Few sparks flew during what was mostly a polite debate Saturday among the Democratic candidates for the Fifth Congressional District at the Oliver Wolcott Library in Litchfield.
Candidates Elizabeth Esty, a former Cheshire state representative and current town councilor, Chris Donovan, Speaker of the House, who represents Meriden, and Dan Roberti, a Kent resident who has worked in public relations, were joined by about 40 people, mainly reporters and campaign staff in the debate, just two weeks before the Aug. 14 primary.
The issue of indictments surrounding illegal contributions to the Donovan campaign was alluded to only once — by Donovan — who simply said "the past couple of months have not been the greatest, but I can look you straight in the eye and tell you I have never let you down."
During the vast majority of the debate, the candidates responded to questions as to how they would handle issues such as energy policy, climate change, gun control, and boosting the manufacturing base in the Fifth District.
Esty provided specific examples as to what she would do if elected, while Donovan relied on his voting record in the state legislature, and Roberti repeatedly emphasized that renewable energy represents the future for the economy in the state.
But it was Esty, who until recently refrained from attack ads that have characterized the Roberti campaign, called into question Roberti’s ethics and ties to a lobbying firm and big banks.
“Mr. Roberti is co-owner of a lobbying firm and CitiCorp is one of his clients … one of the banks responsible for the crisis,” Esty said. “Roberti, who has no work history and no service history in this state, now has a super PAC dedicated to attacking me and Mr. Donovan is something we’ve never seen before.”
Her comment came after Roberti answered a question on mortgage relief and community banking, saying the country needs to get back to community banking and that Congress “needs to make it harder for big banks to get away with not doing what they’re supposed to — helping people have loans, start a future and being shepherds of them instead of just taking the profits along the way.”
Roberti, Esty said, was not in a position to discuss regulating the bank industry.
“I don’t see how you could stand here and tell the people of Connecticut as a co-owner of a lobbying firm that we should trust you to stand up and do what’s right," Esty said. "I think we’ve had enough of lobbying groups.”
Out of time, Roberti was unable to respond until his closing statement, in which he said that he is not a co-owner of a lobbying firm and that Esty has him confused with his father.
“I came here to talk about the issues and made a point to not bring up other outside rhetoric… I have divested myself of anything to do with that company,” Roberti said.
Instead, he painted a picture of his life “getting housing for veterans, running a homeless shelter and helping people get jobs."
"Shame on you for making that lie,” Roberti said to Esty.
Roberti finished his retort criticizing Esty for buying stock in oil companies and taking donations from companies her husband, Daniel Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, regulates.
The following is a list of issues and how the candidates responded to questions regarding each one.
Asked what measures they would take to prevent a recurrence of tragedies like the Aurora, CO, shooting, all three candidates discussed measures to limit the accessibility of assault weapons.
Esty, who called herself a longtime advocate of effective gun control, said she would “certainly support an assault weapons ban and other measures for protecting the public safety.”
She also said she would support restricting the availability of high-volume cartridges and armor-piercing bullets.
“We have a Second Amendment. It is the law of the land and very important. It’s used for public safety and personal protection but that’s different from military weapons used to slaughter citizens,” she said.
Donovan said he voted in favor of the assault weapon ban in Connecticut in 1993 and would do it again at the federal level.
“We still allow people to own guns and support our hunters, but there comes a time where we say we don’t want another Gabby Gifford [situation]. We’re worried about what people can do with assault weapons,” Donovan said.
Roberti agreed that the right to bear arms is important but that the type of weapons available should be restricted.
“Congress has systematically peeled back the Brady Bill and it’s important we have members of Congress to reinstall those,” Roberti said.
Congress' Ability to Declare War
Donovan said Congress has abdicated the Constitutional power to declare war to the president and should take it back. Esty said something similar, while Roberti agreed that there were times, like when President Barack Obama ordered a special operation to kill Osama bin Laden, that call for the president to be able to act quickly.
Esty noted that advances in technology have also come to bear on the decision to wage war. The advent of drones and the ability to conduct a war from hundreds of miles away particularly requires a thoughtful, knowledgeable person in Congress to balance the country’s moral obligations.
Bringing back manufacturing jobs to the Fifth District
The question of preparing workers for, and supporting the increase of, manufacturing jobs is particularly important to the district, which contains the cities of Torrington, Waterbury and Danbury, and each candidate had a different emphasis in addressing the issue.
Roberti said the country needs to “penalize corporations for shipping jobs overseas and reward small businesses making the effort to invest in the community.”
He pointed to renewable energy as a major opportunity for job creation and mentioned offering seed money and mentorships.
Esty, as the granddaughter of an engineer who started a small gasket company in Iowa, said small companies like her grandfather’s were coming back but need support from Washington.
“What we need in Congress is someone who can be a powerful, effective voice, stopping the tax laws that reward companies for shipping jobs overseas… enforcing trade laws, making sure a company can’t get rewarded for using underage labor or slave labor,” Esty said.
She also called for more training and apprenticeship programs.
Donovan touted the passage of the jobs bill and said the model of colleges tailoring curricula to meet the needs of employers, as was the case with Asnuntuck Community College, should be spread throughout the country.
He also said government needs to offer incentives and reward small businesses for creating jobs at home.
“If you want to stay here in America, we will be your best friend; we’ll have tax cuts for you, but you keep your jobs here… I’m disturbed by companies that take jobs overseas are not getting taxed — that’s not fair or take their jobs overseas and get green energy grants — that’s not fair,” Donovan said.
Esty added that the cost of energy is also a huge issue for businesses that could present an opportunity for job creation.
“We have clean energy companies in this district. That’s a tremendous growth opportunity, particularly here in the Fifth. The world needs clean, affordable, sustainable energy,” Esty said. “We would be very smart to tie those two policies together.”
Donovan added in health care costs, saying he organized a small business health care task force to find out what small businesses needed in relation to health care. Unanimously, he said, business owners said they need lower health care costs. Donovan said he supported Obama’s health care plan, limiting profits and increasing subsidies and that he would like to see a Medicare plan offered to small businesses.
How should the federal government address climate change
Donovan said the state and the country needs more mass transit to reduce carbon emissions. In addition, he said, the government should work with auto companies to decrease emission, offer incentives for companies to reduce carbon emissions and consider a carbon tax.
Roberti said “we as Democrats need to stand up and fight these battles,” and institute “serious cap and trade legislation.” He also said the country needs more mass transit, more energy-efficient ways of moving people,” including spreading high-speed rail and using the opportunity to create green jobs.
Esty said though Republicans may deny climate change, the insurance industry, having handled hundreds of thousands of claims in the wake of the October 2011 snowstorm and Hurricane Katrina, are well aware of the risks.
She said the issue calls for a worldwide approach because “if China and India get it wrong, we’re sunk. We need bold leadership by the U.S … and informed, responsible people at the table who can not be bought by special interests.”
Mortgage relief and strengthening community banking
Roberti said he would support the debt forgiveness plan and fight for similar legislation “to continue to help people find themselves under water.”
He also said the country needs to get back to community banks and that big banks should start loaning out money instead of just sitting on profits.
Donovan said that “the reason banks make a lot of money is that a lot of people lose money.” He also said that homeowners often are unsure of who to trust and how to get from underwater on their home loans.
“We need to be more aggressive, say to all those homeowners ‘we have a plan, we will work with you, here is mediation, the lawyers you can trust, the banks you can work with’ and give judges the right to say we can change the agreement and bring down the costs of homeownership,” Donovan said.