Mattei Seeks To Smoke Out Tong

Thomas Breen photosA passionate debate for the support of the Democratic Party base got into the weeds Tuesday night — or, more specifically, into weed. 

William Tong’s record on legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana became a focal point in the debate, among the three candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for attorney general.

Tong, a state representative from Stamford, former federal prosecutor Chris Mattei, and Wethersfield State Sen. Paul Doyle all made their pitches over the course of the hourlong event as to why the over 100 New Haveners gathered at Bethel AME Church on Goffe Street should elect one of them as Connecticut’s “people’s lawyer” who oversees 200 attorneys in advising the governor and legislature and pressing civil suits on consumer fraud, environmental protection, immigration, and civil rights.

The New Haven Independent and Connecticut Law Tribune cosponsored the debate.

Tong and Mattei have been competing intensely for the support of the party’s left-leaning grassroots. (Doyle is a conservative Democrat.) In prosecutorial form, Mattei pressed Tong Tuesday night about his current opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana use and his vote in 2012 against instituting Connecticut’s medical marijuana program.

Tong responded that he made a mistake with that 2012 vote. Six years later, he said, he has atoned for that mistake and earned his progressive bona fides in part by helping draft legislation to implement and expand the state’s medical marijuana program.

And if elected attorney general, he promised, he will defend the legalization of recreational marijuana “150 percent,” assuming the state legislature passes a recreational marijuana law first.

The Democratic and Republican primaries for attorney general, as well as for governor, lieutenant governor, and treasurer, all take place next Tuesday, Aug. 14. State Republicans will also get to vote on candidates for secretary of the state and comptroller, while the Democratic candidates for those positions will not be on the primary ballot because they are running unopposed.

The three Democratic attorney general candidates largely agreed Tuesday on the big-ticket items they would tackle. All three promised to support a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, and then use settlement money from that case to bolster opioid addiction treatment services in Connecticut. They all lambasted the Trump administration for rolling back auto emissions standards, and promised to join lawsuits with other state attorneys general against big polluters responsible for climate change.

They sought to distinguish among themselves through a vetting of their ideological stances and past records on legalized marijuana, their leadership and legal qualifications for the position — and, at least for Tong and Mattei, their claims to being the most progressive candidate in the field.

Legalizing Marijuana

The conversation about where each candidate falls on medical and recreational marijuana began when one of the debate’s moderators, the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Robert Storace, asked Doyle to explain his reservations on legalizing recreational marijuana, and to respond to the argument that recreational marijuana legalization would reduce opioid addiction and deaths in the state.

“This issue is complicated,” said Doyle, who has positioned himself as the more socially and fiscally moderate Democrat in the race. He called out Hamden State Rep. Josh Elliott, who was in attendance on Tuesday night, for the latter’s so-far unsuccessful efforts to pass a bill legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana in the state.

“That’s indicative of the public’s misgiving,” he said about the bill’s failure to get a vote in the state legislature thus far. He said as attorney general he would certainly defend the law if Elliott is able to get it passed. But for now, he said, he wants to wait and see how other states’ experiments in recreational marijuana legalization and regulation play out before acting in Connecticut.

“If the legislature passes it,” said Tong, who has personal reservations about the bill, “I will defend it 150 percent.” He said that over the past couple years, he has tried to raise a legalization bill in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, where he serves as the House chair, but that he has not been able to put together a bill that would garner enough support from his colleagues.

Tong touted his support for the state’s medical marijuana program over the past six years, and noted that he wrote and helped pass a law that expanded the program to provide medical marijuana for minors who suffer from epilepsy and other debilitating chronic medical conditions.

“One of the critical issues is the system of mass incarceration that we have in this state that results from draconian drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences,” he said, pivoting the conversation towards criminal justice reform writ large. He said he helped write and pass “Second Chance Society” legislation that eliminated mandatory minimums for drug offenses.

“I’m used to being in court where you can’t just dance around an issue,” Mattei jumped in. “You have to address it directly.” He noted that both Tong and Doyle have voted on a number of occasions against the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana. He also singled out Tong’s 2012 vote against establishing the state’s medical marijuana program.

Mattei said he is unequivocally in support of legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana from both a public health perspective and a criminal justice perspective.

