A political rematch could well be on the horizon for 2014 as former state Sen. Dan Debicella of Shelton made it official last week: He is running again for Connecticut’s 4th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
With the election more than a year away, it’s unclear what competition Debicella might have for the Republican nomination. However, having run for the seat after serving in the state Senate from 2006 to 2010, Debicella is already considered a favorite to be the Republican candidate.
And if he gets the nomination, it sets up a rematch with U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, the Democrat who beat Debicella by 53%-47% in 2010 to win his second term in office.
Himes, a Greenwich resident, has not made his 2014 plans official, but after another successful run in 2012, where he won his Republican-leaning hometown for the first time, it’s considered extremely likely that he will seek a fourth term.
‘Spending time with lobbyists’
Debicella has Himes very much in his sights, saying that he has failed the district during his close to five years in office.
“If you look at the type of congressman he’s chosen to become, it’s one where he is spending time with lobbyists and basically exchanging his influence in exchange for campaign contributions,” Debicella said during an interview last week.
“Look at the Himes Amendment to H.R. 992, which adjusted the Dodd Frank regulation act on Wall Street,” he said. “There, Himes basically sat down with Citigroup — The New York Times reported this — and took 70 of the 80 lines from Citigroup and made it his amendment. Then, in the next quarter, Citigroup was the number one contributor to the Himes campaign. People may say that’s politics as usual, but is that how Washington should be?”
In the article cited by Debicella, Himes is not listed as the actual author of the amendment, though he did support it. In the article, Himes is quoted about the close ties of Wall Street to Congress, saying, “It’s appalling, it’s disgusting, it’s wasteful and it opens the possibility of conflicts of interest and corruption. It’s unfortunately the world we live in.”
Reaching across the aisle
Debicella accused Himes of not acting in spirit with promises he made to be moderate and bipartisan by signing on to be the national finance chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises money to elect Democratic candidates to the house.
“His voting step is in lock step with his party,” Debicella said. “He talks a good game, but he doesn’t actually reach across the aisle to find solutions.”
Seeking to be a moderate
On that, Debicella admitted that “the Republican Party is equally to blame.” Congressional Republicans have, on many occasions, refused to work with Democrats on legislation and have opposed most, if not all, of President Barack Obama’s agenda, even if they had expressed past support for his proposals.
And, if elected, Debicella, who promised to be a Connecticut Republican in the spirit of past 4th District Congressmen Christopher Shays and Stewart McKinney and work in a bipartisan fashion, could find himself at odds with a more extreme Republican caucus dominated by the “tea party” wing.
“We need to have people in Washington who are able to bring both sides together,” Debicella said. “Look at the deficit. In last year’s presidential race they asked all the Republican candidates in a debate if they would take a deal where it was one dollar of tax increases for $10 in spending cuts and they all said ‘no.’
“I would take that deal in a second,” he continued, “and I would help make that deal by bringing together the conservatives who only want spending cuts with President Obama. You need people willing to reach out to both sides to bring it together.”
While noting there are areas where the two parties will never come together, Debicella pledged to move away from extreme rhetoric toward common ground. He said the only way the Republican Party would move more toward the direction once favored by the likes of Shays and McKinney is to “send those kinds of Republicans” to Congress.
“If all that’s in Congress is Michelle Bachmann on the right and Jim Himes on the left, you’re never going to get anything done,” Debicella said. “You need to send true moderates to Congress so you can have the GOP caucus get back to a right-of-center position, not right of right.”
Comparing 2010 to 2014
Debicella’s run comes as Himes is more and more an established incumbent, a change for Democrats since for years the 4th District was represented by Republicans. In 2010, a year of huge Republican gains throughout the country, Himes was not only able to beat Debicella, but do it by a greater margin of victory than he had over Shays in 2008.
But Debicella said he believes it will be different this time, with his improved name recognition, an early start, and a more concerted effort to meet with people so they can personally get to know him.
“We came close in 2010,” Debicella said. “We were the closest congressional race in Connecticut. Assuming turnout remains the same, we have to flip about 7,000 votes out of 220,000 to change the result.”
“I think a big difference is Jim Himes,” he said. “If you look at him in 2010 he was a first-term congressman getting his feet wet and I don’t think he had the record he has now as being a part of the gridlock and the special interest culture. Chris Shays fought against that and Jim Himes chose to be a part of it. I think that will make a difference with swing voters.”
Becoming a father
After his defeat in 2010, Debicella took some time away from politics, choosing not to seek the rematch in 2012. He said that he felt the timing was better next year for a second congressional run as opposed to last year, noting family as a main reason for his decision because having a son has motivated him.
“My family lived the American dream,” Debicella said. “My father was a cop and my mother was a secretary. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I look at what’s happening now in Washington with the gridlock between the parties, between the special interest groups that are dominating the agenda and how Jim Himes has become part of this corrupt Washington culture, and I said something has to change.
“I have a son now, which I didn’t last time around,” he continued, “and I’ve been thinking about what kind of country he’ll grow up in. Is it going to be one where the American dream will be alive and well?”’
Spending cuts and reforms
On a number of positions, Debicella said he is right where the district wants him to be. Like Himes, he said he is in favor of extending the country’s debt ceiling, an issue that is expected to once again be a major topic in Congress later this year.
He said it would be a mistake for the country to default on its debt while also calling for spending cuts.
