Roland Lemar likes the pizza on Grand Avenue. Debra Hauser likes meeting the interesting people in the Front Street housing projects who worry about murders. John Morrison doesn’t spend enough time in Fair Haven to have a favorite place.
As the Democratic candidates for New Haven’s only open state legislative seat faced off in a televised debate on Thursday night, a question about their favorite spot in Fair Haven revealed the diversity of their district and the candidates themselves.
The three contenders are vying to replace 96th State General Assembly District Rep. Cam Staples, who’s stepping down at the end of this term.
Thursday marked the second debate between East Rock Alderman Roland Lemar (at right in photo) and East Rock psychologist Debra Hauser (center). Read about the first one here.
They were joined on Thursday night by Hamden historian John Morrison (at left in photo), who entered the race last week.
The three candidates gathered in the studio of Citizens Television (CTV), the community access station on State Street in Hamden. The evening’s discussion touched on two areas that may feel forgotten—Fair Haven and Hamden—in a district that includes not only two different towns, New Haven and Hamden, but different east side New Haven neighborhoods with.
The question of Fair Haven favorites was raised by N’Zinga Shani (at right in photo), host of OneWorld Progressive Institute‘s “21st Century Conversation” program. Shani moderated the debate along with Advocate reporter Betsy Yagla.
The Independent was in the studio as the debate unfolded, live-blogging the action. Scroll down to read the play-by-play. The debate went live at 8 p.m., after an informal discussion with the candidates and their supporters in the studio.
Shani said she asked the question about Fair Haven to draw attention to the diversity of the 96th District, which includes the East Rock, Wooster Square, and Fair Haven neighborhoods.
Lemar was the first to answer. He mentioned two places he likes in Fair Haven—Chatham Square and Grand Apizza—and praised Grand Avenue as one of the most “vibrant” parts of the city.
Morrison, the only candidate who lives in Hamden, was next to answer. He admitted that he’s not familiar enough with Fair Haven to have a favorite spot. He compared Grand Avenue to Whitney Avenue in Hamden.
Hauser said she likes Front Street, after campaigning door-to-door in the rebuilt Quinnipiac Terrace housing projects there. “I really enjoyed going to the low-income housing there,” she said. “I hear very different things from people there.” The locals are concerned about murders in New Haven, she said.
Before the candidates revealed their relative familiarity with Fair Haven, they discussed another part of the district where voters may feel neglected—Hamden. In a discussion before the debate, a Hamden resident and Morrison supporter said it’s important that the next state representative for the 96th District come from Hamden.
With only 35 percent of the district in Hamden, the town gets short shrift, said Myron Hul. “New Haven wags the tail and Hamden gets the crumbs,” he said. Hamden faces the same problems but gets less state money than New Haven, he said.
Morrison who said during the debate that he was running for state representative because the previous candidate from Hamden dropped out, said after the debate that voters he speaks with have not raised the issue of inadequate Hamden representation. But he did say he’s running because another Hamden candidate dropped out.
But Hauser said Hamden is an issue in the race. “The meta-issue is that Hamden feels marginalized and underrepresented.” She said she is the candidate who “has a foot in both towns.” She lives in East Rock; her husband is a doctor in Hamden and her sons play baseball there.
The underlying issue is that “people are feeling a crisis of leadership,” she said. If a state representative weres getting Hamden what it needs, there would be no problem.
Hauser also said she wasn’t hearing about the issue from voters. “It’s the insiders who are squabbling about this.”
Lemar said that the real issue is Hartford, not Hamden or New Haven. Cities get “the short end of the stick” from the state government and then end up fighting each other, Lemar said. Both towns are facing the same problems, he said.
7:32 p.m.:The candidates are seated in the studio, at a table behind a couple of potted plants. A half-dozen of their supporters are seated in a bank of folding chairs to the left. The tech crew is attending to some last minute details as we wait for the discussion to begin.
7:41: N’Zinga Shani is addressing the room. Some crew members are missing, and it’s unclear if they’ll be able to broadcast the show.
Shani’s introduction: She says she’s been doing her show for 14 years. There are always technical challenges (like tonight). Shani gives a little personal and professional history. She is a health educator “by training and experience.” Her show focuses on civic engagement, along with health literacy.
Morrison and Hauser each have three supporters in the studio. Lemar has one, Yale Alderman Mike Jones. Alderman Darnell Goldson is here to support Hauser, along with former Alderman Alan Brison.
7:46: Shani asks the Morrison supporters: New Haven has always held the assembly seat. How important is it that Hamden get the seat?
Morrison’s supporters: Very. “New Haven wags the tail and Hamden gets the crumbs,” says Myron Hul (center left in photo), of Hamden.
Goldson (center right in photo) says Hauser is able to talk to everybody and find common ground.
Shani asks Lemar to respond to the Hamdenites.
Lemar: We need to focus on our similarities. Education, jobs, transportation, energy costs—these issues are the same in both towns. “The challenges before you are the same.” There are differences, but there is not a “competitive nature” between Hamden and New Haven.
Shani addresses Morrison: How are you going to convince New Haven that Hamden won’t start “wagging the tail” and New Haven will be left out.
