Himes, Debicella tangle in re-match for 4th District seat
Published 5:51 am, Wednesday, October 8, 2014
On its surface, this year's race for the 4th Congressional District seems like a dead ringer for 2010: It's a midterm election year, a tight gubernatorial race is playing out between a former Stamford mayor and Greenwich financier, and once again Republican Dan Debicella is taking on Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Himes for a seat in Washington.
But Tuesday night, as the pair settled into a public forum at the Round Hill Community House in Greenwich, the focus was squarely on how much had changed, in both Fairfield County and across the world.
Months after Himes' 6-percentage-point win over Debicella in 2010, the Arab world exploded into unrest, the reverberations of which have given rise to a new face of global terror. Relations between political parties, already at grim lows, devolved even further as racial and socioeconomic tensions ruptured anew. In the 4th District, aging infrastructure failed time and time again, revealing the limits of Fairfield County's critical transportation system.
A lot has changed in four years. Fittingly, Himes, 48, now running for his fourth term on Nov. 4, and Debicella, 39, who left a job at Bridgewater Associates for a second shot at Congress, both attempted to keep their sights set on the future during the hour-and-a-half discussion.
It was the first public meeting of Himes and Debicella in a political context since their race four years ago, and each harked back to 2010 to show what the congressman had been able to do in office, and, in the case of Debicella, what he hadn't.
The evening, sponsored by the Northeast Greenwich Association and the Round Hill Association, dispensed with the formality of a traditional debate. Instead, each candidate was asked to give a 25-minute speech touching on three topics -- military strategy against terrorism, partisan gridlock in Congress and transportation troubles in Fairfield County.
In his opening remarks, Himes sought to trace change over the course of his six years in Washington -- mainly, the return of the American economy.
"Today, we are in a different, better world," he said. "The economy is growing at 3, 4 percent, the stock market has gone from 7,000 to 17,000 (points), and the stock market is a reflection of the confidence of our business owners."
But another key was what hasn't changed for millions of Americans -- wages haven't increased, millions are unable to find work, the rebound of stock market has had little impact on many middle class and poor Americans. Much work needs to be done, said Himes.
Turning his focus initially to the transportation woes in Greenwich, Himes pledged to continue his efforts to bring federal funds to Fairfield County. He promoted his efforts to bring some $500 million to the state for work on the Merritt Parkway, the Stamford Metro-North station and elsewhere in the district.
But as for events halfway across the world, Himes struck a hard stance, looking far into the future to lay out a plan for the foreign policy in the Middle East. While the congressman, who sits on the Congressional Committee on Intelligence, said he supported airstrikes on the Islamic State and opposed arming moderate Syrian rebels.
"We are extremely good at hunting and killing terrorists," said Himes, "but we're not very good at what comes the next day."
He also defended Vice President Joe Biden for comments made last week criticizing the role of Middle Eastern strongmen allied with the U.S. in facilitating the rise of ISIS and other extremists in their zeal to bring down Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
In the future, America will need to push those regimes to liberalize, said Himes, mentioning U.S. ally Saudi Arabia's policy of prohibiting women from driving, let alone voting.
As for gridlock, Himes pointed toward gerrymandering within states and campaign finance laws at the federal level.
"The idea that money is free speech will someday erode the foundation of our democracy," he said.
Debicella came out aggressively, attacking Himes' assertions that things had gotten better nationally, firing off that Connecticut remained 50th in the nation in job creation and painting his rival as marching in lockstep with his party.
While he lauded elements of the Affordable Care Act -- keeping children on their parents' insurance, preventing discrimination for pre-existing conditions -- he blasted Himes for voting against chances to fix it.
"There's been so many chances to fix Obamacare, and Jim Himes voted against every one," Debicella said. "Whether it was keeping your insurance or delaying mandates, Jim Himes has rubber-stamped every one."
"We need to get past this point of Republicans voting repeal, repeal, repeal, but nor should we be voting against every chance to fix it," Debicella said.
He instead attempted to place himself in the center, striking the pose of a moderate willing to compromise on a number of other issues, including economic policy and immigration.
On transportation, Debicella was similarly pugnacious, promising to sit on the House Transportation Committee and make infrastructure a priority.
"Whose commute has gotten better in the past four years?" he asked.
Foreign policy woes currently plaguing the world could be traced back to the president's handling of the Syrian Civil War, with his actions being a sign of weakness to other leaders and prompting violence from Russia and Hamas, Debicella said.
"I think it can be traced back to when Barack Obama drew a red line around Syria on chemical weapons," he said.
Debicella also criticized Himes for not supporting moderate Syrian rebels, a proposal which had received bipartisan support.
But when both speeches were over, the knives came out during a question-and-answer session. A question on civility in Congress led to barbs from both sides.
"Because the real Jim Himes beat him four years ago, now he's running against an unreal Jim Himes," said Himes, deflecting Debicella's criticism and going after him on his vote against requiring hospitals to provide emergency contraception.
"Jim Himes spent $3 million on negative ads in 2010 and then sits here and tells you `I would never impugn someone's integrity,' " said Debicella.
Other questions veered into environmental policy, how best to prevent violence against women, gun laws and term limits. Both candidates said they support universal background check, diverged on term limits, with Debicella for them and Himes saying he had yet to make up his mind.
But even as the congeniality crumbled, the packed audience remained attentive. When the final questions were finished, the crowd erupted in applause.