However, he is against the currently enacted sequestration cuts that mandated across-the-board spending cuts throughout the federal government. Himes and his Democratic colleagues have spoken out against those cuts, highlighting the impact they’ve had on social services spending, and Debicella said the across-the-board mandate to cut made no sense.
Instead, Debicella said he supports “intelligent spending cuts” such as the Penny Plan, where he says Congress can be required to cut federal spending 1% a year for the next four years but, instead of across-the-board cuts, Congress would be able to decide where to apply the reductions.
Debicella said he believed this would lead to a needed debate about defense spending, farm subsidies, entitlement reform and other areas of government spending and result in bipartisan agreement.
Social Security and Medicare reforms
When it comes to Social Security and Medicare, Debicella said that he is in favor of reform, but not privatization. He stressed that they need different kind of reforms, with Social Security being the easier of the two.
“If you look at Social Security you’ll see that minor adjustments to the program now will keep it from going bankrupt in 2037 and we can save it,” Debicella said.
“These are changes,” he continued, “like if you’re making $200,000 and you’re 70 years old, you shouldn’t get full Social Security. There should be a sliding scale. You can re-index the increase from wages to prices, and that adds up over time.”
Medicare will be a more complex fix, Debicella said, due to the “exploding costs” that he claims healthcare reform has exacerbated.
This has resulted, according to Debicella, in a system where doctors have an incentive to run expensive and unneeded tests, something he said he personally experienced recently when he went to the hospital to have muscle spasms checked and the doctor wanted to check him for a heart attack.
He said Medicare and Medicaid will need to change the way they operate to move from the fee-for-service model to one that is more outcome-based, where physicians are not paid per test or service but to “actually solve the problem.” This ends up putting him in the same position that Himes has taken, which Debicella said proves there is common ground out there between the parties.
“There needs to be common ground because the only way big things happen in Washington is when you get both parties to agree,” Debicella said. “The last time we reformed Social Security it was a bipartisan agreement between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. That’s what we need right now and why, I think, people are sick of what they see in Washington. We need people who are actually willing to come together and solve these problems.”
Debicella says work is needed on healthcare reform, more commonly known as Obamacare. Since taking over as House speaker in 2011, U.S. Rep. John Boehner has held 40 votes to repeal the law, all of them entirely ceremonial since the Democratic controlled Senate will not take up repeal.
Debicella said if elected and a repeal vote was again put before the House, he would vote in favor of it but called the vote “meaningless” because President Obama would veto it were it to get past the Senate. He said dialogue should instead focus on reform instead of repeal.
“We have to talk about lowering healthcare costs,” Debicella said. “As Republicans, the mistake we make is continuing to be ‘the party of no.’ We have to be the party of ideas again. We have ideas on how to lower healthcare costs and that’s what we should be passing.
“I think Obamacare is going to fail next year as it rolls out,” he said, “and it will be much more expensive than predicted and people will be frustrated. But we shouldn’t just be waiting for it to fail. Republicans need to have their own agenda to reduce healthcare costs.”
Among the ideas Debicella said need to be moved forward are a focus on preventive medicine with a “healthy living tax credit” to encourage people to participate, interstate competition between health insurance companies, malpractice reform, and reform to the health insurance mandates so that women don’t have to cover premiums for prostate cancer screenings and men aren’t paying premiums for mammograms, which he says is happening now.
Immigration and gun control
Debicella said he is in favor of the immigration reform package with a path to citizenship that has passed the Senate in a bipartisan fashion but has thus far been not been brought to the House floor by Republican leadership. He said it’s an issue that goes beyond Republican or Democrat, involving “what is fair.”
On guns, Debicella criticized new state gun control laws in Connecticut created in the wake of last December’s Newtown school massacre, saying it was “far too restrictive” because it “got to the point where it was parsing which guns were good and which guns were bad.” He said that wouldn’t solve the problem of gun violence, but he believed the federal legislation that Himes helped push for, including universal background checks and restrictions on the amount of ammunition in a clip, is “rational.”
“When you look at Newtown you see that we have to keep guns out of the hands of people who are mentally unstable or criminals,” Debicella said. “Background checks seems, to me, to be a very reasonable thing to do.”
Controversial vote could be focus
An issue that became a source of contention in the 2010 campaign was Debicella’s 2007 vote on SB 1343, The Compassionate Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Act. He was one of only a few state senators voting against a mandate from the state that required all hospitals, including ones associated with the Catholic church, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.
The issue could again be discussed in 2014. “I have no doubt that it will be part of Jim Himes’ strategy to make me seem like a radical right-winger,” Debicella said.
“I am pro-choice,” he said. “I’ve always been pro-choice. I’m pro-stem cell research. I’m pro-gay marriage. I am very, very liberal on a lot of social issues. What this is, is a vote that said Catholic hospitals are going to have to provide emergency contraception. I’m a big believer in the separation of church and state. I don’t want churches telling the government what to do and I don’t think the government should be telling churches what to do. I don’t think the government should force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, but I’m pro-choice.”
However, after a rape, immediate emergency contraception is often sought by women, including at Catholic hospitals. When asked about this, Debicella noted that Plan B emergency contraception can be purchased over the counter in local stores, meaning rape victims do not have to rely on the Catholic hospital for it.
“You should be able to get it at your local drugstore,” Debicella said. “I just don’t want to force a church that doesn’t believe in it to give it out.”
Ken Borsuk is editor of the Greenwich Post, another Hersam Acorn Newspaper.