Economy, COVID dominate state House debate in Greenwich

GREENWICH — With a crowded slate of six candidates — who all practiced social distancing — the three races for the state House of Representatives in Greenwich were all combined into one debate Thursday night.

The League of Women Voters of Greenwich hosted the debate at Town Hall and streamed it via Zoom.

The match-ups saw Republican Kimberly Fiorello and Democrat Kathleen Stowe face off in the 149th District, which includes part of Stamford; incumbent Democrat Stephen Meskers and Republican challenger Joe Kelly in the 150th District; and incumbent Republican Harry Arora and Democratic challenger Hector Arzeno in the 151st District.

Under the format, the six candidates were part of the same debate. Issues like the economy, transportation and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic dominated as they were asked the same questions.

All had time for reply but the format did not allow for much back and forth dialogue between the opponents. But on the topic of small business in the state, the candidates were in big agreement.

Stowe, vice chair of the Greenwich Board of Education, said she could speak personally about the opportunity for Connecticut as New Yorkers relocate here during the pandemic. She said the goal should be to persuade the new residents to stay — and to get businesses to move to Connecticut, too. Stowe, who has a background in investment banking and private equity, runs a financial technology company with her father. She said they were planning on leaving New York and possibly relocating their business to Connecticut.

“Once people see how wonderful Connecticut is they’ll want to stay here,” she said. “Businesses always come and they stay where they’re welcomed. … As a state, we should be recruiting companies just like mine. We have the key ingredients, but we need to enhance it with an economic development effort and streamlining bureaucracy and red tape. And we need to expand our state venture capital effort.”

Fiorello, a member of Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting, said not enough is done to grow businesses in the state and said that Connecticut is one of the most business-unfriendly states in the country due to laws and taxes.

“This needs to change and the change really comes from not doing more of the same,” Fiorello said. “I pledge to be a voice for the small businesses.”

Doing that, Fiorello said, would convince renters in Connecticut to become home buyers.

Kelly, who is also a member of the Board of Education, said that in the more than 20 years he has owned small businesses in Connecticut, the state has never reached out to him about how it could help.

“I pay my taxes, I pay my fees,” he said. “I think last month I employed about 35 or 40 people. Basically, I got no help from the state at all. I love Connecticut. I love Greenwich. I want to stay here. I could take my businesses anywhere, but I love it here. We have to change that it’s not comfortable for people to have their businesses in this state. We have to lower taxes to some degree. We have to reach out to our businesses to get them to stay here.”

Like Stowe, Kelly agreed the state has a huge opportunity right now and endorsed the idea of state outreach to get businesses to relocate to Connecticut and to Greenwich.

Meskers, who is running for his second term in the House and is also a member of the RTM, also said his highest priority is also attracting and retaining businesses. The state should give small businesses what they need to get started and create economic opportunities through investment in cities and infrastructure improvements.

“The current fiscal situation of the state is more robust than people would have you believe,” he said. “In the last four years, we’ve attracted over $3.1 billion into our rainy day fund and that should shepherd and marshal us through the next two years of the pandemic. We will have to engage in rationalization of our costs. We will have to reduce our expenditures. We’ll have to consolidate operations to improve the economic position of the state. But right now we’re sitting in an enviable position in the tristate area.”

Arora, who is seeking his first full term after winning a special election in January, also is a local business owner with a background in energy trading and investment. He took a less rosy outlook than Meskers, but said things can be done to improve Connecticut’s standing.

“I don’t think anyone doubts we have driven away businesses,” Arora said. “Yes, some are coming in but on a net basis we have lost businesses. We have replaced high-paying jobs with low-paying jobs. … How do we change that around? By removing onerous business regulations. Anybody who has dealt with a state agency knows exactly what I’m talking about. There’s a million laws out there and I get calls every single day from people needing help. …

“The tax laws and the additional fees are also very burdensome and drive away businesses. And we have the highest electricity and cost of living costs,” he said. “We are not a competitive state because of the policies we have pursued but it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Arzeno, also a member of the RTM with a background in international banking, said the state faces an “excellent situation” with people moving to Connecticut. He said attracting families means attracting businesses, and said more could be done for manufacturing and distribution businesses.

“Greenwich and Connecticut and Fairfield County have an excellent opportunity bringing in new businesses and we have to take advantage of it,” Arzeno said.

Moderator Kay Maxwell asked the candidates what they would do in the legislature to control the coronavirus pandemic, citing the executive orders from Gov. Ned Lamont during the crisis.

Meskers said he would “look to the science.”

“I don’t know how else to deal with a pandemic,” he said. “We have some of the most advanced and talented scientists in the world. We have the best research facilities. The science that guides us gives us the quality of life today. … Now the balancing act has to be with the relief we need to see for our business community and economy and to move that forward.”

Arora stressed the need for vigilance, noting higher infection rates recently in New London and Norwich. He also said he wished the governor had acted earlier, like he had recommended, to address problems with the pandemic in nursing homes.

“This is a time for leadership, which I have demonstrated,” Arora said. “We have advocated for better education in our schools during this pandemic, and I am proud to say Greenwich is one of the few school systems where middle and elementary school students are going full time. … I will make sure we are ahead of the curve and ahead in the fight against this pandemic.”

Kelly also praised the Greenwich schools and stressed the need to follow the science.

“If I’m feeling ill, I don’t go to the plumber,” he said. “I go to the doctor. We have to listen to the experts and make our own decisions based on what we hear from the scientists and the doctors. We decide what the right thing to do based on our evaluation of the facts. Kudos to the gov. He did a nice job and I think our state is in a good position.”

While her fellow Republicans offered positive reviews for steps taken to curb the spread of the virus, Fiorello said that Lamont’s executive orders have been extended for too long.

“The best solutions, at least in the American way, is that you trust the people to understand what’s best for them,” Fiorello said. “That would have been what was needed for the Connecticut economy and best for Connecticut families. When you look at our schooling, is there one size fits all? We each have to figure out what is best and for those reasons, when it comes to COVID, we should err on the side of people figuring out what is best for them. When we legislate and have these big sweeping solutions, they can do a lot more harm.”

Stowe said she has “real world experience” with the pandemic after working on the school board to reopen the town’s schools. She said Greenwich surveyed its residents and listened to them when it came to reopening the schools.

“We have to open the economy safely, and I have to say, I feel like our state just did a great job by being judicious and being careful and wearing masks,” Stowe said. “I like how we opened slowly and then we’d evaluate using data and science and then kept going.”

Arzeno agreed that it was vital to rely on science and health specialists as well as community leaders.

“Connecticut is highly rated,” he said. “We are a state that has managed COVID-19 in a very successful way even with all the costs we had to assume. We have to listen to the health experts. This is not a partisan issue. We should not debate what the science says and we should all work together to come out of this pandemic.”

The full debate will be posted at the league’s website at www.lwvg.org.

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