Candidates running for the 26th state Senate District seat, Republican Toni Boucher, left, and Democrat Ceci Maher, answer questions at Wednesday’s debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westport. / Screenshot by John Schwing

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — With less than a week left before voters head to the polls Nov. 8, the six candidates for three seats representing Westport in the General Assembly debated policies and traded barbs Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westport.

The LWV forum was the candidates’ last joint appearance before Election Day with contenders in the 26th state Senate District and the 136th and 143rd state House of Representative Districts. It took place in the Westport Library, and also could be viewed online via live-streamed video.

Candidates for state House of Representative seats at Wednesday’s debate were, from left, Democrat Jonathan Steinberg and Republican Alma Sarelli, 136th District, and Republican Nicole Hampton and Democrat Dominique Johnson, 143rd District. / Screenshot by John Schwing

Participants were: Ceci Maher, Democrat, and Toni Boucher, Republican, in the 26th Senate District; Jonathon Steinberg, Democrat, and Alma Sarelli, Republican, in the 136th House District, and Dominique Johnson, Democrat, and Nicole Hampton, Republican, in the 143rd House District.

The debate was framed by questions posed by moderator Jean Rabinow on topics ranging from local vs. state control of housing and education to the economy and job creation to public transportation and local traffic congestion to the environment and climate change.

But there also were pointed exchanges over the records of two candidates’ lengthy legislative records and, perhaps unexpectedly, one candidate’s apparent denial that an “insurrection” took place at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when a crowd of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the building.

And despite differences on other issues, all six candidates voiced general support for Connecticut’s abortion-rights protections and gun-safety laws, which elsewhere in the country are subjects of heated controversy.

A revealing segment of the forum occurred when the moderator asked the candidates, by showing “yes” and “no” placards, to answer a series of questions with one word.

On highway tolls, the 26th Senate candidates divided along political party lines: Maher in favor, Boucher was opposed, as did the House candidates, Steinberg and Johnson said yes, and Sarelli and Hampton said no.

On the state’s “Safe Harbor” abortion protection law, all six candidates from both parties said “yes” in support.

When the House candidates were asked whether they favor allowing early voting (a question that appears on the Nov. 8 ballot), Democrats Steinberg and Johnson said yes, Republicans Sarelli and Hampton were opposed. 

And when Senate contenders Maher and Boucher were asked if they favor Connecticut serving as a “sanctuary state” for immigrants, both objected that the topic is too complex to give a one-word answer.

Connecticut’s economic condition and taxes repeatedly provoked disagreement throughout the eventing.

Boucher, seeking to reclaim the seat she lost to Democrat Will Haskell in 2018, said the state’s lack of “affordability” is the top concern for voters this year.

Sarelli and Hampton joined her in blaming Democrats for what they called the state’s high taxes and sluggish growth. Sarelli, who owns a business with her husband, and Hampton both said the best way to spur growth and improve the economy is “to cut taxes and red tape,” faulting Democrats’ record after decades in control of the General Assembly.

Steinberg, the only Westport district incumbent seeking re-election this year, saw things differently, crediting Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, for leading a budget turn-around, with record surpluses, cutting taxes and paying down long-term debt.

Maher agreed, citing Lamont’s leadership on the economy and urging voters to reject “the doom and gloom” that she said characterized Boucher’s message.

The sharpest exchanges were traded by Hampton and Johnson, seeking to win the seat in a district that spans the Norwalk-Westport border. The seat is now held by Stephanie Thomas, a Democrat who this year instead is running as the Democrats’ secretary of the state candidate.

Hampton accused Johnson, a member of Norwalk’s Common Council, of hiring a city “DEI” aide as a last-minute campaign ploy, adding that diversity-equity-inclusivity initiatives tend only to divide people.

Johnson countered that the council had no role in hiring the DEI aide, who she said was solely a mayoral appointment.

After Hampton repeated the DEI-hiring allegation several times, an exasperated Johnson described her opponent as “detached from reality,” pointing out that Hampton had tweeted there was “no insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Hampton, did not deny sending the tweet, but explained it was part of a Twitter exchange over events Jan. 6 and said she “denounces” what took place that day. Although, she added, it was not an insurrection because “not one person had a gun” at the Capitol during that incident.

Both Steinberg, who has served 12 years in the legislature, and Boucher, who spent a total of 22 years in the state House and Senate before being ousted four years ago, emphasized their legislative experience and willingness to compromise as assets.

From opposite sides of the political spectrum, however, their opponents characterized that as negative, saying the long-term legislators share blame for lack of action on intractable problems.

Sarelli said that during Steinberg’s tenure, the tax burden on Westporters had grown sharply “with nothing to show for it,” while Maher said despite Boucher’s many years in office she remain negative about the state and its outlook.

Education, for Boucher, is a prime focus, with parents working through local Boards of Education having the priority to decide local policies. She also suggested that ARPA money be spent on programs to help students make up for challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic rather than “athletic facilities.”

Boucher and Sarelli both opposed what they said is the threat of regionalizing local school districts, which Democrats insisted is not a possibility. All of the candidates, however, acknowledged the Westport school district’s top-notch reputation should be lauded and safeguarded.

Sarelli said she would oppose any new COVID mandates in the schools, while Hampton said books on gay subject matter in the Staples High School library — featured in a recent “banned books” display — featured “pornographic” illustrations.

Maher said her leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, including Sandy Hook Promise and Person-to-Person, help her understand the needs of small business, and the benefits of programs like paid family leave.

The impact of the state’s 8-30g affordable housing law on local policies also was debated. The Republicans generally supported its repeal and replacement, while the Democrats called for the law to be revised and acknowledging a need to provide more affordable units in local communities.

Programs initiated by First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker drew support from both sides of the political aisle. Hampton said the neighborhood-based traffic survey conducted earlier this year should serve as a guide to help ease local traffic problems, and Johnson supported recently announced plans to hold a series of meetings on local stream-flooding problems.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.