Marijuana is “still used by police officers to stop people,” he said, “to search their cars, to search their purses, and it results in communities of color being overpoliced.”

Picking up the microphone after Mattei’s attack, Tong admitted that he should have voted differently on the 2012 medical marijuana bill.

“That was a mistake,” he said. “And since then, I have atoned for that error in judgment by building out the medical marijuana program and expanding it for minors. That was not an easy lift, folks. I’m committed to making sure that we provide that medicine for people here in the state.”

I’m More Progressive Than You Are

In response to a question about the biggest public misconception about his candidacy, Tong looked to solidify his progressive credentials.

“I’m proud to be the Working Families Party nominee for attorney general,” he said. “There is no more progressive party in the state.”

In addition to receiving endorsements from the state Democratic Party and Working Families Party, which supports left-leaning Democrats (except in New York City) with a third-party line, Tong also pointed out that he has been endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFSCME Council 4, SEIU 32BJ, and “all the major labor unions in the state that have made an endorsement.”

He said he has earned these labor endorsements because of his support for collective bargaining rights for working people throughout his 12 years in the state legislature.

“And the fact is that I have the strongest AFL-CIO rating of any candidate now or previously running,” he said. “I’m proud of my labor record. I’m proud of being a progressive. I’m proud of representing the Working Families Party.”

Mattei, who formerly chaired the financial fraud and public corruption unit of New Haven’s U.S. Attorney’s office, said he too has encountered some initial skepticism from Democratic voters who are wary of a former federal prosecutor’s progressive commitments.

But in fact, he said, he is the true progressive candidate in the race, not Tong.

“I’m in favor of a $15 minimum wage indexed to inflation,” he said. “William has voted against a 25-cent increase to the minimum wage when it was eight bucks. I’m for progressive taxation. William voted against increasing taxes on families making over $500,000 a year. I’m for making sure that workers can collect if they’ve been the victims of wage theft. William voted against allowing working to collect double wages when they’ve been victims of wage theft. I’m for a public health option in Connecticut. William has voted against it. So you decide who’s more progressive on economic issues.”

Tong replied that it is easy for Mattei, who has never served in the state legislature, to cherrypick votes on difficult issues. He said he voted against the minimum wage increase six years ago because the bill didn’t go far enough to protect restaurant workers, but that since then, he has voted three different times to increase the minimum wage.

“But that’s what happens in the legislature,” he said. “That’s what comes from the experience of serving. You have to say sometimes, something doesn’t go far enough.”

Is He Legally Qualified?

At the end of the debate, Mattei launched his most pointed critique of Tong when he asked if Tong is even qualified, legally speaking, to serve as attorney general.

State law requires state attorney general candidates to be practicing attorneys with at least 10 years of active, legal experience in the state. Former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz famously ended her own bid to become attorney general in 2010 after the state Supreme Court ruled that she was not legally qualified to serve in the position. (Bysiewicz is currently running to be the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.)

Mattei said that Tong, despite working as a lawyer in the state for nearly 20 years and despite serving as the House chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, may not pass legal muster to be attorney general. The reason, he said, is that Tong has allegedly only been involved in one trial in his entire career as a lawyer.

“If that’s true,” Mattei said, “will you please seek over the next week a judicial opinion on your eligibility to serve?”

Tong responded by accusing Mattei of engaging in a “smear campaign” dating back to the state party convention in Hartford in May, during which he said that Mattei’s campaign volunteers spread rumors about Tong’s alleged ineligibility for the position.

“I’m the only candidate in this race who has done civil litigation for almost 20 years,” he said. He said he has represented hundreds of clients, and, through his leadership position on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, he helps oversee the state’s entire legal system.

Tong didn’t dispute Mattei’s allegation that he has only litigated one trial in his career. In a June interview with CT Post, Tong called the accusation of his ineligibility to serve as attorney general “absurd” and “pretty offensive.”

“We’ve debated the Bysiewicz decision and the qualification issue in the Judiciary Committee!” he told CT Post’s Emilie Munson on June 15. “I’ve lived with this as a legislator and it’s absurd to think I would have decided to run for attorney general without thinking about it first and making sure that I was covered.”

