More similarities than differences between the two candidates for Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District — Democratic incumbent Jim Himes and Republican challenger John Shaban — emerged at a debate Sunday evening, Oct. 23, at Wilton’s Clune Center for the Arts.
The greatest differences appeared to be in how to preserve Social Security, the immigration status of the “dreamers,” the Affordable Care Act, and the greatest challenge facing the next Congress. More subtle differences came through on gun control, cybersecurity and climate change.
Perhaps the most stark difference was exhibited when the candidates were asked about the greatest challenge facing the next Congress.
Himes put the emphasis on jobs and to encourage that he called for “a very significant commitment to our national infrastructure.” Noting multi-million-dollar grants Connecticut has received for road and rail upgrades, Himes said he’ll continue working to bring more money back to the state to bring its infrastructure into the 21st Century.
He also promoted a “national infrastructure bank,” saying a full-blown infrastructure program would cost $2 trillion to $3 trillion, a tax bill “we cannot sustain.” But rebuilding highways and laying fiber will put people to work, he said, and that money will find it way to households.
Here Shaban hit on the central theme of his campaign, which he repeated throughout the evening, and that is returning greater control over tax money to the states and localities.
“The greatest challenge is managing resources,” he said. He said Connecticut sends more money to Washington, D.C. than it receives, a point Himes disputed.
Himes asked the audience to think of one thing that makes the U.S. “a great nation.” Ticking off events such as the moon landing, defeating the Nazis, passing civil rights legislation, or even the Lewis and Clark expedition, he said, “I bet you whatever you thought about it was something we did collectively through the federal government … those are the actions of a great nation, not a neighborhood association.”
Shaban responded by claiming Himes views the country as the federal government. “I view the country as the people of the states.” The federal government could disappear, Shaban said, “and we would still have a great country because we have great people and great states.” He relegated the federal government to “infrastructure … to do certain things.”
Himes said he did indeed believe in individuals and said municipalities should handle issues such as firefighting, police, the National Guard, and education. But, he added, the federal government spends 85% of its budget on four items: Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, defense, and paying interest on debt. Transportation accounts for about 2% of the budget. “Tell me,” he asked Shaban, “which of those should be reverted back to the states?”
Shaban said he would prefer to focus on the other 15%. He said he wanted a pro-growth, stable economy, something with fewer handouts, that promotes growth from the bottom up. He also felt the states can do better on transportation and the Department of Education should be phased out.
“Local issues, local resources, local management,” he said. “Don’t bring home the bacon, leave the pig here.”
The debate was presented by 13 area chapters of the League of Women Voters and moderated by Kay Maxwell, executive director of the Stamford-based World Affairs Forum. Outside the Clune Center three representatives from 4th District chapters of AARP greeted audience members with concerns about the status of Social Security.
The debate opened with a question on what action Himes or Shaban would pursue if elected.
Saying that if nothing is done within the next 20 or so years benefits will need to be cut severely, Himes said the salary cap on Social Security taxes needs to be raised beyond the current limit of about $120,000 a year.
Also, he said, “I would support raising the tax rate on the wealthiest Americans or scale back what the wealthiest Americans receive.” He added he would also entertain an increase in the retirement age.
Shaban, who is a state representative from Redding, said, “It’s a math problem. It shouldn’t be a political problem.” He said means testing makes sense on the receiving end as well as on the “cap end.” He also favorably viewed raising the retirement age, but not for people receiving or soon to receive benefits.
Where they differed was on privatizing Social Security, a topic that comes up periodically. Himes said he “will always stand against privatizing Social Security.”
Shaban said he would listen to an argument for privatizing a portion of Social Security. “But I would be skeptical,” he added.
On the issue of immigration, Shaban offered his preference for “stand up and stand out.” He favors a quicker path for immigrants who enter the country legally, with illegal immigrants starting “the path of citizenship from the back of the line.” They might also be assessed a fine, he said.
“Once you do that, you break the law or you don’t pay taxes, you’re out,” he added.
Although Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s name was not mentioned, his policies were referenced several times during the evening, such as when Himes said “we have a lot of reweaving of the decency with which we talk about a nation of immigrants.”
He said he would have been happy to vote for a Senate bill that did not make it to the House floor that would have provided:
- Money for border security;
- Technology to let businesses know who is eligible to work here and substantial fines for companies that hired ineligible immigrants;
- An earned path to citizenship.
He added that most illegal immigrants do not come across our borders but by overstaying their visas.
He also spoke of the “Dreamers,” young people who were brought here by their parents who entered the country illegally. He said he believed young people who lived here essentially all their lives should receive in-state tuition for state universities.
“If we can’t treat the Dreamers with dignity, we are going to have trouble with the rest of the problem.”
Shaban shifted the problem to the Democrats, saying this, as well as many other issues, could have been dealt with in the first two years of the Obama administration when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
He voted against allowing in-state tuition to “Dreamers” in Connecticut, saying it was unfair to taxpayers. He said when they turned 18 they could apply for citizenship and then would be in-state residents.
