Updated, 7:37 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. — Two Congressional candidates discussed a wide array of hot-button issues at a town hall meeting Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) and Republican challenger Harry Arora each answered moderator and audience questions during separate sessions at Norwalk Concert Hall. Issues included abortion, gun violence, Social Security, prescription drugs, education, immigration, and President Donald Trump.
Norwalk’s NAACP organized the forum together with The Divine Nine, a group of historically black Greek letter organizations.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Himes introduced himself as a 10-year incumbent who, he said, helped revive the country’s economy after the financial crisis of 2008. He is concerned about uneven opportunities within Fairfield County, where he believes a child’s zip code can mean “the difference between an Ivy League school… and frankly winding up not graduating from high school and (going to) jail,” he said.
He has recently been surprised to find himself defending the press and trying to explain to Trump that when Nazis march and people counter-march there aren’t good people on both sides. “These things cannot be taken for granted,” he said.
Himes said he will continue to appear often on national television to argue that “we are a good and decent people, and that is again who someday I think we will be.”
Arora is a political outsider, businessman, entrepreneur and investment manager. He said he came to the United States from India as a student “with nothing,” got a degree in Electrical Engineering, and went on to earn two graduate degrees in business and public administration. Arora’s Congressional run is inspired, he said, by a desire for “every single person in our district” to have the same educational opportunities he did.
The Greenwich businessman questioned the results of Himes’s ten years of representation. “I ask you… In ten years, have your schools gotten better? Has the graduation rate in so many inner-city schools gotten better? Have our property prices improved? Have we attracted enough businesses? No.”
“We still struggle today,” he said. “Our communities are struggling.”
Former Common Council Member Shannon O’Toole-Giandurco, a Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) questioned Himes and then Arora for about 30 minutes each. Here are some of their answers, grouped by topic. See Harold Cobin’s video below for the full Q&A.
Himes: A big part of his time in Congress has been spent defending Social Security, as he was elected shortly after President George W. Bush tried to privatize the program. He believes deficits arising from tax cuts passed last year will lead Republicans to insist on Social Security and Medicare cuts.
“We get it, everybody likes tax cuts but when you blow up the deficit, as you have done under George W. Bush and you have done under Donald J. Trump, do not come looking to the elderly people who collect Social Security and Medicare to fix the problem you have created.”
Arora: Social Security has reduced poverty among seniors over the course of seven or eight decades. “We need to make sure our Social Security program is strong and is solvent for a long period of time,” Arora said. “What you heard from Mr. Himes, please don’t believe that.”
Social Security has an implied rate of return of 1.5 percent and Aurora believes that if these results continue, Himes is going to have to vote to raise the retirement age. Normal pensions have a rate of 6 or 7 percent; the return on Social Security must increase to maintain or boost payments to retirees.
Himes: Pharmaceutical costs are the biggest contributor to rising health care costs. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not allow its government to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, Himes said. Medicare should be allowed to “use its heft” to negotiate volume discounts with drug companies.
Arora: Eighty to ninety percent of new treatments originate in the United States, and other countries either steal the intellectual property (IP) or force pharmaceutical companies to “give away” their products in exchange for market access. Protections on IP should be strengthened, and other countries should share in R&D costs. Existing laws should be applied to prevent some pharmaceutical companies from unfairly taking advantage of consumers.
Himes: Planned Parenthood deserves support because in Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford, he believes it is a sole source of care for some women who don’t have a lot of options.
Himes noted that his 100% NARAL voting record would not please some audience members, and said he respects people who are against abortion because of their religious beliefs. “I can’t win an argument with you because your point of view comes from faith,” he said. He gestured to his tie. “This guy who wears a tie to work doesn’t get to tell women what they can and cannot do.”
Arora: It’s important to keep perspective on this issue: the Federal government spends tens of billions on women’s health. Planned Parenthood spends $350 million. Planned Parenthood must prove that it complies with existing law including the Hyde amendment, which bars public funds from being used to perform abortions. “Nobody’s above the law,” he said. “We need to make sure that Planned Parenthood is allowed to do the services they provide” while complying with the law.
Arora later said in response to a question from an audience member that he and his wife “would never consider an abortion but I do believe that women have a right to choose.”
Himes: “We have not done enough to provide $2-3 trillion in resources needed to modernize the country’s infrastructure.” Improvements were made to the Merritt Parkway with stimulus money that Republicans opposed, he said. He and others “cobbled together” hundreds of millions of dollars to replace the Walk Bridge, and he fought for $30 million to transform Norwalk’s Washington Village into a modern, mixed-income development. Himes wants to work with Trump on infrastructure, including an “infrastructure bank” to leverage private money, and possibly public-private partnerships.
