Updated, 7:57 a.m.: Copy edits, information added
NORWALK, Conn. – Democratic State Sen. Bob Duff and his Republican challenger, Marc D’Amelio, sparred Thursday, touching on Norwalk’s hot button issues during a League of Women Voters debate in City Hall.
D’Amelio started right away with commentary that matched his “Enough Duff” campaign slogan, while Duff waited until the end to showcase his new slogan, “kindness comes back to you.” In between, the two battled over issues that included the Walk Bridge’s impact on SoNo businesses, the fate of stalled redevelopment project Wall Street Place (a.k.a. “POKO”), the state budget and the economy.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
“It’s nice to see a full room,” Duff said at the outset, before launching in to answer moderator Jean Rabinow’s first question, a request to name his top three legislative priorities.
“It’s all about growing our tax base,” Duff said. He would prioritize what he sees as the state’s need for a skilled workforce – to fill 25,000 vacant manufacturing jobs and 4,000 IT jobs – plus transportation infrastructure, education funding, and affordable housing.
D’Amelio said he’d get to the three legislative priorities but first wanted to dispute comments made by Duff “the other day” during a News12 debate.
“We are not doing so well in this state and Norwalk is not doing so well,” D’Amelio said. “You’re going to hear a lot today about nice programs that are social that we can all get behind but this is about the economy and where Connecticut and Norwalk and Darien are going… when I was young Connecticut was the envy of the country and we are not there anymore.”
Asked about unmet pension fund liabilities and specific policies to keep Connecticut sound, D’Amelio said Gov. Dannel Malloy’s $100 billion effort to address infrastructure issues was not funded properly, and the Senate Republicans had a better plan.
Duff said the pensions were ignored for 50 years but over the last eight years action has been taken. Of the $1.4 billion a year in pension costs, $1.3 billion is for employees who were hired before 1984, he said.
D’Amelio called this “pass the buck, kick the can” and said Duff has been a Senator for 14 years. He went on to attack the recent State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) contract revision and accused Duff of agreeing to it to get votes from union members.
The SEBAC agreement saves Connecticut $24 billion over 20 years, Duff said.
Rabinow asked what the politicians would consider a good outcome for Wall Street Place, the stalled development begun by POKO Partners. Neither Duff nor D’Amelio answered that directly.
D’Amelio said it’s good to have legislators fight for their towns but he didn’t think he wanted someone who has never started a business and never written checks with his family’s money to meet payroll.
Taxpayers gave millions of dollars to Wall Street Place and the Wall Street Theater, both of which are bankrupt, D’Amelio said. “We have to prioritize our progress. I would much rather see our bridges and infrastructure fixed than politicians getting involved in places that they have no business involved in,” D’Amelio said.
Duff began his response by mentioning the 1955 flood that decimated Wall Street, drawing derisive laughter from some in the crowd.
Wall Street needs a lot of attention, Duff said. He noted that POKO Partners principle Ken Olson became ill before construction stopped and then died.
Wall Street Place would have made the Wall Street area different than SoNo, in that it wouldn’t be dependent on tourism dollars, Duff said. “One thing I won’t apologize for is fighting to get Wall Street back working again, and developed again, the way it needs to be. I won’t apologize for helping support funding for the Wall Street Theater.”
“Inch by inch, sometimes you have starts and stops, but I remain bullish on the fact that we will get that project going one way or another and Wall Street will be redeveloped again and see some of its former glory,” Duff said.
“I don’t remember the flood but I do remember … Woolworth’s (on Wall Street in the 1970s),” D’Amelio retorted.
“Wall Street is an amazing place,” D’Amelio said. “There are business people out there, real estate people, who are much smarter in developing than the politicians are and I would leave that to the business people.”
Real estate broker Jason Milligan, who was in the audience, clapped; he told NoN after the event that he had not been aware of the rules requiring the audience to remain silent. Rabinow, who had already asked the audience to remain quiet several times, admonished the audience again and threatened to call the police and have the clapping person removed.
Duff shot back at D’Amelio, correcting him on the businesses that were on Wall Street in the 70s, and said nothing further.
Asked about the possibility of banning ghost guns and changing the open carry laws, D’Amelio said he had taken the Moms Demand Action Guns Sense quiz online and gotten on the organization’s list of approved candidates, as a Republican.
