Staking out their political turf, candidates for the 138th District seat in the state House of Representatives discussed issues from guns to taxes to raising the minimum wage at the Oct. 2 League of Women Voters debate.
Close to 200 people packed the Ridgefield Library’s program room —standing room only — to hear six candidates from three contests.
Seeking to represent the 138th District — which includes Ridgefield north of George Washington Highway as well as parts of Danbury and New Fairfield — are incumbent Republican Michael Ferguson and Democratic challenger Kenneth Gucker.
Also taking part were candidates in the 111th House District — which covers all of Ridgefield south of George Washington Highway — and the state Senate’s 26th District, including the towns of Ridgefield, Redding, Westport and Wilton, and parts of Bethel, New Canaan and Weston.
Here’s some of what the candidates for the 138th District discussed. A video of the entire debate is available on the League of Women Voters YouTube channel.
Answering questions submitted to the league moderator by audience members, candidates were asked what voters are looking for in elected officials, and what the candidates’ qualifications are.
“I own a small business and work with my hands every single day,” said Gucker.
He’d been active on many issues, leading neighbors to approach him about challenging for the 138th District seat.
“I’m a longtime community activist,” Gucker said.
The legislature needs to do better on issues ranging from “health care” to the “ECS education formula,” which directs varying levels of state support to different school districts, he said.
“I’m very familiar with partisan politics going on,” said Gucker.
“I want to be your voice in Hartford.”
Ferguson, a first-term Republican incumbent, spoke of his pride in serving the community.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to represent the district I’ve lived in my entire life,” he said.
He described an overriding economic issue.
“We need to make it more affordable for people to live in our great state,” Ferguson said.
And, he promised to be “someone who’ll listen to all sides of an issue.”
With the state income tax providing 56% of Connecticut’s revenue, candidates were asked if they backed its repeal — and how the state could make up for lost income?
“I don’t see how we can get rid of the state income tax,” Gucker said. “I’d be against repealing the income tax.”
“In theory the idea of eliminating the income tax makes sense,” said Ferguson. “We were far more successful economically before the income tax.”
But he admitted repeal couldn’t be done easily, or all at once — maybe a series of incremental steps would work.
“It would take a substantial amount of time, and take a detailed, focused plan,” Ferguson said.
Candidates were also asked how they’d move to longer term solutions to fiscal challenges.
Ferguson lauded the legislature’s passage of a bipartisan budget back in May.
“That was a great first step,” he said.
“We should also be looking at cutting spending,” Ferguson said.
He suggested eliminating “deputy commissioner” positions, and privatizing some state functions.
“Transfer services to the private sector,” Ferguson said.
He tied overspending to adoption of the state income tax in 1991.
“If you look at the rate of spending increase after the income tax, spending has increased almost 90%,” he said.
The challenger wasn’t so eager to cut services.
“Has anyone been to the [Department of] Motor Vehicles lately and seen what downsizing actually does?” Gucker asked.
Spending cuts that reduce state services aren’t a solution, he said.
“It’s like having the police arrest people and we’ve closed the jail,” Gucker said. “… Cutting our way out isn’t the answer.”
Connecticut needs to foster economic growth.
“We need to start bringing back jobs,” Gucker said. “… We have to invest in education.”
What’s the candidates’ strategy to improve Connecticut’s infrastructure, and does it include tolls?
“Tolls are unfair to Connecticut drivers,” Ferguson said. “It’s unfair to middle class people, also young people.”
If Connecticut did implement tolls, “we’d have to have congestion price tolling” — targeting peak driving times — he said.
He said that’s unfair to commuters.
“What we really need to do is prioritize transportation projects,” Ferguson said. “No more busways to nowhere.”
Gucker thought tolls could lessen Connecticut residents’ taxes.
“The trucking industry just passes through the state and passes on the burden,” he said.
With “electronic tolls” similar to EZ-pass, traffic doesn’t slow down but drivers help pay for the highways they’re using.
