In a candidate forum at Greenwich Water Club hosted by the Greenwich Association of Realtors, candidates for State Rep and State Senate were provided the questions in advance.
Topics included real estate, land use and the Connecticut economy.
The forum was the last before the election, and also the only look at first time candidates Ed Lopez and Peter Sherr, since they were not part of Tuesday’s RHA back country forum. In September Republicans announced they had declined to participate in the traditional League of Women Voters debates.
As Republicans on Friday portrayed Connecticut as suffering from a wilting economy, increased homicide rates and car thefts, high taxes, and an exodus of residents and businesses from the state, Democrats spoke about the influx of thousands of residents during the pandemic, upgrades to the state’s bond rating, an overall decrease in crime, and influx of new businesses to the state.
State Rep Steve Meskers (D-150) noted that over the past 12 months, Connecticut’s real GDP growth of 1.2% ranked 24th of 50 states. He said quarterly data is highly volatile and often subject to revisions. For example, he said Connecticut’s first quarter GDP in 2022 had just been revised upward from -1.4% to +5.5%, putting the state 2nd out of 50 for the quarter.
Some of the most interesting comments came during closing remarks.
Hector Azeno, Democratic candidate for State Rep in the 151st district – a Greenwich High School tour guide, RTM member and member of the board of CCI (now “Barbara’s House”) – talked about his values, including respect and tolerance.
“I am guided by the principle that service is best demonstrated by action and involvement. And here is where the record of my opponent and I are quite different,” he said, referring to Republican, Peter Sherr.
Arzeno noted that his opponent was the first member of the Board of Education’s history to be sanctioned for using profanity in a public meeting.
“His peers, including a number of well known Republicans, had as a matter of public record in the press, described year over year someone who is late and unprepared for meetings, who is obstructive and disrespectful,” Arzeno said.
Mr. Arzeno went on to quote JFK, who said, “Civility is not a sign of weakness.”
In response, Mr. Sherr laughed and he said, “I was wondering when the personal attack would come. The politics of personal destruction are alive and well in some parts of our town government.”
He said he was proud of his 12 years as a volunteer on the BOE, and that during his first 8 years on the board there were unanimous 8-0 votes that reflected compromise and building consensus.
“The last four years on the BOE were absolutely miserable because the board was taken over by some people who wanted chaos and confrontation,” Sherr said.
“It was not fun, but I always stood by my principles. My principle was always to stand with parents and kids. Don’t worry about the other constituencies like teachers who are represented by a teacher union,” Sherr continued. “So you wind up with the kind of personal attacks like Mr. Arzeno’s.”
Mr. Meskers said under the leadership of an “incredibly talented governor,” he had brought back money to Greenwich for a number of meaningful projects.
Recently Meskers secured from the state Bonding Commission $500,000 to renovate and modernize Round Hill Volunteer Fire Company, even though it is not in his district.
“I don’t know why it’s not sunny in Seattle,” he said. “I find the picturing of our state to be completely erroneous.”
“There are gigantic challenges we’re facing as a society. None of these challenges are resolved by banning books or screaming freedom and liberty in our streets – or defunding our schools.”
“We need adults at the table to do the work,” Meskers added.
Republican Ed Lopez, who is challenging State Rep Meskers, explained that after having lived in many places during his military career, he and his wife selected Greenwich deliberately. He said they are renters in Chickahominy and anticipate purchasing a home in town.
Lopez said he’d been a president of a regional Habitat for Humanity chapter and understood the value of home ownership.
“I am unapologetically a Libertarian Republican. I tend to be more focused on economic issues than social ones.” Lopez said he had advocated for LGBTQ rights on a national level.
Republican State Rep Fiorello in the 149th district talked about Connecticut’s “blunt and bloated government,” when what is needed was “creativity and innovation by free people in free markets.”
Fiorello’s opponent, Democrat Rachel Khanna shared Meskers’ optimism.
“Listening to our opponents would understandably leave you thinking that Connecticut is a terrible place to live, that people are leaving in droves, that businesses shun us, that we should be ashamed,” she said.
“Our public education ranks second best in the country, and we have the best community college system,” Khanna said. “Our healthcare system is ranked third best in the US. During Covid, CT had the second highest in-migration in the nation, and those people are here to stay.”
“What my opponent won’t tell you, because she voted against it, is that this year, to help residents struggling with inflation, our state provided the largest tax cut in its history: over $600 million to help seniors, parents, businesses, families and students, easing the effects of global inflation on everyone.”
“And over the last four years we’ve made unprecedented payments on our unfunded pension liability. This an other fiscally prudent measures have earned CT upgrades to AA and A+ ratings.”
“She also doesn’t say that new business registration is at a peak not seen since 2006, and finally that we have the strongest gun safety and reproductive freedom laws in the nation.”
Ms Khanna said Ms Fiorello had voted against many policies and fiscally prudent and budget balancing measures.
On her part, Ms Fiorello said the historic tax cut was actually a rebate.
“What it is is a very big redistribution plan,” she said. “Tax cuts are broad based tax cuts that last a long time. This is a one-time tax rebate during an election year.”
