By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — Gov. Ned Lamont visited the Westport Library on Monday afternoon, speaking to the Y’s Men of Westport/Weston, and answering questions about Connecticut’s future, affordable housing, immigration and the state of civil discourse nationwide.
The event with the Democratic governor was moderated by former First Selectman James Marpe, a Republican. The Y’s Men and the library co-sponsored the event. On Thursday, Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski spoke at the same forum.
“I love being back in Westport,” Lamont told the crowd. “I love this town. This is where I met my wife, Annie.”
The 68-year-old recalled windsurfing with her at Longshore, and asked if people remembered a place called The Ship’s (short for The Ship’s Lantern, a longtime, smoky bar downtown).
“Now it’s Tiffany’s,” Lamont said to laughs.
He talked about why he decided to run for governor four years ago when Connecticut “was lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis.” Young professionals were leaving the state, and so did GE. In that 2018 election, Lamont beat Stefanowski for the governor’s seat.
Four years later, he said, the state has led the way in responding to and reopening from COVID, gone from deficits to a surplus, and new companies are taking a second look at Connecticut.
“We got our schools open faster than anybody,” he said of the pandemic. “We kept our parks and beaches open — we had more visitors to the State of Connecticut in 2020-21 than we’ve ever had before.”
Lamont said restaurants were a tougher problem.
“But we started by outdoor dining,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘Oh boy, that’s gonna be tough.’ But you know what happened? People began saying, ‘Hey, downtown Westport on Thursday evening is really pretty cool, look at all the people hanging outside’.”
“And something else happened,” he said. “Tens of thousands of new families started moving into Connecticut instead of in the other direction.”
He said that with the budget surplus, the state has paid down its pension debt, going from about 35 percent funded to close to 50 percent funded.
“It made an enormous difference,” Lamont said. “It’s going to save us taxpayers’ dollars about $450 million a year for the foreseeable future.”
“Rather than add to our credit card we debt we did the opposite,” he said. “We paid down our credit card debt.”
Marpe then asked Lamont some questions. Among the topics was immigration.
“What actions will you take when your counterparts in Florida or Texas send two planes full of migrants to Bradley Airport and four buses of migrants to the transportation center in Stamford, and what are you encouraging President Biden to do about that migrant problem?”
“One, secure the border,” Lamont said. “You’ve got to secure the border … and have a big door for legal immigration. Don’t get the two confused. I think right now the federal government is getting those confused.”
“And no offense Jim, but I can’t stand what they’re doing, sending these migrants up here, playing games with these young people,” Lamont said.
“These are Venezuelans fleeing a totalitarian government down there,” he said. “Coming up with the necessary permissions, that’s what America has been about for a long time.”
Lamont said he’s got hotel space lined up in case Connecticut is targeted for a similar stunt.
“Nobody’s asked us to do anything so far, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Marpe asked how affordable housing could be created that isn’t dense and five-stories high, referencing the state’s 8-30g statute, which gives developers leverage and leeway in towns without enough housing deemed “affordable” by the law’s criteria.
“I’d do it the way you and Jen (Tooker, Republican first selectwoman) do it,” Lamont responded. “Do it with local control. Let you take the lead.”
He said business groups have told him that without affordable housing, they can’t attract employees. “We need places for teachers, firemen, cops to be in the town they are,” he said.
He noted that when he was a selectman in Greenwich, many municipal employees lived in town. “Now, virtually none of them do.”
He said that municipalities that come up with an affordable housing plan, as Westport has, can be granted moratoriums from 8-30g.
“But if you refuse to come up with a plan, I’m afraid 8-30g is still there in the backdrop,” he said.
“While you and I represent different political parties, I truly believe you and I have had a cordial, and more importantly, productive relationship,” Marpe told Lamont. “And I think you have the same with Jen.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the situation … around the state, certainly between the states, and certainly at the federal level,” Marpe said. “How do we change the tone of the discussion, how do we get people working together — and it’s not just Republicans and Democrats — but the increasingly independent sector …?”
“I like mayors,” Lamont said. “I don’t care what their political party is, they’ve got to get stuff done. I like people who want to get things done.”
“I’ve tried to change the tone in Hartford, and I’ve had some success,” he said, mentioning some bipartisan efforts.
“There are things you can do if you listen and you try to work together,” Lamont said.
“But obviously in Washington, D.C., it’s a lot more poison than that,” he said.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is everyone’s pretty normal behind closed doors, but as soon as you go out there and the camera’s on, they go right back to type,” Lamont said. “I’ve tried to do everything I could to be able to make sure people know what they say to me stays with me, stays private, and we work together collegially on this.”
“I think we’re making progress,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
Thane Grauel, executive editor, grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond more than three decades. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about us here.