He even envisioned high-tech tolls charging pass-through traffic, while owners of cars with Connecticut plates would get compensating deductions.
“Why can’t we have it take the numbers, and take the total of what you’ve paid, and allow you to take if off your income tax?” Gucker said.
What would candidates do to keep businesses from leaving the state as General Electric did, and how they would attract businesses?
Gucker dismissed the Republican narrative that rising state taxes caused GE’s departure.
“They left because they didn’t have the tech support they needed,” he said.
“Nobody goes to Boston, Massachusetts, for a tax break.”
Gucker thought Connecticut could make its education system more useful to businesses.
“We don’t take care of our technical schools,” he said.
Ferguson said the state needs to be more business-friendly.
“The problem is we treat businesses as if they’re the bad guy,” he said. “We should treat businesses as community partners.”
What about gun control?
“I grew up in a house with guns and I believe in the Second Amendment,” Gucker said — but he also supports stronger gun regulation.
“We have to have gun lock storage laws. We have to have ghost gun laws,” he said.
“If you’re abusing your spouse and have mental health problems,” Gucker said, “you should not have a gun.”
Ferguson, too, supported tough gun regulation.
“Connecticut does have some of the strongest gun laws in the country and I would not want to roll back any of them,” he said.
He added that he favors “universal background checks” for gun purchasers, and requiring “safe storage” of guns.
Ferguson said he’s part of “a new working group” in Hartford “focusing on mental health, focusing on school safety.”
What’s their “stance on protecting LGBTQ rights” candidates were asked
Gucker said he supports gay rights.
“When we divide people and segregate against people, we weaken our community,” he said.
“I am in favor of gay marriage.”
Ferguson said his support extended to backing a “ban on conversion therapy” — which is designed to try to make gay people straight.
“To hear the stories and the terrible effect conversion therapy can have on our youth is just really sad,” Ferguson said.
Do candidates support raising Connecticut’s minimum wage — now $10.10 an hour — and how much?
“Yes,” said Gucker. “… At least $15 an hour is the minimum I’d go — I’m not sure I’d go much higher.”
He added, “We need to start taking care of the middle class.”
Ferguson said the state didn’t need a higher minimum wage, it needed better jobs.
“The problem is we’re not focusing enough on good, well-paying jobs,” he said.
“Minimum wage jobs are intended to be stepping-stone jobs.”
The legislature’s focus shouldn’t be on minimum wage amounts, Ferguson said, “it should be on attracting and creating good, well-paying jobs for the people of our state.”
Should Connecticut join the 34 states that allow “early voting” of some kind?
“I do not support early voting,” Ferguson said. “I consider Election Day to be a very special day.”
He added, “things can happen just before Election Day” that could cause someone to vote differently than they might have earlier.
He suggested “the option of making Election Day a holiday” so everyone has plenty of opportunity to get to the polls.
Gucker favored early voting.
“We need to make it easier for people to vote,” he said.
He dismissed the argument that people might regret a vote cast early due to late breaking news.
“ ‘You might change your mind’ — well, vote on Election Day if you’re worried about that,” he said.
“We need to open voting to all.”
“It’s been a true privilege and honor to have a chance to represent the community I’ve called home my entire life,” Ferguson said in his closing statement.
His goal is “to restore fiscal stability” to Connecticut.
“I will continue to listen, to seek all opinions,” he said. “… Working together is how we’re going to reach that goal of moving Connecticut forward.”
Gucker thanked everyone for turning out on a terribly rainy, stormy night.
“On my way down from Danbury, I saw a guy building a boat and collecting animals,” he said, sparking the night’s biggest laugh.
Then he got more serious.
“Connecticut’s on the wrong track,” Gucker said. “It’s on the wrong track because of the partisanship going on.”
As a community activist, he’d found people are willing to pitch in.
“You can unify people to fight for what needs to be done,” he said.
“I’m running because my neighbors have asked me to do this,” Gucker said, promising to “bring the voice of the people to Hartford.”