Two days before their Republican gubernatorial primary showdown, Tom Foley and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney held a no-holds-barred debate Sunday morning that ended with smiles, handshakes and promises of unity after the votes are totaled Tuesday night.
Foley, the GOP's unsuccessful 2010 candidate for governor who won the party's convention in May, repeatedly called McKinney "a career politician" who accepted expensive initiatives of first-term Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
McKinney, using what was perhaps a tougher slur as he scrambled for Republican votes, accused Foley of being "a Democrat."
The hourlong morning confrontation, carried live on WTNH-TV, showed contrasts between Foley and McKinney on gun control, medical marijuana, jobs and the economy.
Both criticized the state's controversial Common Core educational reforms. Foley, of Greenwich, charged that his opponent embraced them as a member of the General Assembly. McKinney, of Fairfield, reminded Foley that the standards were developed and voted upon by the state Board of Education back in 2010, but that Foley, who was running for governor at the time, never raised the issue in the campaign against Malloy.
Foley started the fireworks four minutes into the debate, charging that the 2013 gun-control reforms, which resulted in an expansion of the state's ban on military-style weapons and new prohibitions on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, threatened the constitutional rights of gun owners.
Foley said the law was "an overreach" and that lawmakers have neglected to address the underlying issue of mental health that likely contributed to the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"In some respects, Sen. McKinney actually advocated for restrictions that the governor wasn't advocating," Foley charged.
Foley has been positioning himself for support from Republican gun enthusiasts who may be aligned against McKinney -- whose five-town state Senate district includes Newtown -- because of his role in passage of the legislation.
"I think their rights were trampled on, in many respects," Foley said, adding the first of several references to McKinney, an eight-term veteran of the Legislature, as a "career politician" who is a cause of the state's problems.
"I certainly don't agree that we initiated restrictions beyond what the governor wanted to do," McKinney said. "One of the things that's frustrating is the fact that, Tom, you've talked about the fact that your bill would have been different and the restrictions went too far, but you still won't say whether you would support a ban on assault weapons or whether you would support a ban on large-capacity magazines."
McKinney claimed that around the state, voters have told him they are "frustrated" by Foley's lack of clarity on the issue.
"I know we may disagree and I respect those differences, but I think you need to be specific about the answers we give to people because, you know, to beat Dan Malloy we're going to have to be very specific, and I still think you need to answer those questions," McKinney said.
Foley, who admitted that the gun law is unlikely to be changed by the Democratic majority in the General Assembly, said the underlying issue of better mental health assessment and programming has not been addressed. McKinney said legislation includes substantial improvements in ways to identify children with emotional problems.
"Here is a good example of what I call the career-politician method," Foley replied.
"To be honest, Tom, I was there that day," McKinney said, interrupting Foley. "I've lived through it with those people. You didn't offer any help to the people of Newtown during that tragedy. Would you support a ban on large-capacity magazines? Yes or no?"
"I told the governor at the time that we shouldn't go beyond what would have prevented another Newtown," Foley said.
"With all due respect, you sound like the career politician because I've said I support it and you won't say yes or no," McKinney said.
Both primary candidates called marijuana "a gateway drug." Foley said he opposes the use of cannabis as a recreational drug and wants to make sure the state's medical marijuana doesn't "leak out" into the general populace.
McKinney recalled that he voted against the state's medical marijuana law.
"At the end of the day, marijuana is still a controlled substance," he said.
Both Foley and McKinney were critical of Malloy's budget record and offered starkly different ways to reduce spending and provide tax relief.
Foley would cut the current 6.35 percent sales tax down to 5.85 percent to provide $300 million in tax relief.
By 2017, McKinney would eliminate income taxes for a million state residents who make less than $75,000 a year, saving them more than $750 million, he said.
Foley accused McKinney of "Malloy math" on the issue.
"We need to stand back and look at comprehensive tax reform," Foley said, adding that a reduction in the sales tax would help the state's lower earners.
McKinney responded that by focusing on the middle class, eliminating the income tax would allow "nurses, teachers and other hard-working people" a chance to remain in Connecticut during their retirement years.
Foley said that by holding the line on current spending, he can bridge the estimated $1.4 billion deficit in the budget that starts July 1, 2015. McKinney said that about $900 million in contractual increases makes Foley's plan impossible to enact.
"You're very misleading," McKinney said. "A cut is actually when you spend less money one year than you spent the year before, and that's what I propose."
Foley slammed McKinney for supporting a previous $140 million tax increase on petroleum products.
"You have repeatedly voted for tax increases," Foley said. "You've had some kind of an epiphany in the last three weeks and all of a sudden you're a fiscal conservative. I'm glad you've finally come on board and seen the light."
McKinney pulled out a copy of his record on budget votes, including many votes against higher taxes. He did support a 50 cent-per-pack hike on cigarettes in 2007 that helped fund tax credits for film and media services in the state.
"You're talking like a career politician," Foley said.
"A cigarette tax of 50 cents in exchange for the film tax credit is trade I'll take any day," McKinney said.
In a later exchange over the recent extension of $400 million in tax credits to United Technologies Corp., including Stratford-based Sikorsky, in exchange for promises to remain in the state for several years, Foley said that such tactics are the equivalent of spending.
"You've spent $400 million to bribe UTC to keep jobs here," Foley charged. "John's using career-politician talk. He's saying tax credits are OK. Tax credits are spending. In the federal government, tax credits actually appear on the spending side of the budget. So you've actually spent $400 million to bribe UTC to keep jobs here."
"Now you're thinking like a Democrat," McKinney interrupted. "That's not spending by government. There are no checks being written by the state of Connecticut to United Technologies. That's letting people keep their money. You're a good Democrat if you believe (otherwise)."