The first debate between Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Republican challenger Tom Foley turned into a well-dressed sumo wrestling match with the truth Wednesday, as they traded barbs, records and plans for Connecticut's future.
In dark suits and gray ties, sitting in easy chairs on the stage of an ornate brick-and-wood Victorian auditorium at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Malloy and Foley launched the first of seven tentatively scheduled campaign encounters, raising the major issues that will underscore the 10 weeks leading to Election Day.
The debate, before 400 people in the 1885 Slater Memorial Auditorium on the campus of the public high school, was marked by a give-and-take on gun control, education, transportation, recruiting new businesses and allegations of twisting the truth by both sides.
Malloy pressed Foley on the state's 2013 response to the Newtown school massacre, charging that he has been vague on the issue of gun control in an attempt to seek wider support among conservatives.
"Since we have passed that landmark legislation, we have stopped 200 people from buying guns," Malloy said. "Some of those people -- this is unbelievable -- some of those people had domestic orders against them. I think that legislation is important. I also believe what we've done is make Connecticut safer."
Foley said the laws expanding the list of the state's prohibited military-style rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines was "overreaching" in violation of lawful gun owners' rights.
"It was totally appropriate to have a response from the government and the leadership," Foley said. "But I said at the time to Gov. Malloy, I said `Gov. Malloy please respond to these needy citizens in the state who want something done to prevent another Newtown from happening.' Not only did he not do that, but he didn't do anything from preventing another Newtown from happening. So I don't think we are safer."
"Tom and I have not had a conversation about this, ever," Malloy countered. "Never. So when Tom says he told me something, he's not telling the truth. If we had that conversation, I would have asked him, should a person be able to buy a gun without a background check? I'm going to ask him today. Yes or no?"
"Yes," Foley replied.
"Should someone with a mental illness be able to buy a gun without a background check?" Malloy, a former criminal prosecutor, continued.
"Well that depends on the mental illness," Foley said.
"How about somebody with a protective order against them?" Malloy continued.
"Do you want to go over the whole bill?" Foley asked, stressing that he used the media to convey his opinions to the governor after the Dec.14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. "To say I'm not telling the truth is ridiculous."
Malloy also hammered Foley, the losing 2010 gubernatorial candidate, on his business experience taking over a Georgia textile company in 1985, loading it with debt, then selling it off in 1996. Foley said that was old news, and he would rather talk about the state of Connecticut's current problems.
"I think the governor and his staff have repeatedly tried to distort what's going on in the state," said Foley, who first took the offensive in the hour-long political grapple officiated by an editor of the local newspaper. "I think it's a lack of truthfulness that discredits a leader."
Malloy quickly countered.
"Let me remind everybody that there are three of us sitting on the stage right now, and only one of us has violated the law in Connecticut with respect to elections and paid a $16,000 fine this year," Malloy said of a civil penalty that the State Elections Enforcement Commission received from Foley. "I think you're absolutely right. History is a precursor to the future."
Foley, who earlier in the day issued a position on turning around the state economy, said Malloy has failed to foster business and has presided over a school system that has stagnated.
"The governor is driving jobs out of the state and is bribing people to stay here," Foley said, describing the governor's "nutty" attempt to bring Jackson Labs to the University of Connecticut campus, at a cost of $1 million per high-tech science job.
"He is taking multiple billions of dollars to get businesses to stay here," Foley said. "How about supporting employers and having policies and rhetoric that support employers? I would, first of all, have a pro-growth agenda."
Malloy said his late father, who left school to go to work after eighth grade and would have turned 102 on Wednesday, would be proud of what his son has accomplished in his four years in office.
"I can look myself in the mirror and say, `Dad, I'm trying to do what you would do' -- plan for the long run; no shortcuts; get control of spending, we're doing that; get control of taxes, we're doing that; make appropriate investments, we're doing that; speak to people whenever you can. I have been to about 70 towns in all regions, in the five-year period of time that Tom has been running for governor and did none. I'm proud of what we're doing. We're building a stronger and better Connecticut. We are investing in the future."
The debate was moderated by Ray Hackett, the editorial page editor of The Bulletin newspaper. Malloy's and Foley's campaigns each received 100 tickets and 200 readers of the newspaper were given the rest. Supporters of both candidates stopped the debate three times with their applause.
The next debate will be held at 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at Hamden Middle School.