“I don’t know what else I can say,” Tong said on Tuesday night in New Haven. “I’ve answered question after question after question. Would it help if I produced my long-form birth certificate?”

“I’m not saying this as a smear on you,” Mattei replied. “The Democratic Party needs a candidate who is viable.”

Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch the full debate.


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posted by: Not Worthy on August 8, 2018  7:53am

In terms of their platforms, Mattei and Tong are very close. But Mattei deserves the support of progressives because (a) he knows what he’s doing, and would be much more effective in prosecuting and defending cases, and (b) his progressivism flows from his life-experience as a union organizer and champion of the disadvantaged. Tong, by contrast, deploys a lot of bluster (“150 percent”) to cover up the fact that he’s an opportunist with very little relevant experience for the position. His supporters are honorable, passionate people, but they should look at results. Mattei played a key role in putting Rowland and many other white-collar criminals behind bars; what has Tong done that can compare?

posted by: ShadowBoxer on August 8, 2018  7:53am

If voters are prepared to give Ganim a second chance, they can forgive Tong who admits he made a mistake voting against legal weed.  Just sayin’

posted by: Noteworthy on August 8, 2018  7:58am

Lame Notes:

1. Will you defend a state law legalizing marijuana? That’s a stupid question. As AG, of course they will.

2. Did somebody vote against it? Big deal - that was six years ago. Public opinion has changed since then. Acting like a weasel and saying he’s atoned for the sin of voting against a liberal view of drug use is lame.

3. Own your stands - if they change, so what? Nobody’s views, statements and votes are set in stone in terms of rational. You change and adapt - own it. Don’t weasel it.

4. But this issue is not an issue in the AG race. It’s up to the legislature. I just hope that in the pursuit of money, they state is careful about how it crafts any law on recreational pot.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 8, 2018  9:05am

How come Green Party Attorney General Candidate Peter Goselin was not allowed into this Debate?

posted by: cunningham on August 8, 2018  9:43am

Because as a Green Party candidate, he’s not seeking the nomination of the Democratic party. This is ahead of next week’s primary.

posted by: nevetse on August 8, 2018  9:54am

As far as the law is concerned about the requirements to be CT’s Attorney General, Tong is indeed qualified. However, I am concerned about the fact that he only has litigated one trial in his career; it makes him look underqualified for the position, despite him otherwise seeming to be qualified according to the law. Both Mattei and Doyle have far more courtroom experience than Tong, making them better choices in that regard. Doyle, though, seems a little hostile to labor unions, especially with voting for the Republican budget last year, and that doesn’t it cut it for me, and probably a majority of Democrats in the state. That pretty much leaves one choice for me: Mattei, and I can’t really see any negatives against him.

posted by: challenge on August 8, 2018  9:59am

I’m with you 3/5ths. Why was Peter not invited to the debate. He is the most progressive of all and has lots of legal experience defending the less privileged. He would be most likely to prosecute police abuse of power that is rampant in this state. Is that it? He’s too progressive and grass roots for Connecticut politics?

posted by: Dave Roth on August 8, 2018  10:10am

The Connecticut Attorney General does not generally oversee criminal investigations and prosecutions in the state. That’s handled by a separate department, the Division of Criminal Justice (overseen by the Chief State’s Attorney, currently Kevin Kane).

Instead, the Attorney General oversees various civil matters, like enforcing environmental or consumer protection laws or defending civil suits against the state. See here:

Criminal law enforcement is thus not part of the job.

posted by: kenneth_krayeske on August 8, 2018  11:16am

I would have loved a comment about how any of these three candidates are going to approach the AG’s duty top defend civil rights violators. Every time a cop, corrections officer or state marshal is sued for false arrest, failure to provide medical care to a prisoner or brutality, the AG’s office has the responsibility to provide defense to the accused state official.

While there are plenty of frivolous cases filed, there are also plenty of cases with merit that the AG’s office defends to the death, with what appears to be a view of expanding and protecting executive branch police power abuse.

How will the AG candidates defend rogue officers? And how will they manage the career bureaucrats who are in charge of the litigation management committee, the entity within the AG’s office that sets the litigation strategy on cases? How will any of these gentlemen do battle with career state attorneys who get offended at the mere suggestion that their client officers overstepped the bounds of what is constitutional?

