Oct. 5—WILLIMANTIC — U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Second District, and state Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, met for their first Congressional debate Tuesday night.
Courtney is seeking his ninth term in Congress. France, a longtime state representative and Navy veteran, is challenging him.
While Courtney has mostly avoided attacking or even referencing France throughout the campaign, the Democrat had to respond to his challenger's barbs Tuesday night.
Courtney's campaign already fired back at France last Friday when he called into question Courtney's reputation of securing at least two submarine-building contracts a year for Electric Boat.
"I'm not certain what he did as a brand-new freshman congressman for five months to all of a sudden get two subs per year," France said on conservative talk radio host Lee Elci's show. "The reality is that the foundation was laid ... by Rob Simmons ... It was funded in the House in 2006, that was changed, and ultimately it was announced a year later. But Joe Courtney didn't do anything, frankly."
Courtney's campaign referenced a slew of news reports that confirmed the Congressman as a freshman did what Simmons "fought hard to achieve but failed to deliver," according to a December 2007 story from The Hill.
"When Simmons was on the Armed Services panel, he was able to secure authorization for the advance procurement of material to build the second Virginia-class submarine. But appropriators never approved the extra funds," The Hill wrote at the time.
At Tuesday's debate, France said that the country has not met its needs in submarine building especially with the rise of the Chinese military.
"During my opponent's term, we've seen the Navy in China surpass us," he said.
Courtney touted his shipbuilding record, noting that he blocked proposed cuts to the sub fleet by former President Barack Obama in 2013 and former President Donald Trump in 2020. He brought up his involvement in a trilateral security agreement with the U.K. and Australia that could bring more submarine contracts to Electric Boat.
"When both were asked what they believed the top threat to national security was, I thought it was laughable that they talked about submarines," Green Party candidate for the second Congressional District seat Kevin Blacker said after the debate. "Climate change is clearly the biggest threat to national security. Submarines aren't going to help us against climate change. I think in-country political infighting is the other biggest threat to national security."
Blacker was not invited on stage for the Connecticut Public Radio and Connecticut League of Women Voters debate at Eastern Connecticut State University Tuesday night. But he took questions from reporters after the debate; Courtney and France did not.
Blacker did not meet the League of Women Voters' criteria for debate participation, including "evidence that a formal campaign is being waged" such as staff, advertising and the like, according to the League. The League requires "evidence of financial support," but Blacker has pledged not to take any donations.
Blacker, who says his exclusion from Tuesday's debate is anti-democratic, will be part of an Oct. 12 debate hosted by The Day at the Garde Arts Center in New London. He watched from the front row Tuesday.
Health care, economy, student loans
Courtney said the Inflation Reduction Act recently signed into law by President Joe Biden, which lowers Medicare prescription drug costs, is a good example of how he is working to lower health care costs. The law caps the cost of Insulin at $35 a month. Courtney said he wants to see the bill extended to working families.
France argued that government involvement in health care drives up costs and has contributed to a crisis. He advocated for a "free market solution," and for patients to negotiate their care with their personal physician. France said he is opposed to lowering the age for Medicare eligibility because costs would balloon.
"The challenge is how you pay for it," he said.
Courtney countered, saying he "enthusiastically" supports lowering the age of eligibility to 55, and he has co-sponsored legislation doing that. He said people would have the choice of whether to take advantage of their eligibility or stay with their care.
Courtney and France differed on student loan debt relief.
Courtney argued Biden's recent debt cancellation "left a lot of meat on the bone." He said student loan debt "hinders people in a lot of ways in terms of life decisions...They can find themselves trapped with loans that are there almost their whole lives."
He said the government should not charge interest on Stafford Student Loans. The way colleges are priced and funded is also a problem, he said.
"There are too many institutions that saddle people with high levels of debt," he said.
France was ardent in saying people should pay back the loans they take out.
"The challenge of whether you go to college ... is a financial decision," he said.
