Two weeks from the Nov. 6 election, many eyes locally and nationally are trained on the 5th Congressional District race between Elizabeth Esty (D) and State Sen. Andrew Roraback (R-30).
The candidates made the stakes very clear in a forum Tuesday at the Helen & Harry Gray Cancer Center in Avon that was co-sponsored by Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation Emek Shalom in Simsbury and Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.
Esty, a Cheshire attorney, said that the 5th District race is the "fourth-most expensive Congressional race in the country." National press is covering the race and money is pouring into campaign advertisements. She noted an attack ad against her from a $1 million Super Pac in Ohio as an example of how important the election results are to not only district constituents, but also to people across the country who are not voting in the race.
It's the first time in 30 years an incumbent hasn't run in the 5th District – one of two New England Congressional seats without a candidate running for re-election, she said.
"This is considered one of 15 open toss-up Congressional seats in the country," she said, adding that the 5th District opening is "one of the handful of seats that may determine which party controls the House of Representatives."
Esty and Roraback were each given about an hour each to introduce themselves and answer questions from moderator Jon Rubin, Emek Shalom president, and about 20 residents from Avon, Canton, Simsbury and West Hartford in the audience.
"We think it's important for the community to be educated on the candidates and what they stand for," Rubin said.
Rubin asked them their positions on helping the elderly, poor and vulnerable, Medicare and Medicaid, immigration policy, preventing a nuclear Iran and how they'd make sure Israel stays a "strong Democratic state." Audience questions ranged from the economy to the difference between Republicans and Democrats.
Voting Alignment with National Party?
As someone who Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner led a fundraiser for at The Hartford Club two weeks ago, Roraback, of Goshen, said he doesn't think the vote on Speaker of the House will be the most important one he'd make in Congress.
Roraback, who has served six years as a state representative and 12 as a Litchfield County state senator, painted himself as a moderate Republican who could collaborate across party lines. Roraback said he is an American before a Republican and that he would not put his party before his beliefs and the needs of his constituents.
When elected as a state representative in 1994, his first vote was slated to be on whether to allow casinos in Bridgeport. He said Gov. John Rowland called him pressuring him to vote in favor of the casinos, but he turned him down and said "I can't in good conscience support this bill."
Esty, a former Cheshire town council member, became a state representative in 2008 and voted against the death penalty for "religious reasons." In a town still shaken by the 2007 Cheshire home invasion, she said that was an unpopular move and she was not re-elected in 2010.
"It demonstrates that I'm somebody who cares more about getting the right thing done, whatever the cost is to me politically," she said.
In a vote to legalize same-sex marriage, Roraback was the only Republican to vote yes.
"I'm against discrimination," Roraback said.
He said he got some push back, but that "party loyalty is not what I'm about." He called "partisan advantage" an enemy to political success.
Esty said that the main reason the government is growing more partisan is clashing social values.
What Esty and Roraback Agree On
Gay marriage is an issue that he and Esty agree on, as well as other social issues and supporting Israel.
Esty and Roraback both wanted to focus on supporting small businesses. Roraback said that he was in favor of less regulations and Esty spoke mostly of the potential she sees in the manufacturing industry.
Both advocate immigration reform, but in different ways. Roraback opposed the DREAM Act in the State Senate last year when he heard concerns about it from his constituents, but Esty said she supports it. According to ctnewsjunkie.com, the act allowed "undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Connecticut colleges and universities." Roraback said that while he is all for the children getting an education, they wouldn't legally be able to find work after college, so a plan is needed.
Esty said that a sound immigration policy should be a priority for both parties to collaborate on and that securing U.S. borders is also important.
Rubin asked both candidates, "How do you see the U.S. role in preventing a nuclear Iran?"
Roraback said he discussed the topic with Dr. Henry Kissinger – former secretary of state and National Security Affairs advisor, according to his website – at a fundraiser he recently hosted for Roraback's campaign in New York.
"His assessment was that within the next nine months, it's likely that Iran might try to move their nuclear weapon production capability underground," Roraback said, "and should they do that, it would be a very dangerous thing for all of us in the Western world."
He said he "use of force" should only be a last resort to avoid putting Americans' lives at risk.
Esty described Israel's vulnerability to the Middle Eastern countries around it.
Where the Candidates Differ
One area where the candidates differ is Roraback's belief that health care should be left to individual states.
"You have states that there's no way women will get affordable health care if you repeal," Avon resident Linda Merlin (D) said to him in response.
Roraback said he wants to go to Washington to "mold solutions." When Merlin asked if he would compromise on a bill to raise taxes on the wealthy if it included other items he agreed on to reduce the deficit, he said that he thought the federal government should spend one year revising the lengthy tax code. During that time, he said the federal government should avoid raising taxes on anyone.
Esty said she advocated letting "Bush tax cuts" expire for the wealthy and preserving them for the middle class. She said her economic philosophy differs with her opponent's view.
When an audience member asked her about a sound byte in a negative television ad that shows her at a Cheshire meeting telling senior citizens they should move out of town if the taxes are too high for them, Esty said that it was taken out of context. She was a private citizen when she spoke at the public budget meeting 10 years ago as a frustrated mother standing up for school funding in the heat of the moment.
But when she got involved in public office, she listened to seniors' concerns and worked to solve the problems they faced in her community, she said.
Public service is something both candidates hope to continue doing if elected.