Testy, wonkish, comedic, grandiose: Thursday night’s 90-minute debate in the Burroughs Community Center filled by about 80 residents of Connecticut’s 129th State House District pretty much had it all, led by five candidates all of whom have served either on the City Council or in the state legislature. The debate was sponsored by the Black Rock Community Council.
The race has shaped up as a battle between two well-financed candidates–Democrat Steve Stafstrom and Republican Rick Torres who squared off in a tight City Council race in 2013 squeezed out by Torres–with former State House members Bob Keeley and Hector Diaz and City Councilman Bob Halstead trying to cut through the static for Tuesday’s winter special election to replace Auden Grogins, now a member of the state bench. The district covers Black Rock, the West Side and portions of the North End and West End.
In the battle over conflicts of interests the candidates agree that city employees should not serve on the City Council as prohibited by the City Charter but allowed by a loophole in state law. In his closing remarks, Stafstrom emphasized his unwavering support for a state government reform bill to ban the practice by informing the audience he has the endorsement of the bill’s two authors, State Senator Marilyn Moore and State Representative Jack Hennessy. The youthful Stafstrom tried to separate himself from his middle-aged opponents, urging voters to put their “trust and faith in a new generation of leadership.”
It was Stafstrom’s way to blunt criticism from Torres and Diaz asserting he was conflicted because his employer, the Bridgeport-based law firm Pullman & Comley, is a financial legal adviser for some city and state development projects. Stafstrom provided a chivalrous defense of his employer’s commitment to Bridgeport, asserting there is no conflict, but if one transpired he’d recuse himself from such a vote in the legislature.
As questions segued from Bridgeport area League of Women Voters moderator Carole Fanslow to the engaged audience, Black Rock resident Fairfield University political science professor Don Greenberg, a sturdy liberal’s liberal opposed to Torres’ conservative persona, engaged with Torres in a heated exchange condemning him for accusations without a credible basis, questioning Torres’ temperament to serve.
Torres issued an impassioned rejoinder, declaring he was being described as a “hot-headed Latino.” He later apologized to the audience and Greenberg directly after the debate. “I like you,” Greenberg said to Torres. “I just don’t like your politics.”
The candidates debated taxation, development, transportation and education, often providing the answers they wanted to give, irrespective of the questions asked, as noted by the moderator. Candidates all agreed Bridgeport does not receive its fair share from the state, but had different takes on how to provide tax relief.
Torres said he wanted to “fix our city from the state’s taxing polices … I will fight anyone that denies Bridgeport it’s fair share.” Torres added the “remedy must come from Bridgeport growth … If the grand list goes up and taxes go down, that’s economic development.”
Stafstrom piggy-backed on the relationships Grogins developed to achieve district results, touting the campaign support he’s receiving from legislative leadership in Hartford such as Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey. “Grogins developed strong relationships in Hartford. Leadership will work with me on comprehensive property tax reform.”
For grandiose declarations, Keeley, the longest-serving state legislator in city history, certainly took home the debate prize, taking credit for landing the moolah for a variety of city projects including creation of the Burroughs Community Center when he served in the legislature. He was defeated by Grogins in 2008. “You would not be here tonight except for us getting you the money,” he told the crowd.
Keeley issued a storm warning for the 2016 municipal budget year beginning July 1 when the revaluation of city property that has been delayed is expected to kick in. “We are in for a walloping tax increase July 2016,” he said. “I’m the reason taxes didn’t go up (for many years). I left and taxes went up and up and up.”
Diaz also added he was part of a delegation in Hartford when he served in the legislature that brought back the bacon for projects such as the ballpark and arena at Harbor Yard. He said emphasis must be placed on bringing more loot for the city. “Hartford gets what it needs, New Haven gets what it needs, Bridgeport needs to be respected.”
Halstead, an urban planner policy wonk, suggested that to rebuild a tax base part of the solution is taxing the land instead of buildings in a city loaded with derelict structures that can be revitalized. “Tax the land and people would have time to fix the buildings … instead of throwing around tax rebates as political favors.”
On education, Stafstrom, Keeley and Halstead said they believe charter schools that receive state funds but operate independently of traditional school districts should be continued as a school choice option. Diaz said financing charter schools at the expense of district schools is not the answer. Torres said he has had “an epiphany” on the issue. Once a charter school proponent he said he no longer supports them.
On gun control, four candidates agreed with the gun legislation that was passed in response to Sandy Hook. Torres, who does not support the legislation, had a different take, saying, the shooting was the result of a mental health issue that requires more attention, but added “I will not be a zealot for one side” to repeal the law.
On transportation, Stafstrom focused on the necessity for train infrastructure to cut the travel time from Bridgeport to Manhattan. Torres said Bridgeport must be the focus of an economic center rather than a bedroom community. Halstead and Keeley noted that urban renewal must be placed on the East Side for the proposed second city train station there to be viable.
Diaz had the line of the night when it came to transportation reminding the audience of the pedestrian bridge planned to cross Ash Creek to the Metro station, across the line in Fairfield, that is facilities challenged.
“The bridge to Black Rock better have a bathroom in it because there’s no bathroom there.”
Keeley declared he’s the best choice for the legislative seat because “You don’t send a pea shooter into a knife fight.”
CT Post scribe Brian Lockhart’s take here.