Clashes between Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg and his Republican opponent, Stephen Rubin, dominated a candidate forum Monday night at Town Hall, as Rubin attacked Steinberg's voting record and Democratic legislators' alleged "tax-and-spend" policies in Hartford.
The verbal skirmishes between the pair erupted early in the Westport League of Women Voters forum, which featured all the candidates in the Nov. 6 election for local legislative seats in the General Assembly. Rubin first highlighted Steinberg's support last year of a higher tax increase for the state's top income bracket than the hike proposed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. He then assailed Steinberg for voting this year for a budget adjustment bill.
"Sure, Mr. Steinberg voted against the Malloy budget in 2011, but in 2012 he voted yes," Rubin said. "On the adjustment bill, that was nothing more than an extension of the original budget. It relied on the same revenue streams, the same income, the same sales tax, the same typical tax hikes that the original budget did. To me, that shows that his 2011 no vote was nothing more than a political move on his part."
Steinberg responded that he supported raising the tax rate for the state's top earners -- from 6.5 percent to 7 percent, compared to Malloy's backing for a 6.7 percent rate -- to negate the need for a range of regressive taxes that he argued would hurt a wide range of Connecticut residents, including individuals on fixed incomes. The General Assembly eventually voted to approve a 6.7 percent rate for the highest individual income group.
"I have been a moderate voice and a fiscal moderate," Steinberg said. "My opponent is trying, I think fairly weakly, to paint me as something other than what I am. I am not a member of the left wing of the Democratic Party. I'm a moderate, I want to find common ground and I certainly believe in fiscal responsibility."
The partisan sniping Monday contrasted the cordial tone that punctuated the two candidates' exchanges when they met last week in a forum on environmental issues at the Earthplace natural history museum.
Steinberg was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2010 and is seeking to win a second term this year. Rubin works as a receptionist-clerk in the town's Parks and Recreation Department and represents District 7 in the Representative Town Meeting. The two are also former colleagues on the local legislative body -- Steinberg served on the RTM from 2003 to 2010.
Steinberg and Rubin are competing to represent the 136th Assembly District during the next legislative session. The district covers all of Westport, except for a western portion of town between the Saugatuck River and the Norwalk border.
Both Steinberg and Rubin also touted their commitment to pursuing policies to boost economic growth in Connecticut, as the state grapples with a 9 percent unemployment rate. Steinberg pointed to new state programs such as the Small Business Express Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses, and "First Five," which offers incentives to businesses bringing at least 200 new full-time jobs to the state, as viable ways of supporting the state's private sector.
"I think that we still have an opportunity to turn the Connecticut economy around by creating jobs," Steinberg said. "We don't need to increase taxes. We need to both streamline spending and find ways to make Connecticut citizens successful so they can pay more by way of the existing taxes."
Rubin also emphasized the importance of job creation.
"The real opportunity for increasing revenue is jobs, jobs, jobs," he said. "We need to find ways to increase jobs in the state because those people pay taxes and revenues increase."
The forum also featured state Rep. Gail Lavielle, a Republican and her Democratic challenger, Wilton Selectman Ted Hoffstatter. They are vying for the 143rd Assembly District seat, which covers parts of Wilton, Norwalk and the section of Westport not included in the 136th District.
Unlike their 136th District counterparts, Lavielle and Hoffstatter avoided partisan criticism of each other. Both of the 143rd District candidates highlighted economic growth as a top concern.
"I have spoken to hundreds of businesses in the two years that I've been in office and what they tell me is this: `Please stop trying to help. Get out of the way. Give us a tax policy that will be more favorable to us and that is consistent over the years,' " Lavielle said. "It is true that decreasing taxes in that fashion does lead to increased revenue. And that is what would help to expand the tax base."
Hoffstatter, a social studies teacher in Wilton public schools, reiterated his position that the biotech and energy sectors should play a prominent role in the state's economic revival.
"We have to make an investment for our future -- it is biotech, fuel-cell technology and renewable resources," he said. "These are the cutting-edge businesses of the future that can pull this state out of the ground. We are not Carolina. We are not a state with all this open land that's going to be developed and people can flood into the state. We're a New England state; we're built out. That is my recipe for generating more revenue and for creating more jobs."
In response to other questions asked by Garrell, all four candidates expressed support for Connecticut's gun-control laws; reform of 8-30g, a state statute that allows developers to challenge municipal zoning regulations to build more "affordable" below-market-rate homes, and sustained state funding for transportation infrastructure.
email@example.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott