Democratic candidates Leng and Garrett square off in first of two debates
Both candidates are looking to gain momentum prior to Tuesday’s primary election.
By Peter Dewey
HAMDEN --- Democratic candidates Mayor Curt B. Leng and challenger Councilwoman At-Large Lauren Garrett engaged in a primary debate on Wednesday Sept. 4 at Thorton Wilder Hall, less than a week before the primary election.
The debate was put on by the League of Women Voters of Hamden-North Haven, with more than 200 people attending. Residents were able to submit written questions at the debate for review and submission to moderator Ray Andrewsen.
“I was very impressed with the turnout,” Rod Groff, a Hamden resident, said. “I haven’t seen the room this full before.”
The two candidates were able to advocate for their campaigns ahead of the Democratic primary election on Tuesday Sept. 10.
Leng and Garrett touched upon many issues including reducing pollution, preparing for storms, making schools safer, developing parts of town such as High Meadow and bringing more taxable businesses to Hamden.
However, the biggest issues stemmed from the town’s financial crisis where the two went back and forth for much of the debate.
“I guess overall I was a little underwhelmed,” Groff said. “There are a lot of big issues right now for Hamden. From what I’ve read our level of debt is [nearly a billion dollars]. I don’t feel like they really addressed that elephant in the room.”
While the New Haven Register reported in June that the town’s debt had climbed to $1.1 billion, the candidates didn’t quite offer solutions, but rather tried to justify their positions on the crisis.
“We have a five-year plan,” Leng said. “We have a ten-year plan and we have one-year plans. The problem with anything that you write down is it is going to evolve year to year. It is going to evolve when your revenues change and when your contracts change.”
Garrett, who first won a seat on the Legislative Council in 2017, has worked on approving where the town’s money is spent, enacting town ordinances, decreasing the budget and other things.
Garrett believes that Hamden must become more financially responsible in order to sustain itself over the long-term.
“There was a financial plan in 2015,” Garrett said. “Since then there has not been a financial plan. This has been demanded by the council and nothing has been delivered on that. If there is a financial plan and it’s not being shared, that is not transparency.”
Her campaign website cites improved spending of tax dollars as well as economic development as key issues to address.
“I have been working to bring transparency and accountability to our budgeting process in Hamden,” Garrett said in her opening statement. “I think we need to start having honest conversations with our residents about where we are at financially so that people can see when these types of high taxes are going to end.”
Despite Garrett’s questioning of the handling of the town’s budget as well as its sustainability, Leng was adamant that improvements were being made, telling the crowd multiple times to not fall into that “narrative.”
“We’ve worked towards fixing our pension fund,” Leng said. “Our pension fund was only nine percent funded a decade ago. It’s 38 percent funded now. We’ve put $64 million into the pension over the past four-plus years.”
While a number of issues were touched upon during the debate, Justin Farmer of the Hamden Town Council’s fifth district would’ve liked to have heard more from the candidates.
“We have long-term plans,” Farmer said. “The average mayor lasts for about six years so I wanted them to talk about longer term than five year plans, what things did they want to develop in the next ten years and set the trajectory to allow people to come in to set up and see [Hamden] grow.”
Farmer said he wished to hear the candidates talk more about issues already facing Hamden such as developing northern Hamden and affordable housing.
“Whatever financial hardships we have, it’s going to take awhile,” Farmer said. “But the light at the end of the tunnel, there has to be a plan.”
The two candidates also touched upon Hamden’s relationship with Quinnipiac, both citing the fact that too many students are in residential neighborhoods.
“It’s a real challenge,” Leng said, as he explained that it is too easy for student housing permits to be renewed despite there being multiple violations. “The State of Connecticut needs to empower towns to be able to reject a permit renewal based on bad behavior. We can’t do it now and it is really, really needed.”
Leng also cited some positives, stating that Quinnipiac President Judy Olian has shown a dedication to supporting the community and that the university is a large driver in the town’s economy.
“We should be asking ‘How do we embrace the fact that we are a college town?’” Farmer said. “We have Quinnipiac, we have Yale, we have Southern down the street, how do we embrace that culture as a college town rather than have this narrative that students are so horrible?”
Leng is looking to begin his third full term as mayor, should he win the primary and the general election. While the incumbent received the endorsement from the Democratic Town Committee, Garrett was able to petition for a primary election, receiving over 1,200 signatures.
Leng has already been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, despite the fact that most federal officials wait until after the primary election to endorse a candidate.
In addition to DeLauro, former State Senate candidate Jorge Cabrera also endorsed Leng for mayor this week.
“I’m looking forward to voting on Tuesday,” Groff said. “But I’m also looking forward to hearing the other side and seeing what the Republicans put forward for November. I’ll definitely come to that debate as well.”
Leng and Garrett will face off in another debate on Friday Sept. 6 at Whitney Center at 8:30 a.m. Registration and a $20 fee is required. See the Hamden Regional Chamber of Commerce for more details.
The winner of the Sept. 10 primary election will be pinned up against Republican nominee Jay Kaye in the November election on Nov. 5.