WESTPORT — In what is already a charged election season, the first debate encounter between Rep. Jonathan Steinberg D-136 and challenger Greg Kraut turned personal.

Steinberg accused Republican Kraut of being a liar and predatory developer and Kraut claimed Steinberg, a Democrat, has a weak record of fighting for Westporters in Hartford.

“He has torn down a historic building in New York City which housed a movie theater over the objections of the neighbors in the community. I’m the co-founder of the Westport Cinema Initiative. I believe in building community by bringing in a movie theater. He wants to tear it down,” Steinberg, who’s represented the 136th district in the statehouse since 2010, said.

In his criticism, Steinberg referenced a March article from a New York City blog, in which Kraut, a managing partner at the real estate management and development firm K Property Group, said he planned to tear down the Sunshine Cinema building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in order to construct a 63,000 square foot office building.

“All you want to do is personally attack me because you have no record,” Kraut said, saying the Lower Eastside community board shut down the theater themselves by rejecting the theater’s proposal to offer food and drinks at the theater.

Steinberg’s effort to bring a movie theater to town has failed, Kraut said, adding Steinberg has repeatedly voted for tax increases that harm Westporters and decrease the state economy. In response, Steinberg said he voted against Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposed $1.5 million tax increase in 2011 and in 2015, voted against the budget deal, both of which posed tax increases.

“He can’t get off the lies. It’s central to his campaign,” Steinberg said, criticizing Kraut’s 14-page economic plan that includes a proposal to monetize state-owned properties through sale-leasebacks of state-owned properties.

“My opponent has a hair-brained sale-leaseback scheme where the state basically holds a firesale and sells all the states assets,” Steinberg said, adding, “It’s great for real-estate developers like my opponent. It’s a predatory practice, like my opponent.”

Kraut called Steinberg’s claim that he is a predatory developer “ridiculous” and said the sale-leasebacks is a proven strategy in government and the private sector that could provide the state with needed revenue

“The way Jonathan is fighting with me, I wish he would fight for Westport like that. I’ve never seen somebody fight so hard who’s been complacent for the past eight years,” Kraut said.

One issue both Kraut and Steinberg could agree on was the need to fix the state’s failing infrastructure.

“Have you driven on the Post Road lately? It’s like a third world country. We have put off projects for years and years because of lack of funding,” Steinberg said, adding that transportation infrastructure investment is his number one priority.

Fairfield County commuters have been short-changed by the state legislature, Kraut said, adding that if elected, he would fight to bring investment to Fairfield County’s broken roads and train system.

“Jonathan has been doing this a long time and Kraut’s saying our interests aren’t being represented in Hartford, which is a good point,” Board of Finance member Andrea Moore said after the debate.

Will Haskell, the 22-year-old Democratic candidate for the 26th state senate district, attended the debate although his opponent, incumbent Republican Toni Boucher, did not. The state should implement a toll system, like all of the state’s between Maine and North Carolina, in order to fund infrastructure improvements in the state, Haskell said.

“So many out-of-state drivers and trucks have a huge wear and tear on our roads, and yet we are not asking them to contribute. That doesn’t make us uniquely advantaged as Connecticut taxpayers, it makes us uniquely disadvantaged because we bear the sole brunt of maintaining our infrastructure, and that’s why it’s crumbling,” Haskell said.

The state has given corporate tax breaks to companies like GE and gotten nothing in return, Haskell said, adding the state should instead put money toward the student loan forgiveness program, tax relief for small businesses, and investment in the state’s infrastructure and cities.

“I think it’s time we start to think of ourselves in Connecticut not as 169 different towns, but as a regional economy. Westport is no better off if Bridgeport is crumbling and in fact, we’d be better off in this town if we had a thriving metropolitan area just nearby,” Haskell said.

Haskell received high-praise from debate attendees, including Westport resident Nancy Axthelm who said, “He’s the brightest young guy we’ve seen in a long time,” and former Board of Finance member John Hartwell who said, “Will Haskell was by far the most articulate and the most engaging. He’s become a real superstar.”

Gail Lavielle, a Republican state representative from the 143 house district, also participated in the debate in the absence of her opponent, Democrat Stephanie Thomas.

“I believe the most serious issue facing us is the conditions that are currently in the contract with the state employee unions,” Lavielle said, adding she would work to reopen the state employee contracts in the next legislative session in order to renegotiate a decrease in the cost of state employee benefits, which she said pose an unfair burden for taxpayers.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1