The first official GOP primary debate of the campaign season was cordial and uneventful, by and large.
Some candidates staked out positions that will certainly be raised in conversations among likely Republican Primary voters.
David Stemerman, the former hedge fund manager who handled over a billion dollars’ worth of assets for clients, advocated for tearing up the state’s compacts with two federally recognized tribes that operate casinos. The issue has dominated headlines for the past two years, and Stemerman endorsed a commercial option.
He said of MGM’s grand vision for a casino in Bridgeport, “Here’s a private company who doesn’t want any subsidy from the government and wants to invest $675 million dollars.” He said the state’s compacts, “It’s a dated deal. It’s out of the money.”
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, running for statewide office for the third time, said he would prefer to see Hartford fall into bankruptcy, rather than receive a state bailout to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over multiple decades.
“They need some tough love at this point,” Boughton said during the hour long debate.
The debate took place at the Shubert Theater in New Haven and was organized by WTNH and CT Realtors, as part of a series of debates for the primary and general election season.
While Tim Herbst, the former four-term First Selectman from Trumbull, focused on the need for pension reform to ease the burden of unfunded liabilities on taxpayers, and Steve Obsitnik mentioned his plan to create 300,000 jobs over 10 years, a question about the sitting president led to an awkward pause from the candidates.
The question posed asked whether each candidate would welcome the president’s support in the general election, and it drew some noise from the crowd, which ignored the moderator’s instructions not to clap throughout the evening.
Each candidate provided a similar version of the same answer: each of them would welcome President Trump whom was rejected by Connecticut voters in the 2016 presidential election. Fifty-four percent of voters - or 884,000 - preferred Clinton compared to the 41 percent - 668,000 - voters who supported Trump.
“It’s going to be critical for the next governor to have a strong relationship with the White House and be able to work with the executive branch for our state and our people,” Herbst said.
Obsitnik leaned on his service in the Navy and said he would always welcome the commander in chief.
David Stemerman provided the same line.
And Boughton, the endorsed GOP candidate from the state party said, “Of course this debate, this discussion of Connecticut’s future is about what the Democrats have done to the state. We’re going to keep it focused there, but if the president wants to come to the state to campaign, Let’s do it.”
Two other GOP candidates for governor, Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, and former UBS executive Bob Stefanowski, rejected invitations to the New Haven debate.
Signature petitions of registered Republican and Democratic voters are due to the Secretary of the State’s office Tuesday. Stemerman, Lauretti, and Stefanowski all must submit about 9,000 signatures of registered Republicans in order to secure a place on the August 14 primary ballot. Tuesday is the deadline to submit those to the secretary of the state.