Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, the embattled Democratic incumbent, traded barbs with Republican challenger Tom Foley in the first debate of the general gubernatorial campaign Wednesday evening.
Ray Hackett, opinion page editor for the Norwich Bulletin, moderated the debate before 400 people at the Norwich Free Academy. The Bulletin hosted the event, one of six or seven debates that will occur before voters head to the polls on Nov. 4. The election is expected to be close, with most recent polls showing Foley a few points ahead of Malloy.
Each candidate had a total of 25 minutes to answer Hackett’s questions and respond to each other’s claims. Hackett asked about ethics, gun laws, education and jobs, sparking especially heated exchanges over education reform and Foley’s management of Bibb Co., a Georgia textile mill that went bankrupt in the 1990s.
Though Hackett noted that the road to Election Day is still long, he said hoped to establish the issues that will define the campaign with the first debate.
“We are not going to decide this race tonight,” Hackett said. “What I would like to do tonight is set the framework … and the tone.”
Based on tonight’s debate, Gary Rose, chairman of the department of government and politics at Sacred Heart University said he thinks the tenor of the campaign will be highly negative.
“It’s obvious that these two gentlemen dislike one another, and not just over policy matters. We’re looking at the tip of the iceberg here in terms of negativity,” Rose said.
Foley accused the governor of using faulty data — “Malloy Math” — to paint a more favorable picture of the economy. The governor criticized Foley for hedging when Hackett asked whether he would enforce the post-Newtown law requiring owners of assault weapons to register their guns.
Foley said that he would sign a bill repealing the law, SB-1160, passed in April 2013, but would not actively encourage the legislature to pursue such a bill.
“That was a career politician answer you just gave,” Malloy retorted.
On education, Foley forced Malloy onto the defensive, criticizing the lack of teacher support for Malloy’s reform initiatives, including Common Core.
Later in the debate, it was Foley’s turn to fend off attack when Hackett asked about comments he made in July at a closing paper mill in Sprague. Foley held an event at the mill to explain how he would have enacted policies to forestall its closure when Democratic state senator Cathy Osten arrived and began heckling him, Foley said.
The verbal altercation culminated with Foley appearing to tell workers, “You have failed because you lost these jobs,” a comment now immortalized in Democratic attack ads.
During the debate, Malloy again raised criticism he lobbed at Foley in 2010, blaming him for leading Bibb Co. into bankruptcy and causing job losses. Foley joked that Malloy seemed to have spent weeks researching the Georgia textile mill instead of focusing on Connecticut.
Ron Schurin, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, said he thought Malloy performed better overall, but spent too much time talking about Bibb Co.
“He emerged as prosecutorial, and in some respects too prosecutorial,” Schurin said.
Rose said he thought Malloy seemed to be employing a strategy of “class warfare,” painting Foley as elitist by mentioning that he lives in Greenwich and rode in a BMW to the Sprague paper mill.
Absent from the stage was gun rights proponent and Tea Partier Joe Visconti, who recently qualified for the ballot by gathering 7,500 petitions. Unable to speak to the crowd in Norwich, Visconti took to twitter to criticize both Foley and Malloy.
“It’s hard to watch @TomFoleyCT #fail onstage and @DanMalloyCT #fail as governor,” Visconti tweeted.
During the 2010 election, Malloy and Foley debated each other six times.