Although both candidates agreed climate change is real, they disagreed on “who caused it.”
Shaban, an environmental lawyer, said, “who cares?” Assessing blame only politicizes the issue, he said. He favored a long-term production tax credit to incentivize the private sector to pursue renewable energy.
Himes said, he cares “profoundly” about the cause, describing the issue as a man-made problem. “Leadership requires clarity. You cannot solve a problem unless you say who caused it.”
Himes said the U.S. needs to migrate from coal and oil to cleaner energy forms such as solar, wind and nuclear. He also called for the U.S. to take a leadership role globally, saying, “There’s no reason this country shouldn’t lead the clean energy revolution.”
Shaban, who voted in favor of Connecticut’s gun control legislation following the Sandy Hook shooting, believes the majority of gun violence stems from the illegal flow of guns across state lines. This is a federal responsibility, he said, and “our federal representatives have not done a damn thing. Then they have the gall to blame others and the gall to walk out on a moment of silence.” He said Democrats should “pitch a bill” even if they know it will fail.
Himes said when he sees parents who lost their children who were students at Sandy Hook and they ask what he is going to do he said, “the answer is nothing. It’s worse than nothing,” referring to the Republican majority’s refusal to bring gun control legislation to the floor. When the anniversary of the shooting comes up, he said, “for seven seconds we will stop talking. The most powerful government in the world will stop talking” and then go on with business.
Referring to when he walked out on the last moment of silence for victims of gun violence Himes said, “I will not apologize for that gesture.”
A co-sponsor of nearly every bill on gun control, Himes said not a single bill has come up for a vote. He promised that if re-elected he will “raise all kinds of symbolic hell.”
Shaban again blamed Democrats for “doing nothing” in 2008-10. He reiterated the need for background checks and a focus on mental health, as in Connecticut’s law.
Shaban said the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, “doesn’t work, will never work.” He said it has to be replaced and then repealed.
His “repair” would involve promoting interstate commerce among insurance companies, promoting plan clarity, and tort reform.
Himes defended the act, highlighting 20 million Americans have insurance for the first time, applicants may not be denied for pre-existing conditions, and children may remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26.
He called for a bipartisan effort to draw more healthy people into the program.
Shaban argued that putting those 20 million people on Medicaid would have resulted in greater savings. Himes responded that two-thirds of the 20 million are on Medicaid and it would be higher if 30 states — most with Republican governors — had chosen to expand Medicaid.
Shaban argued for greater local control and Himes said it is “worth investing in the health of Americans.”
Saying the threats of cyber hacking are profound, Himes offered three main issues to address.
First, he called for an international agreement — similar to the Geneva Convention — on rules that antagonists must subscribe to, including agreeing not to attack critical infrastructure and to go after rogue offenders.
He also called for an information-sharing bill where the private sector can share code with the FBI, NSA and other intelligence agencies. The private sector must invest in network security, he said.
Finally, everyone needs to have better “cyber-hygiene,” meaning updating passwords and not opening suspicious email attachments.
Shaban called for creating a mechanism through intellectual property laws that would permit the government to look at private databases.
Both agreed the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, which overturned a ban on certain types of corporate expenditures for political candidates, has had detrimental effects on election spending. Himes said it has flooded the system with “dark money” and that money is not the same as speech. He suggested controls at the federal level similar to those in Connecticut.
Shaban said Citizens United has afforded incumbents with “war chests” of donations. He suggested a citizens election program where everyone gets the same money and term limits on how long candidates can receive money.
Himes went first with his closing statement. He said he has worked “very, very hard to try to represent the district in the independent and thoughtful way this district demands,” citing as an example voting against the Democratic budget in favor of Simpson-Bowles. He also voted to allow the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement to be looked at.
“I admit bringing home the bacon is an inartful construction, but it’s really important for those of you who got stuck on the Walk Bridge,” he said, referring to federal money that will help replace the rail bridge on Metro-North’s New Haven line. He will continue doing that while also focusing on national security as a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the economy and jobs as a member of the Financial Services Committee.
Shaban took this opportunity to stand up and speak to the audience. He said it comes down to which path the country takes. “Over time, a slightly wrong path leads to very bad results, over time a slightly better path leads to much better results.”
“My entire issue is let’s keep our dollars limited, our dollars local, our authority local so we can better manage our lives here in Connecticut because we have the resources but unfortunately they keep bleeding away.
“We just differ on how to manage our resources.”
He reiterated the Democrats’ failure to move forward on a number of issues in the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, which they later, he said, blamed on Republican opposition. By contrast, he said, as a state legislator in the minority in Hartford he’s been able to get things done working with Democratic friends.
Referring to his work as a football coach, Shaban proclaimed himself a “team guy,” adding, “There’s no I in Hartford, there’s no I in D.C. We’re all in the same room to solve the same problem. The question is which room. Are we going to solve them in Hartford where we control the votes, or in D.C. where we can’t?”