the way to solve climate change is through rapid technological improvements, and that the town was changing light bulbs to LED to lower the cost of electricity. He would like to see electric vehicles sold directly from manufacturers to consumers.
Blankley said 40 years ago he started a solar company that became the largest in Europe.
“I walk the talk. I’ve been there, done that and have succeeded,” he said.
He would champion port development in Bridgeport, New London, Rhode Island and Massachusetts to take freight off the roads.
“Taking all those trucks that come through our state bringing goods New Jersey up – I’d have them taken by sea,” he explained.
Blankley said he disagreed with Fazio over TCI.
Noting climate change is important to millennials,” he said, “We have the opportunity through TCI to act cooperatively with other states. I agree with Ms Gevanter, and 5¢ is nothing. Gas prices have fluctuates by a dollar over the past year. We will never see the 5¢, but we will see the reduction in carbon, and improve our climate.”
Tolls, I-95 Upgrades, infrastructure
Blankley said he had spoken against tolls two years ago, and that them as a regressive tax, unlike TCI.
“Tolling is something that would be an imposition on the middle class in our state,” he said.
And, while he said he’d consider tolls on trucks, he would prefer to take the trucks off the road and ship freight by sea.
“In this state we do not have a revenue problem with our transportation fund,” Fazio said. “We have a spending problem. According to the National Association of State Budget Offices we spend the most of any state in the continental US. The problem is we spend it inefficiently.”
Gevanter said she opposed tolls and said businesses are attracted to stable business environments. “We need to invest in infrastructure. I will be a vocal advocate to make sure to bring as many dollars down here to our district to to invest in rail and in our roads.”
She talked about the upcoming multi-year I-95 upgrade project between exit 2 and 6, and importance of using quiet pavement technology, and making bridges both safe and less noisy.
She noted that I-95 noise impacts quality of life.
Critical Race Theory (CRT)
As for teaching CRT in public schools, Ms Gevanter said she opposed it. “We need age appropriate and apolitical education. That said, I have not heard of any critical race theory being introduced in our schools.”
“It seems to be a distraction,” she added.
Fazio described CRT is “a neo-Marxist piece of propaganda.”
He said there should be a civics requirement in public schools. “It’s a lot easier to hate our country when you don’t know the truth about our country.”
Blankley said he had studied history at Oxford. “History gets written and it’s changed in every generation. History isn’t actual, it’s an ongoing stream of thought.”
“CRT is not taught in our schools. It’s a graduate level course. The whole point of it was to bring to light aspects of the country that had not been known before. Look at Tulsa, Oklahona in 1921,” he said, referring to the Tulsa Race Riot, in which when mobs of white residents, some deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and set fire to homes and businesses.
“Oh, come on!” someone in the audience shouted.
“Who knew about (Tulsa)? It’s very important. That’s a factual matter that should be taught as part of history,” Blankley said.
Abortion Rights and LGBTQ Rights
Gevanter was able to pose a question to Mr. Fazio.
“Ryan, you have written that you found Roe Vs Wade and same sex marriage offensive to the rule of law. I was wondering if you still feel that way?”
Fazio said the quote had been taken out of context from a 2000 word article he had written on Federalist No. 74, by Alexander Hamilton on judicial independence in 1788.
“I didn’t mean to touch on the underlying public policy issue, for instance. I’ve spoken out in favor of equal rights under the law and gay marriage, and so on and so forth.”
“Abortion and gay marriage are protected in law at the federal and state level, and neither of those things are going to change under any circumstances,” Fazio said, adding that social issues were not up for debate in the State government.
“They’re already codified into law,” he said.
“I would take issue with the fact that while those should be settled law, they’re being impacted at the state level across the country. State legislators across the country have been passing laws to try to limit a woman’s right to choose. We have to be vigilant to protect that and LGBTQ rights in Connecticut.”
“I understand that point of view, but in CT it is iron clad,” Fazio said. “These policy matters are not changing.”
The next debate among candidates for the State Senate 36th district before the Aug 17 special election is Friday, Aug 6 at 7:00pm. Click to register.
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