July 5, 2022

33rd Senate Candidates in Lively Debate at Valley Regional High School

Debate candidates at their podiums, (L to R) Green Party candidate, Melissa Schlag; Democratic candidate, Jim Crawford; and Republican candidate, Art Linares (Photo by Jerome Wilson)

AREAWIDE— The three candidates for the 33rd Senate District seat, Democrat Jim Crawford, Republican Art Linares, and Green Party nominee Melissa Schlag, discussed an array of state issues Wednesday evening in a wide-ranging debate held at Valley Regional High School in Deep River.

The intensity of the three-way contest for the 12-town district seat, wide open with no incumbent running for the first time in two decades, was on display for debate goers as more than two dozen supporters of Crawford and Linares lined the driveway of the school off Kelsey Hill Road waving signs for the two candidates. About 130 voters watched the 90-minute debate in the school auditorium.

Crawford, 62, is a former social studies teacher and Westbrook selectman who has represented the 35th house District  (Clinton, Killingworth and Westbrook) for a single term. Linares, who turns 24 on Halloween, is a Westbrook resident of Cuban heritage who is a partner in a Middletown solar energy company.  Schlag, 38, is a Haddam community activist who organized opposition to the now cancelled Connecticut River land swap last year. The candidates are competing for the seat held since 1992 by Democratic State Senator Eileen Daily of Westbrook.

The debate was sponsored by the Essex library, with Library Director Richard Conroy presenting written questions that had been submitted in advance by district voters. The candidates responded to nine questions on topics ranging from state spending and taxes to the impact of the national health care law, Obamacare, in Connecticut.

But it was a question on the state’s now repealed death penalty that generated the sharpest exchange of the evening, with Linares accusing Crawford of “turning his back on public safety,” by supporting an early release program for prison inmates that was initiated last year by the administration of Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy. Linares said the program has led to the release of several inmates who have committed murder and other violent felonies over the past summer. Linares also called for the reinstatement of the death penalty in the Connecticut.

Crawford said he was “insulted by that comment because it is a lie,” maintaining the current early release program is similar to the programs in several other states and has reduced recidivism among former convicts. Schlag, who endorsed the lealization of marijuana, also supported continued early release programs for prison inmates, particularly non-violent drug offenders.

A question on the now-cancelled swap of state owned land on the Connecticut River for inland forest land that was championed by Daily as an economic development measure for the Tylerville section of Haddam also generated an exchange between the three rivals. Linares said the land swap was “an example of inside politics gone bad” that led to “a divisive waste of time” for area officials and residents. Schlag, who noted the land swap led to her increased involvement in politics, declared that “term limits” are the best solution for  long-time legislators who “hide stuff in bills at the last minute.”

Both Schlag and Linares noted that Crawford had voted in support of the land swap in the spring of 2011. But Crawford maintaioned the proposed deal had “a significant amount of momentum” last year and was headed for a vote in the legislature. Crawford said he worked to include a requirement that the two parcels be roughly equal a value, a provision that led to the cancellation of the land swap because the land near the river was appraised at a higher value.

Linares criticized Crawford for supporting numerous tax increases as part of the 2011 state budget package. He pledged to work to reduce state spending and repeal many of the tax increases implemented last year.

Crawford noted the 2011 budget was intended to address a $3.5 billion shortfall that had developed in previous years, with a current deficit estimated at about $140 million representing only a small percentage of the total budget. Crawford also noted the 2011 budget maintained state aid to cities and towns, helping to limit increases on municipal property taxes. Crawford said spending cuts could cover any current deficit while also calling for upgrading collection efforts by the state Department of Revenue Services.

Schlag, declaring “it’s expensive to be poor in Connecticut”, called for reducing the taxes that impact lower income residents, such as restoring the sales tax exemption for clothing costing less than $50, while increasing taxes on large corporations and residents with the highest incomes. Along with term limits Schlag also called for a “full-time legislature” with larger districts to reduce the number of legislators.

Wednesday’s debate is expected to be the only major public joint session for the three candidates leading up to the Nov. 6 election. The 33rd District includes the towns of Chester, Clinton, Colchester, Deep River, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Haddam, Lyme, Portland, Westbrook, and portions of Old Saybrook.