The second debate between challenger Tami Zawistowski (R) and incumbent State Rep. Elaine O’Brien (D) for Connecticut’s 61st district seat took place in Suffield Wednesday, covering topics from economic growth to open space to the death penalty before a packed audience at the Suffield Senior Center.
Zawistowski brought a message of change in government, economic growth, business acumen and empathy with the needs of local businesses based on her 16 years of experience as a small business owner in East Granby and an end to single party rule in Hartford. O’Brien emphasized her experience in local and state politics, listening skills brought on through her role in many positions in Suffield town government and the state legislature, her willingness to not simply follow the party line and a forward-thinking philosophy for the state, its economy and its legislative actions.
While the candidates had their share of disagreements and factual disputes, the discourse was remarkably respectful and that level of civility seemed to be appreciated by the audience. Charles Cahn III, headmaster of Suffield Academy, skillfully moderated the debate and kept the participants within its rules and limits, ensuring a focus on the topics at hand.
The importance and state funding of open space preservation, a significant topic and source of pride for many in Suffield as well as East Granby, was an issue where the two candidates agreed.
“Preserving farmland [and open space] keeps the community the way it is,” O’Brien said, noting that the consensus she’s heard among Suffield residents is that they enjoy maintaining the pastoral character of the town.
Zawistowski agreed with O’Brien on the importance of maintaining the history and personality of the towns in the district.
“It adds to the quality of life,” she said. “Farmland is precious.”
As for benefits for state workers and keeping the costs of such benefits in check, the answers of the two candidates were indicators of their goals and their experiences.
Zawistowski said she would start chipping away at pensions in a responsible fashion to stop them from getting out of control and becoming too much of a budget drain. She would like to focus on defined contributions versus defined benefits.
O’Brien pointed out that the executive branch of Connecticut’s government is in charge of union contract negotiations and pensions. State workers’ benefits are governed by contracts.
“All we can do [in the legislative branch] is control the budgets,” O’Brien said.
An audience question about the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements yielded differing opinions from the candidates as well. Zawistowski said she was in favor of organized, lawful movements regardless of their goals.
“I can support that,” she said.
She pointed out that the Tea Party began as an organic movement focused on taxation but has changed and become involved in social issues that were not part of its original goals. She said Occupy Wall Street, while a different movement on the political spectrum, has experienced similar issues.
O’Brien, while recognizing the right for free speech, was more negative. She called both movements distractions from more salient issues. She said the Occupy Wall Street Movement lacked goals and an agenda and said the Tea Party is a very destructive movement.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing, I don’t think it’s a good thing at all,” O’Brien said.