We are 15 years too late on weed. Real progressives have been pushing this issue for decades (and paying steep prices for their advocacy). Tong’s cautious no vote in 2012 tells me he lacks the courage to change the culture in the AG’s office.

Doyle is a traditional Yankee Republican whose long term opposition to changing drug policy demonstrates that he will back rogue cops and the lawyers who defend them.

I am counting on Mattei to view the AG’s approach to unconstitutional law enforcement as corruption, and to root it out.

posted by: Patricia Kane on August 8, 2018  11:35am

Why can’t we have either an update of the qualifications required to serve as Attorney-General or an agreement that at least 10 years of active, legal experience in the state is the standard? Based on the ruling in Bysiewicz’s case previously, the old standard stands. So has Tong actively practiced law in CT or not?
  Since I am neither a registered D or R, I don’t get to vote on a primary choice, which explains a lot about why we don’t get elected officials we want.
  A small group of insiders decides who runs and a bit bigger group gets to vote in a primary, but the rest of us have no say until it’s too late.
  We need open primaries in which ALL registered voters get to vote in primaries and then preferential voting so we achieve people we want to see in office, not the choice of the insiders.
  If Mattei survives the process, a debate between him and Peter Goselin would be enlightening. Both are experienced and fearless. We need new ideas and priorities, even if they have to be implemented by others.

posted by: Gary Stewart on August 8, 2018  12:33pm

@ Patricia Kane - re: being an Independent voter and not being able to vote in Dem. primaries, yes , because you and so many others who are more Dem. than Repub.  don’t register as Dems and become part of the solution, we have the mess we have. A person like you could become a Ward Chair and be in a position to vote on who the Party endorses.  Many writers complain about one party Dem. rule but it goes beyond that - we need more ” disunity” within the N H Dem. Town Committee and BOA, that is , more independent thinkers. I was such a person but got slapped down by the DTC and HERE - UNITE . The problem was , I was the only one on the DTC who dissented from the script. we need more people who comment on the mess to get on their Ward Committees and run for co- Chair positions. Then , the DTC can be a force for change.

posted by: Patricia Kane on August 8, 2018  1:45pm

@Gary Stewart: Your point is one I’ve heard before. Maybe it takes a “critical mass” to accomplish change. I’d like to know why your efforts didn’t work out.
    Politics is very hierarchical, with money and family name being a big advantage. I have neither.
    With the corporate money takeover of both parties, no politician thinks big any more (oh, one mad man, but he’s destructive, not constructive) because the problems are systemic and those who profit from it do NOT fund change.
    There are new, young progressives (Berniecrats) within the Dem. Party and a few are in office, with more on the way.
    One of our promising Greens in Waterford was snatched to run for Representative on the D label, which happens because Greens and others (I don’t focus on party ID) can’t get in debates, can barely get on the ballot in some cases because the rules discourage that and seldom get media attention. Winners get attention.
    Who raised the most money? That’s the projected winner. And that attracts more money and support.
    Neither Eugene Debs, Mother Jones or MKL Jr. was elected to office.
    It’s not necessary to hold office to effect change. Barbara Fair, John Lugo and Kica Matos are proof.
    We do need competent, open thinkers in office and the Board of Alders and all elective offices in our towns are the place to start.
    Abby Roth and Steve Winter both bring considerable talent to local government. Challenges within political parties are not encouraged. It’s a go along, get along mentality and change agents are no good at playing that game.
    “The Democratic Party is the graveyard of progressive ideas”.
    Let me stand with Eugene Debs:
“While there is a lower class, I am in it,
while there is a criminal element, I am of it,
and while there is a soul in prison,
I am not free.”

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 8, 2018  3:49pm

posted by: cunningham on August 8, 2018 10:43am

Because as a Green Party candidate, he’s not seeking the nomination of the Democratic party. This is ahead of next week’s primary.

This is the problem.The Debates should be based on all parties who are running If what I heard the church put this debate on.Why could they not have all parties at this Debate?

posted by: Gary Stewart on August 8, 2018 1:33pm

@ Patricia Kane - re: being an Independent voter and not being able to vote in Dem. primaries, yes , because you and so many others who are more Dem. than Repub.  don’t register as Dems and become part of the solution.