Morrison: I’ve spent a good part of my life in New Haven, at Yale. “It’s a great city…”
[Buzzing static interrupts him.]
Lemar: The three of us believe strongly in our district and will work strongly for the people who live there.
Hul, a Morrison supporter, speaks up: New Haven gets more funding than Hamden for Education Cost Sharing. New Haven receives “a boatload more money,” but the demographics of the schools aren’t that different. 53 percent of students are minority.
Shani: But Hamden is far smaller.
Hul: Hamden has historically seen a lower level of funding but we have the same problems, that aren’t being addressed by Hartford.
Shani: So the representative should be from Hamden?
Hul: Exactly. New Haven is the bigger entity.
Goldson: The homeless come to New Haven. Folks who need drug treatment come to New Haven. Hamden residents come to New Haven to work.
7:57: Lemar lends his wristwatch to Shani to time question responses. We’re moments away from going live. Shani takes her seat next to Yagla.
7:59: Shani gives last-minute instructions. “I’m glad you’re here and I hope you’ll find that it was worth your time. ... I hope we can make this meaningful.” There will be time at the end for direct questions by the candidates and closing statements.
8:00: And we’re on the air! Watch the debate on Comcast Channel 26.
Shani: Welcome. The 96th District seat is open for the first time in about 15 years. Introductions:
Lemar: Good Evening. I’m an alderman. I live in New Haven.
Hauser: Thanks for having me. I’m a clinical psychologist. I got involved in my community around my children. I gave up my private practice to be a community activist.
Morrison: I’ve lived for 30 years in Hamden. We had another candidate from Hamden who dropped out. I’ve replaced him.
Betsy Yagla is introduced.
Shani (picking up on the theme of the conversation moments ago): This is the only district that straddles two towns. This causes some concern. People worry that New Haven is getting the better representation.
8:04: Shani reads bios for the candidates: Lemar studied at UMass Amherst, worked on New Haven’s Safe Streets campaign, fought blight, is “a strong believer that money should not corrupt politics,” and is the first candidate to qualify for public financing.
Shani: Morrison has been politically active all his life, was one of the original “teens for Kennedy,” is the vice-chair of the Hamden Democratic committee, has been on the police commission.
Shani: Hauser was a clinical psychologist, became a full-time community activist (as an aside, Shani says she identifies with this strongly), founded the neighbor-to-neighbor community toy drive, became Democratic co-chair of Ward 10, and worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign.
8:08: Yagla begins the questioning:
Question 1: What would you do to jump-start job creation in the region and the state?
Lemar: We’ve lost a lot of jobs. We’re approaching 9 percent unemployment. We are not positioned well to compete. We export more people between 18 and 34 than any other state. The answer: First address energy costs. Why would businesses want to come to Connecticut when energy prices are high? Also, we’re not investing enough in our community-college-to-job pipeline. We need to prepare the next generation of workers to work in high-growth fields. Also, we need to lower property taxes.
Hauser: A very important question and a central issue to my campaign. Without a vibrant economy our state will continue to be in trouble. We have a historic deficit. One, we need to “really woo” companies to come to Connecticut. We also need, the “Silicon Valleys of California:” biotech firms, for instance. We need to attract more companies and keep the ones that are here. “We have a very high-cost state for businesses.” High labor costs, high taxes, high utility costs. We need to address all of those.
Morrison: One of the problems I see for business is that we have an obsolete tax system. We depend largely on property tax. This is based on a lifestyle 100 years old, when people derived their wealth from their land: farms. [Unsurprisingly, Morrison, a historian, is giving a historical answer.] After WWII, there was a shift in population to the cities, but the tax system has not changed. We need an aggressive income tax. We have a flat 4 percent tax. We need a progressive income tax for the upper levels.
8:15: Shani: Do you think Yale should be paying taxes?
Morrison: No. The state is not paying Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT). But with a progressive income tax, it could be.
Lemar: Anything revenue-producing and not core to education at Yale should be taxed. The state has never lived up to PILOT. We need to be compensated.
Shani: If elected, would you take PILOT up with the legislature, to make sure it’s honored?
Hauser: It’s currently funded at only 63 percent. But what concerns me most is we need a “smarter, leaner government.” “We need government that’s accountable.” I’m concerned about programs being funded without enough review.
Yagla: How would you help to balance the next state budget?
Hauser: We have a big task ahead of us. It’s a highly complex problem. Ultimately we’ll have to find a balance between taxing and spending cuts. “I’d like to introduce ‘results-based accountability’.”
Morrison: Two years from now $5 billion deficit is projected. Towns will be cutting their education budgets and “it’s the children that are going to suffer.” We need to fund education, the only way is a graduated income tax.
Lemar: We face an unprecedented challenge. How we address the deficit will define how the state grows. We have to radically rethink everything we do, from revenues to costs. Smart decisions around transportation and education. Hamden and New Haven have weathered the recession pretty well. We need to look at a progressive tax structure. [Lemar agrees with Morrison.]
Hauser: I disagree with John regarding taxes. We can actually find more money, by closing tax loopholes and eliminating tax credits.
