Interviews with CT Examiner
We kick off our 2022 candidate interviews with seven-term incumbent Congressman Joe Courtney, a Democrat, and State Rep. Mike France, a Republican, in what we expect will be a close race this November.
Courtney and France are vying for the Second Congressional District seat to represent the entire eastern half of the state — a challenge for any candidate — with wealthy towns along the shoreline, rural and agricultural towns inland, a handful of struggling cities, casinos and a booming boom-and-bust submarine industry.
Courtney serves as chair of the House Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, a key seat for securing the interests of submarine-building in Connecticut. He is a member of the the House Education and Labor Committee where he serves on the subcommittees for Higher Education and Workforce Training as well as Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions.
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He graduated from Tufts University in 1975 and earned a law degree from UConn School of Law in 1978. He lives in Vernon with his wife, Audrey Courtney, and they have one son and one daughter.
His challenger Mike France is a retired career naval officer. Since 2015, France has served as State Representative representing Ledyard, Montville and Preston. He is currently chair of the Connecticut General Assembly Conservative Caucus. Prior winning a seat in the General Assembly, France was elected to the Ledyard Town Council, and served from 2011 to 2015.
France joined the Navy in 1981, later earning a BS in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California, a masters degree in electrical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School, and an MA in organizational management from Eastern Connecticut State University. After retiring from active duty, France joined Progeny Systems Corporation in 2005, and currently leads a joint operability program for Virginia-class submarines.
France and his wife, Heather, live in Gales Ferry, and have six children and four grandchildren.
Each candidate agreed to answer six questions and was given an opportunity to make a final statement and to rebut comments made by the opposing candidate. The interviews are lightly edited for clarity.
Below is our interview with Joe Courtney followed by a rebuttal from Mike France.
CT Ex: What are the main points of your platform? What are your key goals?
“My goals and approach to the job has really been the same since the day I was elected — by 83 votes — which is to stay completely focused on how I can help grow the district, improve the quality of life and connect to as much help as I possibly can in terms of the federal government, which actually has a very large footprint in eastern Connecticut,” said Courtney.
With the submarine base as “the first priority” for the district, Courtney said he chairs the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, which authorizes Navy and Marine Corps contracts.
He said Electric Boat was “limping along” with a very low production rate when he was first elected, and the size of the workforce was a fraction of what it is today.
“It’s important to note that EB’s sole customer is the federal government and it is Congress that authorizes the Navy to enter into contracts,” he said. “From my first term in office, we’ve seen a steady increase in congressional support and authorizations — you can connect the dots to my office, and that’s just grown stronger now that I actually have the gavel on that subcommittee.”
It’s the first time a congressman from Connecticut in the House of Representatives has chaired a Navy committee since 1872, Courtney said.
“I think it’s very important for the district to have that position. It’s not universally appreciated in some corners of the district, but … Electric Boat is now the largest private employer in Connecticut and Rhode Island — their hiring goal this year is 3,600 new hires — and over 2,000 of those are in Connecticut,” he said.
Courtney said hiring at EB has had a ripple effect on the regional housing market and economy. He said there are over 1,300 housing units in New London that are either on the books, under construction, or completed, plus an additional 400 units slated for Fort Trumbull.
Courtney said he is also passionate about improving access to education and affordable health care, issues he addresses as a member of the Education and Labor Committee.
“We’re not a state that has large commodity crops or materials or minerals or anything — it’s really about investing in human capital,” Courtney said.
He said he could point directly to ways he has increased job growth in the district.
“I think I have a very strong record in terms of showing that the focus of my work has really paid off in very real life terms for people who are connecting to not just a job, but a career, and also a job that can support themselves and their family.”
CT Ex: What do you see as your accomplishments?
“I’ve worked on getting the first chunk of $6 million for the job training programs that other employers — not just EB — are enthusiastically participating in, federally funded through the Workforce Investment Act,” said Courtney.
Courtney said the state has stepped forward to increase the number of slots because finding trained, qualified people to fill job openings requires programs like these to close the skills gap.
He said the Education and Labor Committee recently passed a bipartisan bill that will protect Groton and Ledyard’s school systems from a large cut in federal impact aid, a program for school populations with dependents on military service members.
“I worked with my Republican colleague, Dusty Johnson from South Dakota, to get a bill to basically rescue their funding because they were going to lose federal dollars. Because of COVID, it was an obstacle in terms of getting accurate headcount of military kids,” Courtney said.