The question you should ask is why does this state not have open primaries?That would take care of this problem.Why should a person who is Unaffiliated or Independent voter have to change to vote in the primary?

A person like you could become a Ward Chair and be in a position to vote on who the Party endorses.  Many writers complain about one party Dem. rule but it goes beyond that - we need more ” disunity” within the N H Dem. Town Committee and BOA, that is , more independent thinkers. I was such a person but got slapped down by the DTC and HERE - UNITE . The problem was , I was the only one on the DTC who dissented from the script. we need more people who comment on the mess to get on their Ward Committees and run for co- Chair positions. Then , the DTC can be a force for change.

You would not have One Party Rule if the people fight for proportional representation.In fact they did in Port Chester New York and won.You see the problem is not the Unaffiliated or Independent voter.The problem is the Uneducated voters.These type of voters do not understand what it is voting.They vote based on intuition, rather than relying exclusively on their comprehension of the candidates’ policies. They will tell you I vote Republican because it is the tradition in our family,or I’m a democrat because my friends are voting democrat.

Part One

posted by: Goselin4AG on August 8, 2018  3:52pm

“I’m the only candidate in this race who has done civil litigation for almost 20 years,” [Tong] said.

He’s right you know. Because I have been doing civil litigation as a labor and employment lawyer in Connecticut for more than 20 years. Actually 23 years on July 1. And unlike Mattei, Tong, or Doyle, you will find my name on dozens of lawsuits against employers who engaged in wage theft against their employees, or who discriminated against them on the basis of age, race, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability, pregnancy, or because the employee engaged in protected speech.

As Independent readers know, I have made enforcement of civil rights laws against local police departments and police officers who engage in racial profiling the #1 item in my Platform for a People’s Attorney General. Several people - including the spokesperson for AG Jepsen’s office, when the Independent ran an article on the issue - have suggested that the AG’s office doesn’t have jurisdiction over such matters. They are incorrect. The Connecticut Constitution guarantees equal protection of the law for all Connecticut residents. Civil litigation to make police departments serve and protect ALL residents, not just white folks with money, is long overdue.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for any of the Democratic candidates - no matter how progressive they claim to be - to say or do anything about racial profiling, police violence against people of color, militarization of police departments, or over-policing of political dissent.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 8, 2018  4:10pm

Part Two.

A good democracy relies on an educated and engaged population.and the sad thing is that politicians know this very well and use it very well.I am definitely not going to be manipulated into participating in an unfair process to begin with.The system will never change if we keep participating in it the way it is. It needs retooling. Just look at the two-party hold on our political system that puts Third party candidates disadvantaged.You will never take over the DTC.The Only way to take over the DTC is proportional representation which would give all people a Voice not just Two.

Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice. The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudice, and undemocratic practices of the Southern Dixiecrats . The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of the right wing reactionary Northerners——-DR. KING

posted by: Gary Stewart on August 8, 2018  4:11pm

@ Patricia Kane - your commentary is excellent . I agree w/ what you say but find it hard to give up w/ out a fight . To answer your question as to what happened to me , I was critical of the Mayor and what I called the ” incestuous” relationship between City Hall , the BOA / DTC and , HERE-UNITE, both in the NHI , NHR and , at DTC meetings . So, HERE - UNITE ran and heavily supported a candidate to run against me , that being the only contested Ward Chair contest in the 30 wards . they spent a bunch of money and had dozens of union volunteers out in the streets and whipped me good . The decision to run someone was a sneak attack , not even being brought before our Ward Committee for discussion / voting, or having the decency to tell me what was going on, although our Alder , Evette Hamilton , knew what was going on. 
Ward committees and the DTC have huge power to endorse / support candidates but most folks don’t know anything about the process . Of course , you must be a Dem. to get involved . With all the warts , Dems . are the only game in town and more Independents should get on board . If people want to find out more about how to get on a Ward committee , you must let one or both of your two Co - Chairs know of your interest . The Register of Voters can give you their names / contact info., as can your Alder. I would be happy to spearhead a movement to enlarge and democratize our Ward Committees.  My e-mail is : .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)