Pizza in hand, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Milford Mayor James Richetelli kicked back to watch the presidential debate Friday night with a group of high school students at City Hall.

The evening featured a discussion of domestic and foreign policy issues between Democrat DeStefano and Republican Richetelli, who also answered questions posed by students from Milford High School and New Haven’s James Hillhouse High School. The group, which included more than 30 students, parents and teachers, followed the mayors’ presentation by watching the presidential debate together.

“It gives students a good perspective, coming to New Haven to discuss and see politics,” Richetelli said.

While the mayors deliberated on various issues, both emphasized the importance of mutual respect among politicians.

“It’s good for students to see a Republican and a Democrat with respect for each other’s opinions,” DeStefano said. “We have a lot in common, especially a connection to this country.”

DeStefano said party lines have not played a large factor in how New Haven and Milford work together.

The mayors’ debate focused primarily on Iraq, and Richetelli said he supports Bush’s attitude since Sept. 11.

“Since we began this war on terror, [Bush] has been resolute and hasn’t wavered,” Richetelli said. “I just don’t think Kerry’s a strong enough leader to win the war on terror.”

But DeStefano said he sees Kerry’s approach to the war as more mature.

“Kerry thinks hard about what he does,” DeStefano said. “All of us who are in these jobs make mistakes, and it’s an important quality to let people question us.”

DeStefano further criticized Bush’s policy by saying that terrorists are not defined by borders and America should not focus on specific countries.

“Iraq is more dangerous for us today than when Saddam was in power,” DeStefano said. “It breeds really bad guys. This is not about borders, this is about guys in caves.”

Several domestic issues were also addressed, including education, health care and the Patriot Act.

“The basic message of No Child Left Behind is accountability, but it needs more time and money to be successful,” Richetelli said.

DeStefano, whose wife Kathy, is a teacher, said that teachers are spending less time on instruction and more on tests.

The mayors also addressed tax cuts, which Richetelli said boost the economy.

“Republicans think dollars are best spent in the hands of the people,” he said. “The wealthiest people are the ones who will put people back to work.”

But DeStefano said that there are meaningful ways for the government to spend money such as health care and education.

Hillhouse civics teacher Jack Paulishen said he appreciated the intimate environment of the discussion.

“Neither was too radical, and they were respectful,” Paulishen said. “That’s good for the kids. What we need to see is civility in our discourse.”

Milford student Frank Spinelli said that while he enjoyed the debate, he wished it had lasted longer.

“[It was] pretty interesting when they gave general views, but I wish they’d touched on more specific issues like abortion and gay marriage,” he said.

Students from both high schools said they enjoyed the lighter tone put forth by both mayors.

“They stayed lighthearted, and presented everything to us really well,” said Hillhouse student Jonathan White.

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