Tammy Exum and Bob Margolis, the candidates running in the April 16, 2019, special election for the 19th State House District, participated in a debate Wednesday at West Hartford Town Hall.
By Ronni Newton
Supporters of the two candidates running in a special election to fill the 19th State House District seat vacated by Derek Slap packed West Hartford Town Hall Wednesday night for a 30-minute debate moderated by the League of Women Voters of Greater Hartford.
The special election will be held on Tuesday, April 16, for voters in the 19th District which includes portions of West Hartford, Farmington, and Avon. Derek Slap of West Hartford, who previously represented the district, won election to the State Senate’s 5th District in a Feb. 26 special election to fill the seat left vacant when Beth Bye was named commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood.
Democrat Tammy Exum of West Hartford and Republican Robert “Bob” Margolis of Avon squared off on a number of issues, responding to questions formulated by the League of Women Voters as well as posed by members of the audience and submitted just before the debate began.
Topics ranged from the state budget, to marijuana legislation, gun control, tolls, education, bear hunting, and the environment.
Understanding that as a new representative arriving in the legislature with just eight weeks to go in the session, the candidates were asked if they were aware of their committee assignments and what they would like to accomplish.
Margolis said he is not aware of any committee assignments at this time, but bills are moving out of committee and “at this point as candidates, I think we can both advocate for our positions and hope that when we get to the legislature we get to vote on issues that are important to us.”
Exum said that it’s true that there is just a short amount of time remaining and she also does not know which committees she would be assigned to, “I have a particular interest in education, in higher education, and in social services,” and said she would be interested in focusing on those topics.
Both Exum and Margolis said that the budget is the largest problem facing Connecticut.
Exum said that when she thinks about the budget and the economy, “I think about the hope of what we can be.” She said she believes that there are ways to grow the economy and thinks of how to encourage young people – like her sons who are away at college in South Carolina and Washington, DC – to come back to the state and spur the economy.
Margolis said that the budget has been the state’s biggest problem for a long time. “The governor is looking for $2.4 million in tax increases from those of us who live here in Connecticut. There are zero cuts in the governor’s proposed budget. This is a huge problem. We need to be looking at how we can run leaner, more efficiently, and we need some budget cuts in our state.”
Margolis said that Gov. Ned Lamont’s debt diet is “a positive step forward,” but added that he questions a “tax and spend governor like Gov. Lamont because I don’t think he knows what a debt diet is.”
Exum said she thinks the state should look at all ways to cut spending, “and debt diet is something we should definitely consider.”
Both candidates expressed certain reservations regarding marijuana legalization.
“Legalizing anything that can be addictive is always a difficult choice, but the reality is marijuana is [legal in states] all around us,” Exum said. There are also public health issues, and legalizing marijuana would allow it to be regulated and result in a safer product.
Permitting use only to people age 21 and over is critical, Exum said, but as the mother of young men, she said she really struggles with the addictive aspect of it.
Exum said that the social justice piece is critically important to consider as part of the legalization issue. “There needs to be a social justice component to it for these communities that have been ravaged.”
While he said that he doesn’t have a fundamental problem with people who enjoy marijuana, Margolis said he thinks that legalization is “more of a money grab than something that’s good for the state.”
If it’s legal and we can collect tax revenue, that could be good for the state, but he said he is very concerned with public safety issues including increased crime rates and traffic accidents, which have occurred in states where it has been legalized.
“I think the issue deserves more study,” Margolis said, particularly because there is no roadside sobriety test. If there is one, he would probably support legalization.
Exum agreed that the lack of a reliable sobriety test is a concern. “But if we do legalize marijuana we may as well benefit from taxes because we actually could use the revenue,” she added, “but that is not the reason I would approve it.”
The candidates were asked their opinions about guns, specifically bills that have passed the Judiciary Committee regarding safe storage, ghost guns, safe storage in automobiles, and open carry permits.
“As a firearms instructor my entire passion is firearms safety,” Margolis said. “That extends to storage,” he said, adding that he would “absolutely, positively support anything that made the public safer.” He said he would love to see the safe storage act include education for children, so that if they find a gun they should be taught to not touch it, leave the area, and tell an adult.
Margolis said that he doesn’t think ghost guns are very popular in Connecticut, and that he is not aware of them being used for any crimes in the state. He added that his guns are all legally registered.
It’s federally legal to build your own weapon, Margolis said, and “what I’m concerned of with the ghost gun law is at what time do you decide a chunk of metal is a gun.”
Safe storage in automobiles is a difficult to legislate without being able to define what safe storage in autos is, but Margolis added that “if guns are going to be left in cars then they should be secured.”
