Four leading Republican candidates for governor debated each other in Connecticut’s best-known sanctuary city — and to a man condemned sanctuary cities.
But there was at least one noticeable difference between the way two of them did that.
The debate, sponsored by the Connecticut Realtors Association and broadcast by WTNH, took place Monday night on the stage of New Haven’s Shubert Theater before more than 1,000 spectators. While New Haven was the venue for the debate, it wasn’t the audience for candidates seeking to convince a largely suburban party base to help them win an Aug. 14 primary.
The participants — party-endorsed candidate Mark Boughton and challengers Tim Herbst, Steve Obsitnik, and David Stemerman — all stated that they oppose “sanctuary cities” that welcome undocumented immigrants and refuse to cooperate with federal agents seeking to deport them. (A fifth candidate, Bob Stefanowski, did not participate in the debate.) All the Democratic candidates for governor, meanwhile, have embraced sanctuary city policies, reflecting a statewide partisan divide on the issue.
Tim Herbst, a former Trumbull first selectman who is staking the Trumpian right ground in the campaign, made the most forceful remarks at Monday night’s debate against “illegals” and the cities that welcome them.
For starters, he made a point of repeatedly calling undocumented immigrants “illegals” and claiming that they’re committing violent crimes in Connecticut’s cities.
“I want people to come to our country legally. We are a country of immigrants. That being said, I do not want people coming here illegally,” Herbst said.
Then he called out the mayors of Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport by name.
“If I’m elected governor of the state of the Connecticut. Luke Bronin, Toni Harp, and Joe Ganim will understand very clearly that they will either comply with federal immigration officials or they risk losing their funding from the state of Connecticut,” Herbst declared. He said he would take this position in order to keep people in cities safe from “illegals” currently committing violent crimes.
After the debate, in the media spin room, Herbst was asked what specific state dollars he would withhold from New Haven if it continued sanctuary city policies under a Herbst administration.
“I would want to see what their [the mayors’] response would be” before identifying specific state dollars at risk, he replied.
Mayor Harp said she would give a Gov. Herbst the same response she has given President Trump in the face of defunding threats: New Haven’s not budging.
“Not only that. I will do everything I can to make sure people understand his view of the world is wrong not only for Connecticut but for America,” Harp said in an interview after the debate.
Harp (who got a different kind of shout-out Monday in a D.C. publication touting mayors as future U.S. presidents) criticized Herbst for “pandering to people who have a narrow view” and of misunderstanding the reality of life in New Haven. Crime has fallen steadily for more than five years as New Haven has continued embracing sanctuary policies, Harp noted, and the vast majority of crime that does occur isn’t being committed by undocumented immigrants. Most undocumented immigrants are working, paying taxes, or studying hard in school, she said. Undocumented immigrants are more often the targets of criminals; Harp and other advocates argue that sanctuary policies (like one forbidding New Haven cops from asking about people’s immigration status in almost all instances) keep a city safer by encouraging more crime victims to trust the police with information.
On the debate stage and in the post-debate spin room, candidate Boughton, the current nine-term mayor of Danbury, took a relatively milder tone in discussing the issue.
That was surprising, on the one hand, because Boughton was the mayor who earned national attention a decade ago for working with federal agents to drive undocumented Ecuadorians out of Danbury. (Many of them were welcomed into New Haven.) The tone was less surprising in the context of this Republican primary campaign, in which Boughton, while staunchly conservative on issues like the income tax (he wants to eliminate it, along with the estate tax), is appealing to more moderate voters.
Boughton stated clearly onstage that he opposes sanctuary policies. He argued that Connecticut should not seek to “undermine federal law,” which governs immigration policy.
He also emphasized that “I understand both sides of this issue,” and “understand the human part” of why people in cities like New Haven support sanctuary policies. He noted that under the TRUST Act, Connecticut itself is a “sanctuary state.”
In a follow-up discussion in the spin room, Boughton said he considers the question “moot” because the TRUST Act already forbids cooperation between state or local law enforcement with federal detention and deportation efforts. He spoke of how the real solution lies in a sensible federal policy that tackles broader issues of immigration policy. He promised that as governor he would push the federal government to act on that.
He was asked if he agrees with Herbst that undocumented immigrants are committing major crimes in New Haven; Boughton said he doesn’t have the information. As mayor of Danbury, he said, he had success working with federal agents to concentrate deportation efforts on people committing crimes.
Asked about the moot question, Herbst said that as governor he would direct his chief legal counsel and the attorney general to look into which parts of the TRUST Act contradict federal law. “Federal law trumps state law,” he said, so he would work to bring Connecticut law in line.
The debate also revealed a difference between the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial fields over the question of whether to pass a state law to enable MGM Resorts to build a casino in Bridgeport.
The entire (then-larger) Democratic field endorsed the idea at a New Haven forum before the party convention.
Monday night the Republicans split, sort of.
Stemerman and Obsitnik fully embraced the MGM plan. “This is the kind of thing that revitalizes Bridgeport” by luring $675 million in private investment and allegedly creating 2,000 new jobs, Stemerman argued.
Neither Herbst and Boughton directly supported (or opposed) the plan. A casino is not a “one-time fix” for a city like Bridgeport, Herbst argued; he spoke of concentrating on expanding Sikorsky Memorial Airport to accommodate commercial air traffic. Boughton spoke of the need to take a broader look at how best to maximize revenues in a changed legalized-gambling environment — at how long-term revenues and job creation from a new casino, amid increased competition from neighboring states, would dovetail with, say, Keno revenues or sports betting plans. Before deciding on a Bridgeport casino, Boughton said, he’d commission a study.
To which Stemerman quipped that he wouldn’t want to turn the matter over to “bureaucrats.”
As at the Democratic forum, none of the candidates suggested factoring in the cost of gambling addiction into the equation of whether to support a new casino.
WTNH political reporter Mark Davis asked the candidates if they would welcome President Donald Trump to Connecticut to campaign for them.
He asked Obsitnik the question three times.
“I will always support our commander in chief,” Obsitnik responded each time. He did not offer a yes or a no.
The other three candidates each offered a yes, though they pivoted to focus on an elected official with even lower approval ratings in Connecticut.
“We have to focus in,” Boughton said, “on the most hated politician in Connecticut”— Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.