OLD LYME— A legislative appointment to a state task force on children’s jewelry was the focus of the sharpest exchange Tuesday as three candidates for the 12-town 33rd State Senate District seat faced off in the first campaign debate.
Republican State senator Art Linares of Westbrook, Democratic challenger Emily Bjornberg of Lyme, and Green Party nominee Colin Bennett of Westbrook appeared before a crowd of nearly 100 voters at the Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School for an hour-long session that was co-sponsored by the New London Day and the League of Women voters. Day editor Paul Chionere posed written questions, most submitted from audience members, to the candidates.
Linares, a 25 year-old incumbent seeking a second term, and Bjornberg, a mother of two who works in the Youth and Family Ministry of Deep River Congregational Church, agreed on some issues, such as support for small businesses, and differed on others, such as the stricter state gun law enacted last year. Linares had voted against the gun bill, contending it was never fully presented at a public hearing and imposed “unnecessary” restrictions on “law abiding citizens.” Bjornberg, noting she is from a “family of hunters”, said she would have supported the legislation, and contended Linares was not engaged during the crafting and debate on the bill.
Linares called for tighter control over state spending, along with possible reductions in the state gas and sales taxes. Bjornberg promised “fiscal responsibility,” while adding that she would “not balance the budget on the backs of children and senior citizens.”
But it was a question on the environment that prompted the sharpest exchange of the session, with Bjornberg contending a Linares appointment to a 16-member state task force reviewing the safety of children’s jewelry, particularly the presence of cadmium in the jewelry, showed a lack of concern for the environment and children’s safety.
As the ranking Republican member of the Children’s Committee, Linares was appointed to the task force, or allowed to designate a member in his place. Linares named Brent Cleaveland, the executive director of the Fashion Jewelry and Accessories Trade Association of Rhode Island.
Bjornberg said Cleaveland is a paid lobbyist for the children’s jewelry business, and has publicly opposed limits on the mineral cadmium in jewelry. She noted that cadmium has been listed as a potential human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration, and also claimed that Cleaveland has publicly downplayed the hazards of lead. Bjornberg raised this issue during the exchange on the environment, and again in the final minutes of the debate.
Linares said Cleaveland is “an advocate for making children’s jewelry safe.” Linares also contended a bill that Bjornberg had expressed support for, to ban all pesticides from high school athletic fields, would have imposed a costly new mandate on schools districts in the 33rd District.
Bennett, a substitute teacher who has run for the seat previously on the Green Party line, avoided direct criticism of the two major party candidates. Bennett said he was uncertain whether he would have supported the 2013 gun law, but expressed opposition to plans to expand natural gas service in Connecticut because much of the gas is produced through hydraulic fracking. Bennett also called for expanded investments in clean energy technology and legalization of the recreational use of marijuana as economic development measures for the state.
Bennett will also participate in a second debate scheduled for Tuesday Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. at Valley Regional High School in Deep River. Another debate sponsored by the Westbrook Council of Beaches is scheduled for Oct. 6 at the Mulvey Municipal Building in Westbrook. The 33rd District includes the towns of Chester, Clinton, Colchester, Deep River, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Haddam, Lyme, Portland, Westbrook and sections of Old Saybrook.