Also, Fiorello noted the suspension of the state’s 25¢-per-gallon excise tax on gasoline was set to expire on Dec 1.
Democratic candidate for State Senate in the 36th district Trevor Crow also sounded an optimistic note. “We’re not going down the tubes,” she said.
“We do have 113,000 jobs that are open,” she said. “We don’t have a place to house these people. We need one- two- and three-bedroom units.”
“I will be there to fight hard for money to come back (to Greenwich from Hartford),” she promised.
State Senator Ryan Fazio said he felt great urgency to run for another term. Fazio won his seat in a special election against Alexis Gevanter after incumbent Democrat Alex Kasser, whom he had previously lost to, resigned for personal reasons.
“Our state faces immense challenges and we need positive leadership to create a brighter future,” he said, adding he’d like to simplify the state tax code and streamline regulations.
Fazio brought up the topic of abortion.
“We should keep abortion legal in Connecticut and expand access to contraception,” he said.
Fazio added that he wanted to see reform to the police accountability bill. He talked about a 35% rise in homicides and doubling of car thefts.
“But we cannot have this government by bumper sticker, where you take a complex 40-section bill and summarize it in three words and then castigate your opponent for voting one way or another,” he said, in response to his opponent having brought up bills he voted against.
Zoning and Local Control
Whereas Tuesday’s Round Hill Association did not include a question about the controversial affordable state statute 8-30g, which made sense since back country is not convenient to public transportation or walkable to shopping and amenities, Friday’s forum was dofferent.
In fact, the topic of affordable housing and the 8-30g statute was the first question.
Ms Khanna said the need for affordable housing was the one topic she and her opponent, Ms Fiorello agreed on.
“Additional housing in Connecticut is an economic and moral imperative. People deserve a place to live and call home,” she said, adding that without housing for the workforce, the economy cannot grow.
She added that 8-30g’s one-size-fits-all approach had not produced the desired results.
State Rep Republican Kimberly Fiorello, running for re-election in the 149th district, said zoning legislation proposed in Hartford by Democrats was an issue she would continue to fight.
“Hartford thinks that zoning is the reason we have a lack of diversity in housing in our state, not the lost years of economic growth,” she said. “I believe we need economic growth in order to have construction and housing growth.”
“Defending local zoning is defending democracy and defending home ownership,” Fiorello added. “P&Z with citizen volunteers is the democratic way. Home ownership is the path to generational wealth. Zoning is part of protecting that asset.”
Fiorello referred to the “dirty dozen” zoning bills proposed in Hartford in 2021, warning that bills with innocuous sounding names like ‘Transit Oriented Development’ would harm communities.
State Rep Meskers said Greenwich lacked both affordable and workforce housing, but that he did not support state imposed solutions either.
Meskers said unfortunately, while Greenwich Communities, the town’s housing authority, pays the town about $500,000 in fees and taxes, Greenwich does not contribute at all to the affordable housing effort.
“I believe solutions should be local in nature,” he continued, adding that a rent-to-own program supported by the town and the state might help to create generational wealth. He said that would, in turn, help alleviate the cycle of poverty.
Meskers described the housing authority’s law suit against the Greenwich P&Z as “not a good look” and “certainly not the appropriate message to send to Hartford.”
Mr. Sherr talked about market-based solutions versus government-driven solutions.
“The strength of Greenwich is really its neighborhoods,” he said. “The problem with 8-30 is it has the potential to destroy the character of the neighborhoods.”
Mr. Sherr said conveyance taxes were too high, particularly the state conveyance tax, and suggested that rather than putting the state conveyance tax into the general fund, it be returned to the municipalities to support housing trusts so that there is capital available in local markets and developers can build affordable housing.
Democratic candidate for State Rep in the 151st district Hector Arzeno said solutions would come from collaboration, which he was keen to be part of.
Arzeno said local zoning authorities should partner with builders and “say yes to affordable housing and no to over-development.”
He talked about collaborating with the housing authority, who have “good projects in their pipeline.”
Arzeno said it was urgent that the town work to achieve a moratorium under 8-30g, and that in the decades since 8-30g was passed, its conditions including deed restrictions needed to be revisited.
Trevor Crow, the Democratic candidate for State Senate in the 36th district also agreed 8-30g had not worked.
She noted that 8-30j was the instrument that requires all towns to submit a plan for solving affordable housing challenge.
“We have Greenwich Communities. We have the Housing Trust Fund. I believe we can work on public-private partnerships to start to solve this problem. There’s plenty of ways to do this. We all know we’re headed for a housing crisis in this state.”
She said ITT was moving from NY to Stamford and ASML was bringing 2,000 jobs to Connecticut..
“We have to find a way to house these people who are going to be the drivers of our economic growth,” Crow said.
State Senator Fazio (R-36) also railed against 8-30g.
He said he knew a family from NYC who purchased a single family home in New Canaan, which is part of his district, and soon learned a 105-unit 8-30g development was pending on their street.