The first year his bill passed, it was signed into law by Trump, he said, and the following year, the committee passed the bill again because the schools were still struggling with COVID and hybrid learning.
“That kind of bipartisan approach is something that I think we can point to in the district because that’s something people really care about,” Courtney said.
Courtney said he has the highest bipartisan rating in the delegation and according to the Georgetown University Lugar Center, which measures the degree to which members work across party lines on legislation. He also said that when he was in the state legislature, he was rated ‘Democrat most admired’ by Republicans.
“I can go on and on because I honestly feel that that’s something that really differentiates me from my opponent,” Courtney said.
Courtney said he couldn’t see much evidence of France collaborating with Democrats even though he’d had opportunities in terms of budgets and bond packages, as well as a bill to ban ghost guns, which Courtney said the police are supportive of.
Courtney said. “He obviously has a very kind of rigid view these days of different types of issues and frankly we have a lot of that in Washington, I mean more than enough.”
CT Ex: What issues do you see in the rural/inland areas versus the shoreline of Connecticut? How do you balance those issues?
The district is very diverse, Courtney said, and being on the Education and Labor Committee has given him a vantage point to focus on UConn’s part of the district.
“I just brought Secretary of Energy Granholm to the [UConn] campus about a month or so ago where they were successful in getting this very cutting edge green energy grant,” he said.
He said he has helped secure federal grants for R&D at the university, including NIST funding to research the science of pyrrhotite, a mineral that causes concrete to crumble.
Courtney said that crumbling foundations due to pyrrhotite are a big issue for residents in the area around Vernon where he lives, and in other towns in the district.
He said that in this past budget he secured $2 million to help residents fund the replacement of foundations.
“That’s the first federal dollars for actual home remediation that’s not just testing,” Courtney said. “Again, I would contrast that record with my opponent who voted against the program that the legislature set up, that passed on an overwhelming bipartisan basis.”
He said that France was “one of a very small group” that voted against a state bond package that is funding a captive insurance company that funds the home repairs.
Courtney said there are people in his neighborhood who are on waiting lists to get their homes fixed.
“That vote was going to determine whether or not their houses were ever going to get salvaged in a reasonable timeframe,” he said.
Courtney, who served four years on the Agriculture Committee, said he also helped the district’s dairy farmers and shellfish growers secure Coronavirus funding to help smooth out the market disruptions.
CT Ex: What do you see as the main drivers of inflation and what policies will address short- and long-term inflation, affordability and energy costs in Connecticut?
“I would just quickly say that trying to help the cause in terms of good jobs and good wages is a basic pillar in terms of affordability for people,” Courtney said. “But secondly, there’s clearly global forces that are swirling around out there.”
In terms of energy, Courtney described himself as an “all of the above” supporter, including issuing permits for more drilling.
He said oil and gas are global commodities, making it a challenge for an individual state or region to try and insulate itself from global forces.
On clean energy, Courtney said that Dominion produces 40% of Connecticut’s electricity and that he supported the infrastructure bill that is going to provide funding so that existing fleets of nuclear power plants get service life extensions.
Courtney said that offshore wind is another type of regionally produced clean energy that could help the state decouple from global energy supplies.
He said his team worked very hard with the City of New London to obtain the Army Corps of Engineer permits for the new construction at the State Pier and in pushing along the process to reach a better deal for the city in terms of payment in lieu of taxes.
“I know there’s still some controversy about State Pier, but having visited with Granholm, there’s no question that it’s going to be a modernized, upgraded pier that will be a hub for wind turbine assembly and distribution, not just for Long Island Sound but up and down the East Coast.”
The rise of solar power in residential homes can help insulate residents from the larger energy market forces, he said.
“The evidence is very strong that the solar installation companies in Connecticut are becoming a growth center and the tax credits, which I have voted for in Congress, help incentivize people to make that decision to put panels on their houses,” he said.
Courtney said the legislature just voted to make it easier for commercial and small business entities to take advantage of solar, which he called a “no-brainer” piece of legislation.
“I have panels on my house and it’s helped my energy bill, I can tell you that, and small businesses should get the same opportunity,” he said.
Courtney said there was a change in the PURA rate structure that the General Assembly needed to fix, and that France was with “a small handful of no votes” on the provision.
“[That] is inexplicable to me – maybe he’s got an explanation for that, I don’t know,” Courtney said. “But the bottom line is giving people the ability to have more control over their energy, not just consumption, but also their energy sources — really, for New England, that’s the name of the game.”