"When you take out debt of any kind, it's an investment, whether you purchase a house, purchase a car or go into education... you're investing in yourself, and that investment needs to be returned, and you need to pay on that investment," France said.
Courtney agreed that going to college is a financial decision. He also agreed with France on the importance of guidance counselors helping high school students plan their future.
Courtney brought up his work on fortifying and expanding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which applies to military service members, Peace Corps volunteers, teachers, social workers and other professions.
France and Courtney both said they think the U.S. should be producing more oil and gas while Courtney expressed support for Biden opening up oil and gas drilling in Alaska.
"The key to get back toward energy independence is to open up drilling on federal land," France said. He said if the U.S. lowers the cost of diesel, it will lower the cost of goods for consumers.
Environment and climate
France said the federal government is too focused on subsidizing the wind and solar energy industries instead of looking at other solutions. He championed catalytic converters, nuclear power and natural gas. Courtney pointed out that "tax subsidies have been the mother's milk of the oil and gas industry going back to the end of World War II."
Courtney is a proponent of nuclear power and of the Millstone power plant in Waterford. He is supportive of provisions extending the service life of nuclear reactors. He referenced Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm's visit to the region in May, saying the federal government has had success in finding host sites for spent nuclear fuel, though no location has been designated.
While Courtney is in favor of converting large vehicles such as buses, trains and trucks to electric, France said the state doesn't have the infrastructure, and that there is a "dramatic gap between the desire to have electric vehicles and the ability to support them."
France said that pro-choice people in the district "do not support late-term abortion."
"They are accepting of reasonable limits on that," he said. "I believe this should be a states' issue."
He took aim at Courtney for his campaign's advertising.
"I do not support a ban on abortion. My opponent has issued many emails specifically to fundraise, claiming I support a complete ban on abortion," he said.
France is opposed to abortion "once the child is viable," and said there should be exceptions for rape or incest.
Courtney said Congress should pass the Women's Health Protection Act, which would codify Roe v. Wade. He pointed out that France, during a recent interview on Channel 3, said he would have voted for Sen. Lindsey Graham's proposal to ban abortions after 15 weeks.
"That is not what the people of this state or this district want. The real solution is to restore Roe," Courtney said.
France said Courtney is the radical on the issue, and that he and other Democrats back abortions up until birth. France has advocated for repealing abortion rights laws in Connecticut, and is supportive of a parental notification law.
A law passed in the last state legislative session protects out-of-state women from prosecution for getting an abortion in Connecticut and state medical providers from legal actions taken against by other states. France was one of seven legislators in the region who voted against the bill.
Immigration, closing statements
Courtney is in favor of comprehensive immigration reform but does not see it coming to fruition with so much polarization in D.C. He brought up the Farmworker Modernization Act, which lowers the cost of visas for farmers.
"The uptick in encounters that are happening at the border, we track this...right now it is Venezuelan refugees that are flocking in biggest numbers...They're fleeing a dictatorship, a left-wing dictatorship, so you'd think we'd get more sympathy from our folks on the Republican side," he said.
France said the majority of people seeking asylum are not granted asylum because they are not showing up to their hearings. Courtney retorted by saying his office found the attendance rate at such hearings was around 90%.
"People are taught if you say the word 'asylum' there will be no provision to detain them," France said. He added that people are released with a promise to appear in court, and, the "vast majority fail to appear...If they don't show up, we don't have a way of knowing where they are in the country."
Courtney said it is more cost-efficient to buy technology such as drones to watch the border rather than building more walls.
He emphasized his ability to work across the aisle in his closing statement, noting that independent organizations rank him high for his bipartisanship. And he said some politicians in Washington are out for attention on social media and cable news.
"They don't really work in terms of trying to build coalitions and consensus around issues," he said.
France sought to paint Courtney as someone who is in lockstep with his party leadership, which is partly to blame for a "disconnect between Washington and the district."