Republican Gov. John G. Rowland and Democratic challenger Bill Curry both tried to portray themselves as the candidate of choice for Fairfield County voters Tuesday night.
Curry criticized Rowland for not doing more to combat sprawl and traffic congestion, while Rowland warned wealthy voters that Curry supports raising the income tax on millionaires — and probably others.
Although Fairfield County historically votes Republican, Curry urged those watching on local cable TV and listening on AM radio to take a chance on a Democrat who opposes casino development and is willing to help a part of Connecticut that he claims has been ignored.
"Stand with me on Nov. 5 and I'll stand with you every day for the next four years," Curry said while looking into the camera.
The two candidates appeared at the Rich Forum in Stamford. The third of four debates, the event was co-sponsored by the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, The Advocate of Stamford, Greenwich Time, Cox Radio and Cablevision Channel 12. It was the only debate held in Fairfield County.
Both will debate again on Oct. 28 in Farmington.
The latest matchup was more pointed at times than the other debates, with each candidate taking policy shots at the other.
Rowland took issue with Curry's claims that his administration has taken Fairfield County for granted. He ticked off a list of transportation investments made in recent years, including new train stations and additional commuter trains and locomotives.
The two-term Republican said the state spends approximately $60 million each year to subsidize commuter rail and bus service. He pledged to continue that commitment, as well as his administration's efforts to help companies thrive in the region.
"Bill Curry didn't seem to know about how to approach the issue of Fairfield County specifics," said state Sen. William Nickerson, R-Greenwich, who claimed Curry's support has slipped in the region and that Rowland is talking about issues that voters want to hear.
But Curry's running mate, Senate Majority Leader George Jepsen, D-Stamford, said he believed the Democratic candidate managed Tuesday night to pick up more support.
"We don't need to win southwestern Connecticut," Jepsen said. "We just need to make it close."
The latest University of Connecticut poll showed Curry trailing Rowland by 15 percentage points statewide.
Curry supporters believed their candidate also scored points with southwestern Connecticut voters by vowing to oppose a controversial above-ground power line from Bethel to Norwalk. Curry accused Rowland of covertly supporting that line as well as other power line proposals across Long Island Sound.
"We are becoming New York's enabler," he said. "This isn't for Norwalk. This isn't for Stamford. This is for the industry."
To the surprise of some in the auditorium, Rowland said he believes the Bethel to Norwalk line should be built underground — something homeowners have been demanding. Rowland said he believes the region's electrical needs must be balanced with environmental concerns.
About 20 members of the Communities for Responsible Energy, a grass-roots organization, protested outside the theater Tuesday night, chanting, "Bury the line or bury the project."
Joe Dolan of Redding, president of the group, said the residents want Rowland to oppose the project or at least support burying the lines. Curry, he said, has clearly stated that he favors alternative plans for energy and would oppose the project.
"Right now, we'd like to see the governor behind us," he said.
Both candidates pledged to oppose a casino if the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe receives federal recognition. The tribe wants to build a casino in the Bridgeport area.
Curry again accused the governor of flip-flopping on the casino issue, arguing that he is the only candidate voters can count on to fight a third casino in Connecticut. Rowland said that aside from his 1995 support of a casino proposed for Bridgeport, he has never backed a casino anywhere in Connecticut.
Rowland and Curry also sparred over how to eliminate the state's budget deficit. The state is facing at least a $390 million deficit for the 2002-03 fiscal year, according to the state comptroller.
Rowland said he planned to work with lawmakers in the next session to hold the line on spending. When asked to pledge that he would not advocate reductions in state aid to municipalities, Rowland said everything will be on the table when the time comes to discuss budget cuts.
Curry, he said, will face difficulties balancing the state budget because he has already made promises that would cost more than $1 billion.
"What you cannot do to the taxpayers of this state, let alone the cities and towns, is make promises you can't keep, make promises that will cost the taxpayers well over $1 billion," Rowland said.
Curry responded that he was the only candidate to offer a deficit reduction plan, which includes the so-called "millionaire's tax."
He also criticized the governor for being three weeks late, according to law, in submitting a plan to address the deficit.
"I'm running on a property tax cut, that's correct," Curry said. "We can't do it next year because this state today is the most highly taxed state in America. It is the most deeply indebted state in America.
"Because of its sheer managerial incompetence, we are last in the amount of federal revenues that we get back for our taxpayers," Curry said. "We are at the constitutional limit of both spending and borrowing, facing another $1 billion deficit on top of it."