Rep. John Shaban, the Republican who currently holds the seat representing Weston, Easton, and a portion of Redding, and his challenger, Democrat Leon Karvelis, participated in the debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Weston. Green Party candidate Gabriel Rossi will be on the ballot Nov. 6, but declined the invitation to the debate.
The gentlemen, both from Redding, were civil and complimentary of each other’s motives and service to the community, but they were also not shy about making clear their difference in approach to the role of government, the environment, how best to jump start the state’s economy, taxes, special interest groups, and bipartisanship.
The debate began, and often circled back to, the economy.
“No one can deny the state’s economy is going in the wrong direction,” Mr. Shaban said. “The key thing is fiscal sanity.” The state, he said, needs to stop “cannibalizing” the private sector to fund the public sector, he said.
Mr. Karvelis stressed the importance of not sacrificing the environment as the state and the country come out of the recession. He said he would not seek to stop capital development, but “we have to be prepared” to make sure it doesn’t negatively impact the environment.
Mr. Shaban said stopping the increase in spending — “at a minimum, keep it flat” — is one of his priorities. “To cut spending, we have to stop spending,” he said.
He believes state government is too bloated. While the governor tried to consolidate state agencies in order to save money, it hasn’t worked because there are just as many state employees, Mr. Shaban said. “We have to shrink overhead and head count,” perhaps by “outsourcing” some of those jobs to the private sector.
If the state grows the tax base, Mr. Shaban added, it will increase revenue and lead to more prosperity.
Mr. Karvelis said he would like to see some cost reductions at the Department of Transportation. He pointed to money spent on transportation projects like the busway north of Hartford as not necessarily a bad idea, but not good for this part of the state. He would have preferred to see that money — much of which came from federal funds — go into the Route 7 corridor.
He said if he — a Democrat — were in office, he would be able to “make the case that we are not to be ignored,” he said.
“We’re not the golden goose anymore, because our goose is getting cooked,” he said.
When asked how he would “work across the aisle,” Mr. Karvelis pointed to his work on the Region 9 (Easton and Redding’s Joel Barlow High School) school board for the last seven years as examples of working across party lines to get many positive things accomplished.
“No party has a patent on good ideas,” Mr. Karvelis said, pointing out that he used to be a registered Republican. “Fiscal irresponsibility” by the Republicans prompted him to change parties eight years ago, because he believes it’s important to “maintain fiscal sobriety.”
Mr. Shaban contended “there is no aisle,” rather, there is a room filled with legislators from both parties “all trying to get to the same place.”
He pointed to education reform as an area where he and other Republicans worked with Democrats to come up with a good plan. “I think education reform is the best thing we did as a legislature,” Mr. Shaban said.
Even though he is in the minority party in the state legislature, Mr. Shaban said those in the majority do listen to him. “I’m kind of hard to ignore because I’ll track you down in the hallway,” he said.
“When it comes to basic public policy, if you know how to deal with people — which I do — they’ll listen to you,” Mr. Shaban said. He said members of the legislature agree on about 75% of things, then learn how to work out the rest.
Mr. Karvelis responded he is not sure how much the majority does actually listen to Mr. Shaban, since he voted “the other way” on at least 17 major bills.
Most of the decisions are being made in the Democratic caucus, Mr. Karvelis said. “Putting somebody inside the caucus that is making the decisions makes the most sense,” he said.
Mr. Shaban countered that that argument is a “misunderstanding of the process.” Legislating is a joint process done on joint committees where legislators work collectively. “The secret agent plan is poppycock,” Mr. Shaban said.
Mr. Karvelis disagreed that he misunderstands the political process.
“Politics is politics,” and decisions are made because of the work done in caucus and in committee, he said. “I intend to be inside that caucus room delivering a sane, sober message for the people of this district.”
When it came to the question of taxes, Mr. Shaban said he disagrees with the governor’s approach, which was to raise income, energy and sales taxes, but then increase spending by not reducing the number of state employees, which is adding every day to pension fund and health care costs for the state.
That’s “the wrong approach,” Mr. Shaban said.
Mr. Karvelis put much of the blame on the previous administration, saying the Rowland and Rell administrations left the current one with “significant obligations.”
Mr. Karvelis said he is not in favor of raising taxes more. He would like to eliminate the corporate franchise tax and replace it with something “progressive, not regressive.”
Mr. Shaban said his approach is different from his opponent’s because Mr. Karvelis asks what government needs, but Mr. Shaban asks what people in business need. Helping businesses prosper will help the state prosper, he said. “When the tax base expands, that increases revenue.”
Mr. Karvelis countered, “I’m not a believer in big government, I’m a believer in smart government.”
On environmental matters, both candidates agreed local governments should have a say on things like pesticide use.
Mr. Karvelis pointed out that Mr. Shaban received a “failing grade” when the League of Conservation Voters did its annual Environmental Scorecard. “This really bothers me,” Mr. Karvelis said.
Mr. Shaban said he considers the league to be a special interest group and he is proud of his 50% score. “It means I didn’t do what they wanted, I did what I thought best,” he said. Oftentimes, he said, he votes against bills he thinks don’t go far enough or ones he doesn’t think will hold up to judicial scrutiny.
Mr. Karvelis insisted that if elected, his environmental scores will be different — better — than Mr. Shaban’s, and he will proud of them.
“If yours are better, than you are caving” to a special interest group, Mr. Shaban said.
The candidates were asked how special interests influence legislators, and particularly how they would deal with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Mr. Shaban said he attended an ALEC conference but the group “hasn’t pitched a bill to me.” He compared it to the League of Conservation Voters, saying it is a special interest group like thousands of others “I’m not going to get steered by one,” he said.
Mr. Karvelis took umbrage with Mr. Shaban’s comparing ALEC with the conservation league.
ALEC is not an above-board lobbying group, he said. It “holds meetings behind closed doors” and then asks legislators to bring ideas and bills back to their legislatures, Mr. Karvelis said. “These people do not have the public’s interests in mind,” he said, adding ALEC’s goals include privatizing education and prisons. He said it was “ludicrous” Mr. Shaban would attend such a meeting.
The candidates will meet again at the Redding Community Center on Lonetown Road in Redding on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 7:30 p.m. That debate is also sponsored by the League of Women Voters.