Margolis said that while Connecticut is an open carry state, he doesn’t ever recommend that his clients openly carry a gun.
“I really believe in just common sense gun laws and safe storage really is basic,” Exum said.
She said that educating children about gun safety is not a good enough solution, in part because their brains are not fully developed. “I don’t know how many times you tell a child not to touch a hot stove and they still do it. It’s not the responsibility of the child,” she said, although it’s important to tell them what is right and wrong.
Exum said that she is opposed to open carry, and any guns carried in cars should be safely stored.
Exum favors banning ghost guns, and said she has spoken with people who are in abusive relationships who are concerned that while a restraining order would prevent someone from legally obtaining a gun, they can still get a gun online “and there is no serial number and no way to trace it.”
“If you’re the subject of a restraining order you cannot lawfully get a gun in Connecticut,” Margolis said in rebuttal, including online, but in response someone in the audience yelled out that it “happens all the time.”
“It is not my understanding that you are unable to obtain a ghost gun if you really want one,” said Exum.
Exum said she absolutely supports universal background checks. Margolis said that while he supports universal background checks, he does not support a gun registry.
Both candidates said they would support a plastic bag ban. “I would rather ban than tax,” Margolis said.
Exum said she has been captivated by the stories about whales that have died from ingesting so much plastic, and the impact of plastic on other marine life. “We have to be good stewards of our earth so absolutely we have to change our behaviors.”
She added that while she appreciates reducing the use of plastic straws, however, there is sometimes a medical need for using straws and that’s important to consider when legislating change.
Food waste is one of the biggest issues the state faces, including in the 19th District, regarding trash.
Both candidates agreed that there is a need to control the increasing bear population, but neither thought bear hunting would be the best solution.
Exum said she believes that the state can best increase its revenues by growing the economy. “I think we really need a growth model,” she said, building on the highly educated workforce, with programs to partner with companies and create a pipeline of people with the skillsets to grow the economy.
While Exum said she prefers a growth strategy, at the same time, she said, when she drives to visit one of her sons in Washington, DC, “when I leave Connecticut I pay tolls all the way down the interstate to DC and then I pay tolls all the way back.” The 40 percent of drivers who come to Connecticut from out of state use our roads but don’t pay for them.
“I am completely and totally against the prospect of having tolls in Connecticut,” Margolis said. A program called “prioritize progress” would help fund the infrastructure without tolls, he said.
People are leaving the state because it’s too expensive to live here, Margolis said, and after the kids get a great education, “they’re leaving because there’s nothing here for them. … We overtax, we overspend, and we have fiscal irresponsibility in Hartford.”
Margolis said that his concern with early voting is who is going to pay for it. He said that there is no proof it would result in more people voting.
Exum said she absolutely supports early voting, which is now permitted in many states. “Everyone should be encouraged to vote and voting should be a right.” Felons who have been released from prison should also be allowed to vote, she said.
Both said they hope that the election system is secure.
Both agreed that towns should not have to pay for teacher pensions.
The candidates each had two minutes for a closing statement.
“When I am elected I will look at every issue asking myself, ‘Is it good for Connecticut, is it fiscally responsible, and is it the right thing to do?'” said Margolis. He said that doesn’t always seem to be the approach by the legislature.
Margolis also addressed a recent social media post by Democrats featuring an Instagram photo he had posted in the fall where he is looking down the barrel of a gun. He said it was an attempt to “dig up dirt” from his condo association board, and attempted to smear him. Margolis said he is and has always been an honest person, “and I have tried to run this campaign as a gentleman” but feels trust was broken by the move.
Exum thanked her family, supporters, and the debate hosts, and said that her campaign has been about bringing people together, “finding real solutions to real problems and offering a positive vision like I did on the West Hartford Board of Education.” That is the reason she is seeking office, she said.
“I won’t go there with the assumption that more taxes are the solution to everything. I believe nothing is more important than an affordable, honest, and sustainable budget,” she said. Growing the economy is the solution through innovating, ending transportation gridlock, and investing in good jobs with fair pay and benefits.
Exum is against forced regionalization of schools, she said, and is committed to building on the work of Derek Slap.
“I am confident that Connecticut’s best days are ahead of us,” Exum said.
The debate can be viewed in its entirety on West Hartford Community Interactive’s YouTube channel.
The polls in the 19th District will be open from 6 a.m. through 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16. In West Hartford, 19th District polling places are at Sedgwick Middle School, Braeburn Elementary School, and Hall High School. West Hartford residents can obtain absentee ballots through the Town Clerk’s office. Visit the Town Clerk’s website for details.
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