One of three chairs sat empty in the NBC Connecticut studio leading up to Thursday’s gubernatorial forum, which GOP challenger Tom Foley opted not to attend.
Unaffiliated candidate Joe Visconti went head-to-head with Gov. Dan Malloy, the Democratic incumbent he hopes to unseat, in a discussion spanning issues from gun control to the Common Core that was heated at times but civil throughout.
All three qualifying candidates for governor were invited to participate in Thursday night's forum, which aired at 7 p.m. on NBC Connecticut. Anchor and moderator Gerry Brooks was joined by panelists Susan Haigh of the Associated Press and NBC Connecticut political reporter Max Reiss.
Foley said earlier in the week that he would not attend the forum, claiming that his campaign could not “come to terms” with NBC Connecticut "in a timely manner."
The Republican candidate stood his ground. As Malloy and Visconti took the stage Thursday evening, a third chair set up for Foley remained empty and was removed as the forum got underway.
"That brings us to the elephant who is not in the room," Brooks said at the beginning of the forum. "Republican Tom Foley has elected not to take part in tonight's discussion of the issues. We have been in constant touch with Mr. Foley's camp in the weeks leading up to the event; they have never articulated a particular objection to tonight's format."
Malloy and Visconti clashed over a number of issues, and gun control took center stage. The governor stood by his gun law, explaining that universal background checks has prevented weapons from falling into the wrong hands, "including one woman who wanted to buy a gun and then go to a school and shoot more children."
But Visconti called the gun law an infringement upon constitutional rights.
"There are background checks, but there are not background checks for criminals. And this is the fallacy of the Malloy administration and the liberal agenda, that somehow we're going to pass all these laws and criminals are going to follow these laws," Visconti said. "They're not going to follow these laws."
He asserted that the only way to prevent another tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook is to place a police officer at the door to every school in the state.
Visconti pledged to repeal the limitations on high-capacity magazines and called Sandy Hook a "political tragedy gain."
"If they wanted to do something, they could have looked at the 30-round magazine that Adam Lanza used and just targeted that," he argued. "But they didn't. They went to handguns. They went everywhere. Because there was a liberal agenda."
But Malloy fired back, reminding Visconti that two Democrats and two Republicans worked together to develop the legislation and that he wasn't included in discussions about the bill.
"I made a solemn oath that I would do everything I could to make our children as safe as possible," Malloy said. "I'm sorry that people have been inconvenienced to register the [magazines] they already have, but I'm proud that we've stopped the sale of those things in the future. Those of you who are law-abiding citizens have the same rights you already have, but children are safer."
The conversation shifted to the topic of mental health and each candidate presented plans to improve mental health services in the state.
"I think this is one of the areas ... where money has to go," Visconti said. "We have to look at this and say, 'Why aren't we doing more?'"
He alluded to family members who have struggled with mental health and emphasized the importance of mental health screening to address problems in their early stages.
"Every year that I've been governor, we have passed additional legislation to increase mental health services in Connecticut," Malloy said, adding that he has also worked to fight bullying and train professionals to identify mental health issues among students.
It was one of the few topics Malloy and Visconti agreed upon.
"I'm not here to debate all the failures or even the successes of Gov. Malloy," Visconti said. "But this one here, I will give him a thumbs up."
The issue of education was a polarizing one. While Malloy outlined his accomplishments – including improving the high school graduation rate, cutting back on standardized tests and increasing the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams – Visconti attacked Common Core standards.
"Common Core itself is something that's being rejected by students, by parents, by teachers, by everyone," he said, explaining that the best way to improve education is to strengthen student-teacher relationships.
"Common Core is dead on arrival if I'm your governor," he said.
Malloy, on the other hand, reminded Visconti that two teachers' unions have endorsed him for governor and that "towns and communities like Wallingford have done an exceptional job" implementing Common Core.
"We have to make sure that our children are properly educated and they can compete with any nation in the world," Malloy said.
Negative Campaign Ads
Despite Foley's absence, his name circulated with frequency throughout the forum.
The ongoing battle between the two frontrunners has been intensely negative, with both Malloy and Foley airing attack ads and trading personal jabs.
This topic of conversation was one of the first to come up between Malloy and Visconti on Thursday night.
"Everyone says it's very negative, and I suppose it is – every campaign has its own flavor, I suppose – but this is an examination of people's records," Malloy said, explaining that voters need to know the candidates' backgrounds and what they bring to the table.
Visconti, whose limited campaign budget has kept him out of the ad game, decried both Malloy and Foley for their bitter attack ads.
"Are you kidding me? Come on," he said. "The negative ads from the Malloy administration and also the Foley campaign are ridiculous."
Tax Reform and the Economy
Visconti pointed out that taxpayer money is funding the negative campaign ads and explained his mission to make major reforms to state tax code.
"We need to be real with the people because some people can't afford to live here anymore," he said. "No, I don't want tax increases, but I don't know – when we're working on a budget – how we can get there without cutting services."
Visconti said it's important to let the public know that tax increases "are a possibility" and said that if tax hikes become a reality, he will turn first to large corporations.
"We cannot go back, if we need to, to the income tax," Visconti explained. "The middle class is burdened. They're leaving the state."
Malloy acknowledged the challenge but said Connecticut was deeply burdened by the Great Recession.
"I never took a pledge not to raise taxes the last time, because I knew what was wrong with Connecticut and that it was going to take shared sacrifice to solve," Malloy said. "From the 2011 budget on, we've done nothing but cut taxes."
The governor highlighted economic growth as a means of generating revenue and explained that he has added hundreds of millions of dollars to a rainy day fund that was empty when he took office four years ago.
Malloy said said he has minimized spending increases and worked to protect public services, such as affordable housing, and veterans services, alongside legislators from both parties.
He said his administration has created 11,500 jobs in Connecticut, a number that's expected to hit 25,000 by the end of the year. Malloy also pointed out that crime is down 20 percent in Bridgeport and homicides have decreased by 32 percent.
"That's a wise investment. That's making sure that people have communities that we can build jobs around," Malloy said, touting recent investments by corporations such as Electric Boat and United Technologies.
Public Service Cuts
But Visconti said it's not enough. In an effort to avoid overburdening taxpayers and stimulate the economy, he said nonessential services will need to be cut.
"Everywhere we can that takes away from education, from the disabled from veterans... We have to decide what we are going to do in Connecticut," he explained, referring to tourism and the arts. "How are we going to get out of this?"
Visconti said he would "identify every grant, every program that is nonessential those needs, put them into a lottery system and... decide by lottery what has to go."
Malloy countered his argument by pointing out that Visconti's numbers accounted for a more-than-7 percent yearly spending increase, while he has adhered to an annual increase of 2.8 percent.
"I'm proud that we're seeing rapid increases in the state of Connecticut. In fact, the job numbers in tourism are out of this world... Because we're participating in advertising again and that pays for itself," Malloy said, although Visconti alleged that most of the jobs that have been created are lower paying.
"I wish Tom was here," Malloy said at the end of the forum. "I think this has been a very useful discussion between Joe and I. I respect Joe; we have differences, but at least he tells you what he's going to do. Tom Foley has been dancing around these issues for months."
Voters who are anti-Malloy should be pro-Visconti, the incumbent governor said.
But he reminded residents that the state has seen its lowest unemployment rate – and fastest job growth – in years, and that crime is down and test scores are up.
"We're making real progress. Is this the time that we turn our state back over to the same people who drove it into the ditch?" He said. "We can't go back in the direction that we once were traveling. Otherwise our children will suffer; our cities and towns will suffer, and the progress that we have made will dissipate and disappear."
Visconti thanked his supporters and called himself the "people's candidate."
"It's been a great learning experience to just see how many Connecticut residents want something different," he said. "I will work for your. I can win this thing. Connecticut is a beautiful state. We have to stay and fight for it."
Tom Foley's Absence
NBC Connecticut executives released the following statement earlier in the week regarding participation in Thursday's forum:
“All candidates on the ballot have been invited to participate in the NBC Connecticut Gubernatorial Forum on Thursday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m., including Mr. Foley. Mr. Foley meets all the criteria to participate. We’ve had ongoing discussions with all the candidates on a consistent basis and welcome their participation.”
Malloy said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Foley's absence.
"It's a strange thing but I also think it's disrespectful. The people of Connecticut deserve to hear from the candidates. He accepted this invitation, he then, for whatever reason... he's not here," Malloy said. "I think it's a missed opportunity to have a real discussion in a different kind of context."
He pointed out that Visconti's attendance may have contributed to Foley's decision to opt out.
Visconti is currently drawing 9 percent of the support of likely voters, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday that shows Malloy barely nosing ahead of Foley.
"Tom's got a lot of things he doesn't want to talk about," Malloy said. "I just wish he was here so I wouldn't have to remind you of all the positions he's taken."
Visconti said he "foresaw this," admitting he wasn't surprised by Foley's choice.
"The public deserves a debate on the issues, on the specifics, and what I have seen, and the majority of Connecticut residents have seen, in this campaign are just negative ads, negative ads, negative ads," Visconti said, alluding to the bitter battle that Malloy and Foley have waged against each other. "Tonight I hope we can address [the] issues and keep it civil... and have conduct that's becoming of a governor."
About 15 minutes into the forum, Brooks asked Visconti the question on everyone's mind.
"Under any circumstances, in the days leading up to the election, would you drop out of this race and throw your support to Tom Foley?" he asked.
Visconti shook his head.
"I don't believe at the present time that Tom, I could help carry him over the finish line, Gerry," he responded. "So if I considered it, I don't think that would happen."
He then commented on Malloy's frequent references to Foley's absence. Visconti said he hoped to avoid discussing Foley for the rest of the night and focus instead on the issues.
As he segued into the topic of public transportation and the idea of turning state highways into toll roads, Brooks steered him back.
"Are you in it until election day?" Brooks asked.
"I am," was Visconti's reply.