Himes, Debicella offer competing visions at Greenwich forum

From left, Republican Dan Debicella and incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) faced off in a forum in the backcountry last week, discussing issues as local as transportation and as broad as foreign policy. –Ken Borsuk

From left, Republican Dan Debicella and incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) faced off in a forum in the backcountry last week, discussing issues as local as transportation and as broad as foreign policy. –Ken Borsuk

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) and his Republican challenger, Dan Debicella, brought their differences on the issues facing the country directly to Greenwich last week at a candidates forum in backcountry Greenwich.

Mr. Himes, a Cos Cob resident, is seeking a fourth term in Congress and is again being challenged by Mr. Debicella, a former Connecticut state senator from Shelton. This is a rematch of their 2010 race, which Mr. Himes won in what was a historically big year for Republicans. Despite the setback, Mr. Debicella is confident of closing the gap in 2014 and both men brought their case to the voters at the event, which didn’t attract just Greenwich residents but people from out of town as well, as many eyes are on the congressional race.

The event, co-sponsored by the Round Hill Association, the Northwest Greenwich Association and the Northeast Greenwich Association, was not done under traditional debate rules. Rather it was presented as a forum where both candidates spoke for 25 minutes apiece with a focus on three topics, global terrorism, partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., and transportation issues in Connecticut. Time was then taken for both men to answer questions from the bipartisan audience at the Round Hill Community House.

The candidates drew lots to see who would speak first and Mr. Himes got first crack at the crowd. He started off looking back at the last six years he had been a member of Congress, calling his time in office “the privilege of my life” even though it has come at an “enormously challenging time” for the country. Coming into office during a time when the economy was in a condition not seen since the Great Depression, Mr. Himes said that today, “we are in a different and better world” with the economy and stock market growing, jobs being created and the nation’s deficit falling “at a rate faster than anytime since 1946.”

“Now if you listen to me carefully in how I’m talking about this, you don’t hear a single note of triumphalism or me saying let’s open the champagne because everything is fine,” Mr. Himes said. “We’ve made real progress but we’ve got a long way to go. This recovery has left an awful lot of people behind. The recovery in the stock market has helped people who own stocks, but most Americans don’t. While the recovery is going on we haven’t seen wages go up for most people. So most people aren’t feeling quite the recovery that maybe some of us in this room are. There’s still millions of Americans who are trying to find work and cannot find it. While we’ve made real progress that task remains job one.”

Mr. Himes said furthering the recovery will come from finding a middle ground between Republican claims that all the economy needs is to cut regulations and lower taxes on “job creators” and Democratic claims that raising the minimum wage and raising taxes on the wealthy is what will cure everything. He said it was important to make sure government was doing all it could do and to focus on investment in public education while also making sure Medicare and Social Security remained sustainable “in a fair and equitable way.”

Mr. Debicella said it was the challenges facing the country that had inspired him to run again. He and his wife are the parents of a 15-month-old child and he told the audience that while they had been fortunate to live the American Dream he worried his child wouldn’t be able to. He painted the election as a fight of more of the same versus new ideas and innovative policies.

“The American Dream is being threatened by a Washington that is coming out with bad policies,” Mr. Debicella said. “It’s being threatened by a Washington that is being held down by gridlock from partisan politicians. We have to get beyond the mediocrity of small expectations. You heard Jim here today saying that things are so much better than they were. Aren’t things great? Yeah, we have more to do, but aren’t things better? Well, things are not going great. I’m taking to people in Greenwich, in Norwalk, in Shelton. Connecticut is 50th out of 50 in job creation. We lost 2% of our population last year. Traffic on the Merritt Parkway and I-95 are worse than ever. Metro-North is breaking much more than it did five years ago. Health care costs for the average family in Fairfield County are up 35%. This is not what the new normal should be. This is not the kind of record we should reward.”

Mr. Debicella promised he would bring “real bipartisan solutions, not just talk” to Congress if he was elected. He said voters should not just listen to what Mr. Himes said but look at what he had done over the last five years and they would see that he should not be re-elected. Mr. Debicella pledged to move beyond partisan politics and take the best ideas of both parties to reach solutions and solve issues, particularly when it comes to creating jobs and improving the economy.

Calling for tax reform that eliminated special interest deductibles and allowed for “pro-growth” policies for small businesses as well as adjustments to the Affordable Care Act that kept what was working and changed what wasn’t, Mr. Debicella claimed he would work for better, bipartisan solutions.

Terrorism

As a member of the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Himes receives regular briefings from the intelligence community on threats against the country and what’s being done about them. He noted that while America had successfully helped remove regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, he didn’t think anyone believed it had worked out well since then.

“We are very good at hunting down and killing terrorists,” Mr. Himes said. “We have decimated what used to be the leadership of Al Qaeda. It doesn’t mean we’ve solved the problem. As we’ve done that, of course, they’ve fragmented and gone around the world. But we are very, very good at that and we should continue to do that against ISIS, as we are. I fully support the president in his activities with respect to the airstrikes on ISIS, this appalling, monstrous group of people, to keep them back on their heels and keep them worried more about their own security than taking the next Syrian town or, God forbid, finding a way to target the United States or Europe or Israel.”

He added, though, that people shouldn’t feel that was enough. Mr. Himes pledged to support a “very aggressive effort” to go after ISIS. Mr. Himes said again that he did not support President Barack Obama’s plan to arm and train Syrian moderates in the fight against ISIS, comparing it to efforts in the 1980s to arm rebels in Afghanistan and saying how that effort caused Al Qaeda to be formed. Mr. Himes said there could not be a repeat of that and said the plan to arm Syrians and hope it didn’t further destabilize the region was “strategically confused.”

