Questions on topics ranging from gun control to education reform to job creation to GMO labeling were fielded by the three candidates vying for retiring state Rep. John Hethrington's 125th District seat during a forum held Monday by the Wilton League of Women Voters at the Wilton Library.
About a dozen people or so came to the Wilton Library's Brubeck Room to hear Republican candidate Tom O'Dea, Democratic candidate Mark Robbins and Green Party of Connecticut candidate David Bedell answer pre-submitted questions during the hour-long event, which was moderated by League President Catharine Kempson and billed as a forum, not a debate. The recently redrawn 125th District includes about two thirds of New Canaan and about one third of Wilton.
This election reportedly marks the first time in 26 years that the Democrats have put up a candidate for the 125th District seat, which Hetherington, a Republican, has held for the past ten years (five terms).
The Dems' nominee, Robbins, has a background in real estate development and currently serves as founder and principal of local real estate and energy consulting firm MHR Development. He is a member of the New Canaan Conservation Commission, a trustee of the New Canaan Nature Center and serves on the Business and Environment Committee of SoundWaters. In addition he was recently named statewide co-chairman of the Connecticut Green Building Council's Green Homes Committee. He has lived in New Canaan for nine years.
O'Dea, a longtime New Canaan resident and current elected member of the New Canaan Town Council, works as a defense attorney with Halloran and Sage LLP, where he focuses primarily on litigation concerning the transportation and trucking industry. In addition he has represented more than a dozen municipalities throughout the state in cases involving unlawful discrimination, sexual harassment and unlawful discharge, among other legal matters. He routinely provides counsel and training to employers on workplace issues, as well as providing towns with assistance in drafting legislation. O'Dea — considered the frontrunner in the race — has served on the New Canaan Personnel Advisory Board; as vice chairman of the New Canaan Republican Town Committee; and as a member of the State of Connecticut Judicial Selection Commission.
Making it a three-way race is New Canaan resident David Bedell, an English teacher, environmentalist and avid bicyclist who currently serves as treasurer for the CT Green Party and as a board member for Teachers Against Prejudice.
When asked if he would support stricter gun control measures, in light of the tragic July movie theater shooting in Colorado, Bedell said Connecticut "already has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country — and they're working very well." He added however, that if he was elected he would support any measure "that limits the amount of ammunition someone can buy online."
"This is not as big of an issue as you might think in Connecticut," Bedell, a staunch advocate for multimodal transportation projects promoting bicycling and walking, said. "If you're looking at causes of death, I think that that we need more controls on automobiles, which kill far more people in this state than guns."
O'Dea agreed, adding that in his view the state's gun laws "are strict enough." He said he would prefer to push for stricter laws for distracted driving. "I think texting and talking on cell phones while driving is the biggest threat to motorists on our roadways," he said.
When asked how effective Gov. Dannel Malloy's "First Five" economic initiative has been thus far, in terms of spurring job growth, O'Dea said while the incentive program "has its good points," he would prefer to "make the state more business friendly to everyone, not just the First Five."
"We've got the highest debt per capita — we're in the top four in the country — and we're voted the worst state in which to retire," O'Dea said. "So businesses are falling out of the state, not coming into the state — and the Governor is actually trying to bribe businesses, with [the First Five] program, to be here."
"My goal would be to cut spending, cut taxes, and make Connecticut more business friendly," O'Dea said. "We've lost 5,000 businesses in the first six months of the year. Jobs are number one — and we can't tax and spend our way out of this problem."
Bedell said he views small businesses as "the strength of the state's economy" and added that he does "not necessarily believe in inviting large corporations to come and establish their headquarters in Connecticut." He said he would prefer to see the state foster small business and entrepreneurship "so we can grow our own innovations here."
Robbins said he is a "huge champion" of the state Small Business Express Program and added that he was delighted to see that it was recently expanded to support businesses with up to 100 employees (previously 50).
"I'd like to see more money put in [to the program]," Robbins said. "The state put in $100 million for this year — I'd like to see it doubled every year for the next five."
He said the program creates a "one stop shop for small business to establish their licensing and their right to operate."
When asked whether or not the state should implement special voter ID cards in order to ensure voters are properly registered when they show up at the polls, Bedell said "I think this is really a red herring… studies have shown there is very little voter fraud."
He said the current voter registration system is adequate to protect against fraud.
"What we do need, however, is a better system for maintaining voter lists," he said, adding that sometimes after people move out of state, their names remain on the rolls.
Robbins agreed, adding that the idea of voter registration cards to minimize fraud "is a leash law for unicorns — there are no statistics showing that elections are swayed by fraud in voting." He said the real problem is "voter apathy, lack of interest, lack of knowledge and lack of accountability in government."
"People aren't even aware of who their state reps are, let alone how they can exercise their right to vote," he said.
O'Dea said he would support the idea of voter registration cards.
"I would argue that presenting a photo ID when voting is no more onerous than presenting a driver's license…," he said. "I'm for requiring an ID in order to vote."
When asked if elected how he would serve the interests of ALL the people of the 125th District, considering that it is a mostly-Republican district, Robbins explained that he is "fiscally conservative" with a strong ability to "work across party lines."
"And to back that up, the first six contributions to my campaign were from friends who are Republicans," he said.
O'Dea said in his view the seat "does not belong to any one Party, it belongs to the people of New Canaan and Wilton."
"While my opponent can claim he's fiscally conservative and has worked across party lines, I'm the only one who has held elected office and actually done that," O'Dea said. "So it's not a theoretical situation for me."
"Look, the Democrats have controlled the House for 34 of the last 38 years — and some may argue that [the current economic crisis] is a problem created by the Democrats — but I'm not going to kick that can down the road," O'Dea said. "We are on the edge of a fiscal cliff from which there is no turning back. We cannot kick the can over the ravine. We are in the worst shape in our history — we passed the largest tax increase and we're still in a deficit — so this is a problem we're all going to have to tackle and I'm looking forward to working on your behalf to stop the taxing and spending."
Bedell said as a member of the Green Party "I would not be beholden to either the Democrats or the Republicans — I would be able to present an independent viewpoint in the legislature — and I would not feel pressured to participate in the partisan factionalism we see from time to time."
"I respect people of all parties and those who are unaffiliated," Bedell said. "I respect all viewpoints and I would like to believe that all the legislators have good intentions. That said, what concerns me are the issues — and what has the most practical benefit for the citizens."
When asked whether they would push for the labeling of all foods containing GMOs, even though there are concerns that the state could make itself a target for lawsuits from the large GMO seed manufacturers, all three candidates said they are in favor of disclosure.
"I think it is a good idea," Robbins said, adding that he would consider resurrecting a revised version of the GMO labeling bill that was shot down during the past legislative session due to legal concerns.
"I would be in favor of resurrecting that bill and looking at it again," he said. "But I understand there might be cases where it compromises the livelihood of farmers — so I would have to more thoroughly understand the economics of the industry here in Connecticut...
O'Dea said when it comes to GMOs, "conceptually more transparency is a good thing — but how the labeling is handled is the key … for example the definition of 'organic' is widely misunderstood by the public… "
O'Dea said if he was satisfied that such a bill would have no adverse impact on farmers or seed growers, he would likely support it.
"This is a bill I feel very strongly about," Bedell said, adding that at first it received a lot of support from the government and the public, until Monsanto Corp. threatened a lawsuit, then it was tabled. "Consumers want to know what's in their food — and I think labeling will actually be a benefit for our Connecticut small farmers, who prefer not to sell GMO foods, but may feel they can't compete…"
The Wilton Library co-sponsored the Forum with the League.