State Senate candidates debate issues before packed house
GREENWICH — Going face-to-face in their only scheduled debate, incumbent Republican state Sen. L. Scott Frantz and Democratic challenger Alexandra Bergstein took on issues ranging from the economy to gun laws.
The League of Women Voters of Greenwich hosted the debate between the two candidates for the 36th Senate District on Wednesday night at Town Hall, before a packed crowd that far exceeded capacity of the building’s main meeting room.
Highway tolls became one dominant issue, and a sharp point of contrast between the two candidates.
“I would support installing electronic tolls, which bear no resemblance to the tolls that we had 20 years ago,” Bergstein said. “But the technology has changed dramatically, and we are the only state in the region that has not installed tolls. Up to 40 percent of the traffic from our highways is from out of state, so they use our roads for free and we pay for the damage they do with our tax dollars.”
There’s a reason that all the nearby states have recovered from the recession while Connecticut has not, Bergstein said. Installing electronic tolls and putting the proceeds in a lockbox for infrastructure improvements is the right way to go, she said.
But Frantz disagreed, saying tolls would be another tax on Connecticut residents.
“I’m not sure how you can be a fiscal conservative and essentially raise your taxes by a whole lot by putting in tolls,” he said. “You’ve got a situation in Connecticut where not only are you paying for the construction and maintenance of the roadways, bridges, railways, etc., you also pay a ton in personal income tax. You pay a ton in gasoline tax. You pay a gross receipts tax. You pay a registration fee every time you go to renew your vehicle.”
The state’s special transportation fund has been raided, Frantz said, which is why Republicans have been pushing for a lockbox. But tolls would hurt teachers who drive an hour to get to Greenwich or a carpenter who travels from New Britain to Stamford, he said.
Bergstein said that was not the case.
“I have talked to teachers and carpenters and firefighters who live in Greenwich and elsewhere in the district and they all say to me, ‘Why don’t we have tolls yet?’” she said. “They understand the big picture. They understand the opportunity cost of not having tolls is that our highways and rails are not getting better.”
Frantz said the plan that Bergstein favored for using toll money for infrastructure improvements, including high-speed rail from Stamford to New York City, was “pie in the sky thinking” that was not feasible. He said Republicans had the better plan to use revenue already coming in for transportation improvements and canceling costly, unneeded projects, thereby creating improvements without having to add tolls.
Bergstein, an attorney and first-time political candidate, is challenging Frantz, founder of the Greenwich-based private investment firm Haebler Capital, as he seeks his sixth term in office.
Residents who came out to the contest overpacked the 110-person capacity Town Hall Meeting Room and flowed into the hallway. At one point, the fire marshal stopped the debate and said it would not be allowed to continue until the overflow crowd left, clearing the aisles within the room and the hallway.
That forced dozens of people, including U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, town Tax Collector Howard Richman and Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein, to leave. League officials said they were surprised by the high turnout.
Over several questions, the debate itself touched on the state’s economy. When asked what reforms he would look to make in state government, Frantz said he had a “laundry list about 18 miles long” but kept his focus on fiscal matters, as he has throughout the campaign.
“We are in such bad shape right now after 48 years of one-party rule,” he said. “It needs to come to an end, and there absolutely has to be some order put back into the way that we manage our fiscal affairs.”
Under the current 18-18 split in the State Senate, a chamber long controlled by Democrats, Frantz said they were able to pass two bipartisan budgets within the past year that included a spending cap and a bonding cap. They also established a rainy-day fund for the state. He urged voters to send him back for a new term to look at pension liability reform and cut waste out of the state budget.
“I would keep that momentum up,” Frantz said. “It is so critical because nothing else matters if we can’t keep our fiscal foundation in one piece.”
Bergstein, who has campaigned as a fiscally conservative Democrat, said she has a plan to address the state’s fiscal woes, including reforming pension liability, investing in infrastructure to attract new businesses and residents, and changing the state’s tax system.
By electing her and putting her with a Democratic majority, Bergstein said she would be able to advocate for Greenwich and help drive the agenda in Hartford.
“Politics as usual is just not working and we need a fresh approach,” she said. “There are solutions to the state’s biggest problems.”
Bergstein said she agreed with Frantz that the state’s fiscal stability is paramount and added she would also have voted for the spending and bonding caps as he did.
“That is the first step to creating fiscal stability but we also need to go farther,” Bergstein said. “When we get all the levers of the economic engine really working, everything will start to improve. Fiscal stability is just the beginning.”
As they have several times over the last few weeks, the candidates clashed over gun laws. Bergstein, who has been endorsed by Moms Demand Action and received an A rating from Connecticut Against Gun Violence, has accused Frantz of not being strong enough on the issue. She also said more must be done to protect and strengthen the state’s existing laws at a time when the NRA is supporting candidates to get them repealed.
“This is a real and present danger,” Bergstein said. “The NRA is alive and emboldened in Connecticut as we see at the top of the Republican ticket (with gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski and lieutenant governor candidate Joe Markely) and well-intentioned candidates who support them without standing up to their agenda.”
Frantz said he had helped save the state’s recent bump stock ban, which can turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic weapons, from being defeated. He also said was in favor of banning ghost guns, which are partially assembled guns that can be purchased online. The weapons, which do not have serial numbers, are considered untraceable and can be purchased without a background check.
And Frantz defended his record in post-Sandy Hook bipartisan gun safety reforms that he said earned him an F grade from the NRA. He said is proud of that grade after comforting and helping families after the 2012 mass shooting.
“We put together a bill that has by far and away the strongest laws and put it into package where we could get a bunch of other (Republican senators) to jump on board,” Frantz said. “The bill has worked magnificently. We have not seen any kind of incident in Connecticut like that since then and hopefully never happens again in the world. I put my heart and soul into it, and I believe in the bill.”
The debate was broadcast live on GCTV Channel 79. It will be rebroadcast several times more before Election Day.