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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont SOM ’80 faced off against Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski on Wednesday in the Nutmeg state’s first major debate of the 2018 race for Connecticut governor.

Though Lamont and Stefanowski were the only two candidates on the stage, the debate quickly evolved into a referendum on two divisive political figures not in attendance: President Donald Trump and Gov. Dannel Malloy. Lamont tried to link Stefanowski to Trump, and Stefanowski tried to tie Lamont to Malloy. But ultimately, while the businessman-on-businessman debate touched on various issues, the main focus was Connecticut’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

Stefanowski said he would like to eliminate the state income tax and adopt a zero-based budgeting system, which would require the governor and legislature to start each budget cycle from scratch. Lamont criticized his opponent’s plan to lower taxes, claiming it would “bankrupt” the state. He said Stefanowski’s plan would force the state to go through “budget hell every two years,” while his own plan to focus on a balanced budget is more “predictable and reliable” to get Connecticut out of its fiscal mess.

Stefanowski, on the other hand, characterized Lamont’s budgetary plan as superficial: “You can’t trust this guy to do what he says he’s going to do,” he said.

“Is there anyone in this audience or watching on TV that doesn’t think I could find 5 percent of waste, fraud and abuse in the Connecticut budget right now?” Stefanowski asked the crowd.

Organized by The Day — a New London and southeastern Connecticut local newspaper — and WNTH, the debate took place at the Garde Arts Center in New London, an old theater that seats 1,450 people. The close quarters made for a rowdy atmosphere, and at one point the moderator had to plead with the audience to quiet down and cut out the “outbursts” to avoid taking time away from the candidates.

In addition to economic issues, the candidates discussed criminal justice reform, immigration and marijuana legalization.

On criminal justice reform, Lamont defended Malloy’s “second chance” law, which made the parole process easier for non-violent offenders and categorized drug possession as a misdemeanor rather than as a felony, among other reforms. Citing lower crime rates in Connecticut and the extra revenue received by the state as a result of the program, Lamont said Malloy’s initiative “is working.”

Stefanowski disagreed, though, saying that almost 50 percent of program participants that are released early are accused of another crime which, in the long run, ultimately costs the state more money.

On the subject of immigration, Lamont raised his concerns about the separation and detention of immigrant families at the border, saying that the governor “can be a type of firewall” to protect the civil rights of people in the state. Stefanowski expressed sympathy for immigrant families, but reiterated his opposition to sanctuary cities, saying that governors should not pick and choose which laws to follow.

Lamont expressed support for the legalization of marijuana because of the revenue the state could raise and because of how drug laws are currently enforced. Stefanowski, responding with skepticism, said that the effect of legalizing marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington is still unclear. He added that the legalization of marijuana should not be a priority for the state.

“Legalization of marijuana is not going to happen right now,” Stefanowski said. “Let’s fix the economy.”

Stefanowski did not attend the previous debate which was held last Wednesday. The next debate will be held on Sept. 26.

Ashna Gupta | ashna.gupta@yale.edu

Aaron Jenkins | aaron.jenkins@yale.edu