“I care as much as anyone,” D’Amelio said.
Duff said he believes that the open carry law should be changed and that ghost guns should be banned.
“The question really is, is somebody going to advocate for a bill that we care about from day one all the way through the end,” Duff said. He noted that not only does he have the Gun Sense designation but has been endorsed by the Connecticut Association Against Gun Violence.
D’Amelio said he would not support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“You think that livable wage is going to be passed onto you? You don’t think Stew Leonard’s will increase the price of milk?” D’Amelio said. “I am not saying we have to fight, but we fight what Amazon has done. They grew their business and increased it because they could afford it. We need to be able to afford it first, before we just artificially increase wages.”
Duff said he supports raising the minimum wage to $15, in increments, and many businesses support the idea.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” Duff said. Polls show bipartisan support for something that “should be common sense. Take it up to level where people can live and support their families.”
D’Amelio said Duff’s record is “pretty bad.”
“We have to right the ship, we hit an iceberg and we have to fix this thing,” D’Amelio said. “If I had his record I’d be talking about all these giveaways too but it’s just not reality.”
Rabinow asked what specific steps they’d take to mitigate the impact of the Walk Bridge construction.
Duff said he has already worked closely with local businesses, the Maritime Aquarium and others.
To people who say the bridge should be welded shut and the river made non-navigable, Duff commented, “That’s just not reality.”
“The best thing for us to do is make sure we are advocating and working with businesses and nonprofits, everyone in the area, help make sure that the construction in the area is one that we can best manage,” Duff said, asserting that he had helped stop the state from taking Select Plastics and Perfect Plantings by emiment domain, and got the Maritime Aquarium $34 million to build a new theater.
He’s working with Spinnaker Real Estate to manage and mitigate impacts to Ironworks, and “when the Walk Bridge gets stuck open, it’s a $100 million a day impact to our regional economy,” he said.
“The only way that would cost $100 million: if there was $100 million cash in the train. It was two weeks that they said that’s $100 million,” D’Amelio replied.
He had been to a meeting where the Connecticut Department of Transportation was “ramming” the bridge down everyone’s throat, and “we have nothing to say about it and it’s just common sense,” D’Amelio said. “They are sitting there telling us that a fixed bridge would be harder to assemble than a lift bridge. It doesn’t make sense.”
Both candidates said they support the “transportation lockbox” ballot question, which would reserve transportation-related revenue such as the gas tax could only be spent in support of transportation. Asked about tolls, Duff said, “I have not had a position yet on tolling. I do know we cannot do tolls just on the borders. The federal government will not allow us to do that.”
“I don’t understand how the Senate Majority Leader can’t have a position on something that has been on every TV, every conversation,” D’Amelio said.
Connecticut signed a deal with the federal government when it eliminated tolls and gets paid for trucks coming through, he said, announcing opposition to tolls.
“There is no proof that it’s even going to be profitable,” D’Amelio said.
In closing statements, Duff said, “I still love the job…. I continue to want to stand up for the people I represent.”
Public service is his passion, he said, and, “It’s not necessarily about the laws that we pass, although they’re very important. It also has to do with what we do in the community. We didn’t have any questions tonight about constituents services and helping those in need, whether it’s garbage pickup in the day or whether it’s an issue of working with somebody who calls about a health care issue or an issue with the Department of Social Services, or an issue with a business. But I have a very strong track record of doing that as well.”
He’s also brought back funding, and, “There’s not one redevelopment project here in the City of Norwalk that hasn’t had state support and state partnership, along with the City,” he said, adding that the state is helping to fund school construction and renovations.
“This isn’t easy,” D’Amelio said. “This is really tough and Bob has done a great job serving his community.”
D’Amelio said that when he returned to Norwalk after living in New York for a while, he thought Duff was a “good old guy.”
“I applaud him and I know we kind of went after each other tonight but it’s part of politics. Hopefully we’ll be able to be friends and everything will be great,” D’Amelio said. He described himself as a self-made person who “grew up from nothing in this town,” put himself through Norwalk Community College and the University of Connecticut, and then started his own clothing brand.
“I am a doer,” D’Amelio said. “I am someone that can get things done. I think the big problem that I have seen in this City and this State and this Country is the partisan politics…. I know Bob has been part of the fabric of this community but I think we all realize we need some change and hopefully I’m the person you decide to choose.”