Instead Mr. Himes said there had to be changes in the underlying conditions in these countries that gave rise to groups like ISIS by “demanding those societies begin to change themselves” and having autocratic leaders like Assad in Syria begin to liberalize. He said he was not calling for “democracies overnight” in those regions but said America had to stop coddling these regimes, giving Pakistan as an example.

“We need to begin to demand that Muslim countries, many of whom are flying with us right now, purportedly our allies, that they stop playing this double game of saying that they’re our allies against these appalling extremists while, at the same time, at best turning a blind eye to their people who are funding these extremists,” Mr. Himes said, adding that this extended to countries like Saudi Arabia and its record of repression of women.

Mr. Debicella responded by saying he agreed with Mr. Himes that the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush was a disaster, but criticized the country’s direction since then, saying it had gone too far in the other direction. He said the country had been “burying its head in the sand” and said many of the problems the country was facing today in terms of foreign policy could be traced back to President Obama declaring a “red line” around Syria using chemical weapons against its own people and then not taking military action when it was shown that this had happened, preferring instead a diplomatic solution where the weapons were eliminated.

“Every single dictator and thug around the world said the United States will do nothing, it’s time for me to act,” Mr. Debicella said. “Vladmir Putin started messing in Ukraine. Hamas started attacking Israel and ISIS went out of Syria and into Iraq. Now I actually applaud the president. I think the speech he gave about two weeks ago was the exact right speech. I think the airstrikes against ISIS are the right thing and I actually think that now you saw a bipartisan consensus that actually helped the moderate rebels there. The Republican leadership, the Democratic leadership and the president were in agreement about something and that was the one Jim decided to be independent on and vote no on.”

Mr. Debicella said American foreign policy needs to get away from “the extremes of George Bush and Jim Himes” and move on a more centrist path with a strong military that was rarely used and have broad, international coalitions and not go it alone.

“We need to make sure that we are standing up for American values worldwide,” Mr. Debicella said. “We can’t just pick and choose what battle we want to fight. We need to be putting pressure on China and Saudi Arabia, people who might be our allies, to actually, and I agree with Jim on this, give women equal rights. We have a lot of discussion about women’s rights in this country and they’re very important. Jim and I are both pro-choice, but if you want to talk about women’s rights, look at places like Saudi Arabia where they are denied basic human freedoms. We need to be putting pressure on these places, and the only way to do that is through resolute leadership and a strong military.”

Transportation

Mr. Himes said that one way the economy could continue to see a boost would be through continued investment in transportation infrastructure.

“We need to bring what is a post-Civil War era set of highways, bridges and highways into the 21st Century,” Mr. Himes said. “We have underfunded our maintenance and our investment for a very long time and it is troubling. This has happened now for decades. We have a long way to go in that regard and I will fight and have fought for those resources. Since I’ve been in Congress I would say I’ve fought for roughly half a billion dollars of money that is going to widen access to the Merritt Parkway, $161 million I secured with the federal delegation to rebuild the Walk Bridge and $12 million to help the Stamford train station, which is the busiest train station between New York and Boston. I think I can look back at these last five years and say I’ve fought for the resources we need to modernize that infrastructure.”

Mr. Himes said it had to be about more than money, though. It had to be about small projects like improving train station parking, particularly an issue in Greenwich, to get more people to take mass transit, and big ones like building the New York Harbor cross rail tunnel to take freight off the highways and onto cargo trains to change the situation for the better.

Mr. Debicella challenged Mr. Himes’ claim that he had been fighting for transportation dollars. He called this “probably our No.1 local issue” and asked everyone in the audience if anyone’s commute had gotten better over the last four years. He said there had been a lack of leadership on this issue from Mr. Himes and pledged to make it a priority if elected to Congress.

“Jim likes to say he got a billion dollars for us for transportation,” Mr. Debicella said. “Well, first, I’d like to note that those billion dollars weren’t spent very well because the results are much worse than what we had before. Secondly, I like to tell folks that if your commute is better, then Jim has done his job and vote for him. But if you think there are better solutions based in more practical reality, then I think I’ve got better ideas.”

Mr. Debicella said looking at Interstate 95 showed that it backs up in the same places at the same point every day. He noted his own experiences living in Shelton and commuting to places like Westport and Stamford as proof he knows what commuters are going through and suggested that instead of looking at expensive proposals like new tunnels or a double-decker I-95, the state could look at smaller scale projects, such as adding entrance and exit ramps to ease the congestion and end stop-and-start motions.

He recalled his work in the state Senate working with then Gov. M. Jodi Rell to expand the Sikorsky Bridge and adding an entrance and exit ramp, turning what had been a huge daily bottleneck into a far more efficient drive. Mr. Debicella said the same thing could be done at the choke points along both I-95 and the Merritt and stated this should have been done with federal stimulus money from 2009.

“We can’t keep trying the same old failed solutions and expect a different result,” Mr. Debicella said.

When it came to Metro-North delays, Mr. Debicella said, politicians had to resist the impulse to do the “big, new shiny thing” and instead focus on projects like replacing electrical grids and investing in maintenance to prevent issues like tracks freezing, causing delays throughout the line. Mr. Debicella called for a partnership among Connecticut, New York and the federal government on this.

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