Arora: A stronger infrastructure is vital for employers. The “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation” (FAST) Act made over $10 billion available for rail lines. Metro-North’s New Haven line is the largest commuter rail line in the country, but it receives next to nothing in Federal support. “We have to advocate for it. The money is there, but it is going to other jurisdictions,” he said. Federal dollars are needed to modernize the line. “We need to advocate for our community to make sure there is more infrastructure dollars especially when they are available under Federal law,” he said.
Himes: Four years ago, a compromise passed the Senate with 68 votes calling for better border security and a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants who paid taxes for ten years plus a fine. The Republican House Speaker would not bring it up for a vote, he said.
Himes said a solution is needed for people living in the United States under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and the Trump administration’s actions on the border, separating immigrant children from their parents, are a “blot and stain on this nation’s history.”
Arora: “I’m a legal immigrant. I came to this country 25 years ago. It took me 11 years to go through the process to be a proud American. … Immigration law is just like any other law and it needs to be enforced and implemented.” Himes claims he is for border security, but he voted against a compromise bill several months ago that would have improved border security and resolved the DACA issue.
“He stands against DACA, he stands against border security, and I stand for border security and I will vote for DACA.”
Himes: “There is no amount of murder or mayhem or Parklands or Sandy Hooks or Auroras that will move the U.S. House of Representatives to pass legislation” even if the legislation respects the second amendment. “The NRA (National Rifle Administration) owns too many of my colleagues.” Himes supports “reasonable limits” on the types of guns that can be owned, including a ten-round limit, and universal background checks, but is pessimistic about the possibility that any legislation will pass.
Arora: “I want to make sure that we have the right laws in place. I also want to make sure we invest in school safety… we harden our schools.” There is more security in office buildings and City Halls than in schools, he said. “We need to make sure guns don’t go in wrong hands,” Arora said, expressing support for universal background checks and improved mental health efforts. “Mr. Himes has many times said that he wants to confiscate guns Australia-style, and that is un-American,” Arora said.
Himes: Believes this is principally an issue for Sen. Duff and state officials to address. However the federal government should use Title I funding to incentivize local districts to implement best practices that have worked well elsewhere in the country.
Arora: Schools that were failing ten years ago are still failing. Himes has done nothing to increase preschool access; “I have a plan to make sure that we have access for everybody.” College was expensive ten years ago, and it has only become more expensive. Arora will prioritize fixing failing schools.
Himes: The internet is the railroad of the 21st and 22nd century. Himes opposes allowing different companies to pay different rates for different speeds.
Arora: Supports an “HOV” lane for urgent traffic. Supports further study to ensure that any legislation does not create problems.
A man asked Himes for his position on the possible repeal of the electoral college.
“I would support popular election of the President,” Himes said. The questioner said that by 2030, 70 percent of the population will live in 17 states and 66 percent of the Senate would represent 30 percent of the population.
Himes didn’t give a firm answer on that one but pointed out that in the 1960s and 1970s small states stopped “for a generation progress on civil rights.”
Republican Norwalk Board of Education member Bryan Meek later said the electoral college was established to guarantee the minority rights of small states. He asked Arora if he believed in the minority rights afforded by the electoral college.
“I do believe in the electoral college and I believe in the Constitution of the United States of America,” Arora replied.
A woman asked Arora to grade Trump.
“It’s always about policy,” Arora replied, giving Trump an “A” for the tax cuts.
The law will create investments over the next decade, he said, asserting that it “will ensure our rate of growth, which was languishing at 2 percent real and below 2.5 nominal will go to over 3 percent real and over 5 percent nominal. Believe me, the 5 percent growth on a nominal basis will solve more problems and give an opportunity to most vulnerable in our society. Believe me, economic growth will help all Americans and will make sure that we have more jobs.”
Arora told Norwalker Darius Williams that firms in England, Germany and China were paying much less taxes, which incentivized businesses to move parts of their companies out of America.
Republican District 140 State Representative candidate John Flynn responded to Himes’ comments about family separation, saying, “I think the Democratic Party is pretty much ok with abortion at 20 weeks. Isn’t that separating a person from their family?”
“The obvious difference is when a woman chooses to get an abortion, she is choosing to get an abortion. When an immigrant comes across and is involuntarily separated from their children, I would say that’s a radically different proposition,” Himes said.
Another man asked, “Don’t we separate families from people who break the law?”
He called Himes a demagogue and said, “Shouldn’t there be term limits? So this way we don’t have professional politicians like you.”
“I won’t rule out term limits,” Himes said. He added that he was grateful for term limits on Trump which assure that “if all else goes wrong,” Trump will be done after eight years.
A man asked why Himes wouldn’t debate Arora, with a woman speaking up to clarify that Himes has agreed to debates.
Arora said that when Himes took on a Republican incumbent 10 years ago he “asked and agitated” for 10 debates. Now Himes has agreed to one before the election, Arora said, concluding, “What is good for him as a challenger should be good for him as an incumbent.”