Shani: So you disagree with progressive taxation?
Hauser: No. But it’s not an answer to all our ills. We need to do other things as well, like closing tax loop holes.
8:25: Morrison: Lower level earners are paying 35 percent, while upper level earners pay 4 percent. [He speaks directly to the camera, unlike the other candidates.]
Yagla: Would you support regionalization?
Morrison: If you’re going to do it, who is going to run it? “You’re creating a whole bureaucracy.” Is that the way to save money?
Lemar: Regionalism is a clear top priority. There are huge additional cost associated with the tiny divisions caused by town lines. We need to regionalize services for the cost efficiencies and the improved service levels. Regionalization means sharing costs across boundaries.
Shani: Economies of scale.
Lemar: Exactly. Like plowing beyond town lines on Whitney Avenue.
Hauser: I’m in support of regional cooperation.
8:31: Yagla brings up the topic of red light cameras. Would you support them?
Lemar: We need to look at this as an appropriate tool to make our streets safer. In my neighborhood, I don’t feel safe letting my daughter walk down the street to the store because of the traffic. I helped develop the complete streets program last year. I’ve been working with Hamden residents on this.
Hauser: I’m deeply concerned about public safety. Livable streets are deeply important to me. But I’m concerned about the costs, given the looming deficits.
Shani: How about the privacy issue?
Hauser: I feel mixed about it. 9/11 never really leaves me. Security is very important to me. I’m concerned about Metro North and the harbor. But I would be in favor of the cameras.
Morrison: As former president of the Spring Glen Civic Association we’ve been dealing with this. I live on Whitney Avenue. I’m not only in favor of the cameras, we’d like to put in solar powered speed signs. I don’t see it as a privacy issue. We’re looking at speed humps, new crosswalks, new pedestrian crossing technologies.
8:36: Yagla: Do you support local option taxes that would allow cities to levy hotel or sale taxes, for instance?
Hauser: I’m concerned about sales tax being a regressive tax. But hotel tax would be a viable way to raise revenue. I’d also consider a “targeted luxury tax” on expensive boats and cars.
Lemar: I agree, we need to provide the state with new ways of taxation. Also municipalities should be able to make these decisions on their own. Sales taxes are regressive. We should look at hotel taxes, real estate conveyance taxes, and city income taxes.
Morrison: It’s not just local taxes. It’s sales tax loopholes. For instance, yachts are exempt from sales tax.
8:41: Shani: Where is your favorite place in Fair Haven?
Lemar: Chatham Square Park, Grand Apizza. Grand Avenue is one of the most vibrant places in New Haven.
Morrison: I have to admit I don’t go there that often, but Grand Avenue is like Whitney Avenue, because of the small shops. We need to preserve that.
Hauser: Front Street. I loved it there. I really enjoyed going to the low-income housing there, that’s been refurbished. I hear very different things from the people there. People there are concerned about the murders in New Haven.
Shani: Speaking of crime, when people are released from prison they’re dropped on Whalley Avenue. What, specifically, would you do to address the prison re-entry program? To prevent a revolving door to prison?
Morrison: This comes back to the tax system. We need a progressive tax system that can provide for these people.
Shani: Let me clarify. What would you do if you took the seat and the legislative session starts, to ensure that people are not let loose to commit more crimes.
Morrison: You need housing and training. They could have dorms where they could live and be trained. You have to teach them and train them.
Hauser: This is a highly complex problem. These were vulnerable children and became vulnerable juvenile offenders. There is no infrastructure that I can see. There should be a prison re-entry center. We need political will. We need a coordinated effort. I don’t have a quick fix. We need a coordinated coherent approach.
Shani: What would you do specifically?
Lemar: People dropped off are handed a guide and told good luck. Half of them will need mental health services. Two-thirds will be re-arrested. This needs to be dealt with before release.
Shani: What would you do?
Lemar: Two things—getting them involved with homeless agencies and job agencies. It should begin in the Department of Corrections, before release.
8:50: Shani: John, ask Debra and Roland a question.
Morrison: What’s the best way to make Connecticut more business-friendly?
Lemar: Invest in education. That’s the first priority. Investing in transportation is the second thing. We have a 19th century transportation system.
Hauser: Close the achievement gap. We have international, racial, and income achievement gaps.
Time for Lemar’s question.
Lemar: How can we close the achievement gap?
Morrison: 100 percent funding of education paid for by progressive income tax.
Hauser to ask a question.
Hauser, to Lemar, How do we end poverty?
Lemar: It’s around schools and jobs. Close the achievement gap and create opportunities for employment. The silver bullet is education.
8:56: Closing statements:
Morrison closing statement: The progressive income tax has to be the key. It will lower property taxes and allow business to thrive and create equity.
Hauser closing statement: I am an experienced passionate leader, I’m a great consensus builder, and I feel passionate about improving Connecticut. We need an atypical candidate.
Lemar: The best of Connecticut is in front of us. I’ve been able to build consensus. I’m ready for the challenge next year. The best days are in the future and I’m ready to get us there.
8:58: Shani wraps it up with thank yous all around.