He added that Connecticut had seen a rise of poverty despite 8-30g, which purported to compromise local control in favor of upward mobility, “totally destroying the savings and investment they put into that multi-million dollar home and jeopardizing the character of that neighborhood.”
Senator Fazio said a bill he had introduced counted all forms of affordable housing including all public housing and naturally-occurring, and simplified the moratorium process.
Ms Crow said based on her “door knocking,” young families reported choosing Connecticut in part because relative to NJ and NY, CT’s taxes were lower.
“We have great schools and we have a safe environment here,” Crow said. “It hurts me when I hear all this negativity because it is materially not true. We have gun laws that are much tougher than other places.”
Also, Ms Crow said Connecticut was a safe haven state. “That means that your reproductive rights are safe here.”
Ed Lopez said, “People are being driven out of the state. In my opinion, when we send more members of the Democratic party to Hartford, we embolden them to continue taxing us and increasing the cost of living.”
Lopez said Florida Senator Rick Scott had previously lived in Greenwich himself. He said a statewide property tax would unfairly target Greenwich, and a mill rate increases would negatively impact the elderly. Ultimately he said property values would decline as a result.
Meskers said, “I will not support any increases in real estate or property taxes on the wealthy. It’s punitive and counterproductive.”
He said he advocated for an income tax exemption for retirees. “We are raising the limit on accountable income exempt – $75,000 for individuals and $125,000 for married or joint filers for retirees.”
“We’re working step-by-step to make the state more affordable.”
Mr. Arzeno talked about “making the pie bigger,” and urged eliminating both the gift tax and estate tax, which disproportionately impacted Greenwich residents.
“I don’t believe we need new taxes,” he said. “We want to be creating more opportunities for growth and we can do that by building partnerships around land and land conservation, education and training, supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses, mentorships and fiscal literacy, without penalizing our more successful residents.”
Peter Sherr said Connecticut was increasingly unaffordable for young families and seniors.
“Our economy under one party rule has stagnated. In this last quarter, Connecticut had the slowest, second to worst economic growth in the nation. We were at the bottom of personal income growth.”
He said CT was increasingly uncompetitive, and that Massachusetts by contrast had a flat income tax of 5% compared to Connecticut’s rate of 6.99%.
“It used to be that Connecticut was a competitive place for businesses and families to come to,” Sherr said. “It’s no longer that place.”
Sherr said that if he were sent to Harftord he would work to cut personal income tax, eliminate the car tax, and change the regulatory environment.
Ms Crow said while she wanted to see tax relief, the state was doing well attracting new businesses. She noted that Republican candidate for Governor, Bob Stefanowski, had said if elected he would keep David Lehman on as Commissioner of the Connecticut Dept of Economic and Community Development (DECD).
“We are in much better shape than the last person mentioned,” she said, referring to Mr. Sherr.
“Those quarterly numbers are incredibly volatile. In fact, the first quarter number was revised from down 1.5% to up 5.5%. You cannot rely on that 2nd quarter number.”
“We are on the right path,” Crow continued. “We do not want to be spending down our rainy day fund.”
Meskers said that as a bastion of strong gun safety laws and one solidly behind the effort to protect a woman’s right to reproductive healthcare, Connecticut was attractive to young people and families. He added that he was a strong backer of the assault weapons ban.
“Some members of our delegation are in league with the Conservative Caucus, which is currently suing the state to reverse the ban,” Meskers said. “I find that unacceptable and borderline crazy.”
Meskers said despite a perceived increase in crime, most data suggests that crime in Connecticut was down.
“We need to rebuild our local police force. I’ve heard time and again that my Republican delegation backs the blue, but the local party worked to remove pensions from the benefit package for the police force,” Meskers continued. “And now, guess what, now we’re having trouble recruiting the police that we need to protect our community. Maybe it’s time to review that pension policy.”
Peter Sherr said the economic policies under “one-party rule in Connecticut” were not the right policies to grow and attract people to the state.
“Think of the number of residents who have moved out, businesses who have moved out. This discussion about a growing Connecticut’s economy to me is just not dealing with the reality.”
“We shouldn’t be fooled by the few people who moved in after Covid, escaping New York,” Sherr continued. “That was a short term event.”
“The other thing we have to focus on is bolstering our schools,” Sherr said.
“What’s been going on in schools is turning off people moving here. I’ll take my 12 years of experience on the Board of Education up to Hartford and make sure there’s a focus on academics and not other things that drive families out of Fairfield County.”
Mr. Arzeno said, “I’m hearing people speaking as though the glass was completely empty.”
Arzeno said Connecticut was becoming more business friendly, and that Mr. Lehman had been doing a great job attracting businesses and a high quality workforce.
Ms Fiorello said the state needed tax reform. She listed businesses that had left Connecticut for states with lower taxes. She said GE had moved to Boston and Pratt & Whitney had opened a $650 million factory in North Carolina. She said LEGO, which is headquartered in Enfield is building a new factory with 1700 toy engineering jobs in Virginia.
Everyone thanked the GAR for organizing the forum. About 35 realtors attended.
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