The candidates vying for the 33rd State Senate District seat met last night in front of a relatively small audience of around 75 in the somewhat rarefied atmosphere of Lyme-Old Lyme High School (LOLHS). Rarefied because not a single resident of Old Lyme can vote for either candidate since Old Lyme is part of the 20th State Senate District currently represented by Republican Paul Formica.
Nevertheless, The Day and the Eastern CT Chamber of Commerce selected LOLHS as the location for the first debate of the season in the high profile 33rd State Senate race. Two-term incumbent Sen. Art Linares (R) faced off against challenger Norman Needleman (D), who is in his third term as first selectman of Essex, in a gentlemanly debate conducted entirely from seated positions.
Linares was first elected in 2012 to the 33rd State Senate District seat, which was held for two decades by the late former State Senator Eileen Daily of Westbrook. He won a second term in 2014, defeating Democrat Emily Bjornberg of Lyme on a 22,762-17,326 vote. Needleman was first elected as an Essex Selectman in 2003
The Day’s Editorial Page editor Paul Choiniere (center in photo above) moderated the debate assisted by retired Day Deputy Managing Editor Lisa McGinley and Day Staff Writer Brian Hallenback.
The constant theme of both candidates’ responses was the need for the state to control spending and to increase jobs, but they expressed different routes towards achieving that goal interspersed with regular jabs against their respective opponent.
Linares, pictured above, opened the latter theme by saying, “Desperate people do desperate things,” when asked about charges from Needleman that he (Linares) had used constituent names and addresses inappropriately. Linares said, “They [his opponents] want us to focus on desperate things,” rather than the state’s real problems such as, “Every day we have businesses leaving the state,” declaring emphatically, “I am ready to stand up and fight for you.”
A question about whether the candidates supported the Citizen’s Election Program (CEP) drew one of the most heated exchanges with Linares saying candidates should be encouraged to fund their own election campaigns because, “the CEP is running a deficit year after year.” Needleman responded immediately, “That’s an absurd and ridiculous statement,” adding that the CEP has proved to be a “leveling-field.”
The issue of a third casino in Connecticut also showed a sharp difference in the candidate’s positions with Linares supporting the proposal in order to “intercept tourists on their way to [the new MGM casino in] Massachusetts,” which he predicted would otherwise take potentially up to $100 million out of state. Needleman said unequivocally, “I would not support the expansion of casinos in Connecticut.”
Responding to a question about Linares’s March 2016 vote against a measure to reduce the state’s budget deficit, Needleman declared, “That vote pushed me over the edge to run,” and that he was “perplexed,” when he had determined that Linares was one of the three senators who had voted against the proposal. Linares countered that he had, “stood up against that budget because I knew the next day it would be in deficit,” adding, “We didn’t make the kinds of structural change needed,” concluding firmly, “I’m proud that I stood up against Dan Malloy’s budget.”
Needleman, pictured above, then accused Linares of being something Needleman confessed he had been described as himself when much younger by a teacher, namely, “A master of the obvious.” Needleman agreed, “We all know now we need structural reform,” but argued, “That stand needed to be taken,” long before the actual vote.
The candidates were in relative harmony regarding the recent Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that education funding needs to be more equitable, both agreeing, in Linares’s words, “The legislature must find a fair and concise way to fund education,” and, in Needleman’s, “The judge should not legislate from the bench.”
Similarly, Needleman and Linares found common ground on the subject of how the state should improve its fiscal position with the former saying that the state needed to “control spending and increase jobs,” while the latter added, “… and end wasteful spending.”
Asked which Presidential candidate they were voting for, Needleman mentioned first, “I’ve never seen an election like this one,” then said, “I support Hilary Clinton … albeit at times, reluctantly.” In turn, Linares stated, “I’m voting for Donald Trump,” adding, “I’m voting Republican down the line this year,” commenting, “Our country and our state needs to change direction.”
The candidates responded to several further questions including ones about the ease with which the state can sell or swap state-owned land, how the state should create jobs and the state’s response to the opioid crisis.
In his closing statement, Linares said his goal was, “to take Connecticut to the top again,” since under six year of Malloy’s leadership, “”I have seen the state move backwards.” He explained that Connecticut Republicans have a plan to achieve that objective called, “A Confident Future,” and urged the audience to review it.
Taking his turn, Needleman said, “I started as a cab driver in New York – I have paid my dues,” adding, “Relationships mean everything to me. I am always telling the truth and not reverting to scripted talking points.” He concluded, “Glory has no role for me.”
Editor’s Note: The 33rd State Senate District consists of the Town of Lyme along with the Towns of Chester, Clinton, Colchester, Deep River, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Haddam, Portland, Westbrook, and part of Old Saybrook.