CT Ex: Renewable energy – to what extent can CT go it alone and make it affordable for ratepayers?
“In terms of Connecticut [regulations] … if you have solar panels on your house, and you’re generating power and not using it, it goes back to the grid,” Courtney said. “In Connecticut, when you get reimbursed, I believe it’s wholesale — in other words, the cheapest price. When your panels are not generating enough to light your home then you’re drawing from the grid and you’re paying retail.”
Courtney said that in Germany, the rate structure is reversed so that residents receive the higher price when sending energy to the grid, making it much more affordable for homeowners to install panels.
“That doesn’t involve taxes, it doesn’t involve cash subsidies, it’s just the way the rate structure is designed,” he said. “I know there’s proponents of that – and, shocking, Eversource opposes it – but Connecticut could actually take that issue on and I think that would stimulate more [residential solar].”
In terms of Congress, Courtney said the investment tax credits that stimulated the offshore wind project in New London need to be on par with oil company tax credits.
“When [Secretary of Energy Jennifer] Granholm was up in Connecticut, she was very concerned that we extend those tax incentives, which I completely support.
Courtney said that the oil companies, as much as they complain, have been given permanent tax write-offs, while renewable energy and clean energy’s are not.
“Even just from a parity standpoint, we should at least give these a much, much longer horizon,” said Courtney.
CT Ex: What are the key challenges for CT residents that need federal rather than state solutions?
Number one is the cost of prescription drugs, said Courtney.
“You look at us internationally and we are such an outlier in terms of how much more the U.S. pays for prescription drugs,” said Courtney. “We passed a bill in the House, HR3, which I enthusiastically supported, which would set up a system of price negotiation by one of the biggest customers of the pharmaceutical companies, namely Medicare, and it would be built off of basically a median price.”
Courtney said the bill would strengthen the finances of Medicare, which is “a big concern of seniors out there,” and would extend the price benefit to private insurance plans so that a broader population would benefit from it.
“The bottom line is, it would generate massive savings but it would not bankrupt or capsize the pharmaceutical companies. It would still put us in the relatively higher range of countries in terms of how much we’re paying for a whole range of drugs including insulin, etc.,” he said.
Courtney said the American Rescue Plan provided subsidies for people in the Affordable Care Act that are going to expire at the end of December.
“It was a 40 percent savings on average for people. The rescue plan basically capped your out of pocket at eight percent of [household income], which was huge savings for people who are out there and we really need to extend those subsidies because it’s going to be sticker shock if they expire.”
Student loans are “clearly a federal problem,” said Courtney, who sits on the Higher Ed Subcommittee of the Education and Labor Committee.
He said the rates far exceed almost any other form of consumer debt and that Biden’s pause on student loan payments is coming up August 31.
“If we don’t deal with interest rates they’re just going to snap back into place. The federal government collects that interest — it’s a windfall for the federal government. It’s kind of like a form of a tax, actually,” he said.
He said there was a lot of debate about loan forgiveness and that it was a question under consideration at the White House.
“There’s no question that the loan forgiveness bill would not pass the House or the Senate. If there’s going to be a decision it’s going to be in the Oval Office and it’s just not clear what was going to happen.”
Courtney said the country should follow New Zealand where students are not charged interest on their loans, avoiding the “interest trap” of graduates who apply for forbearance on their loans and end up with a higher interest payment because the interest capitalized during the pause.
“I just feel it’s time to allow people to refinance down. Only Congress can authorize refinancing, the government doesn’t do it, because it can’t do it,” he said. “I have a bill to basically allow people to just refinance interest and it would lower people’s monthly payments and it would protect them from getting into this metastasized interest liability.”
Courtney said the fourth challenge for the state that needs a federal solution is to keep the economy growing.
“I think I can point to my record on that score,” he said.
Final statement: Joe Courtney
“I am very enthusiastic about this job. Some people have asked, are you getting tired of the conversation in Washington, and I’m still very much an activist and a believer in the importance of our democracy and really excited about continuing to participate to the maximum extent that I can,” Courtney said. “I hope voters will honor me with another term.”
Courtney said he was prepared to roll up his sleeves because the second district is a great part of Connecticut.
“We’ve also got a great team in terms of our district office who have helped countless people day in and day out. I’m very proud of that,” he said.
Concerning the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, Courtney said the volume of mail and calls coming into his office were “off the charts” and that the issue is on the ballot in November.
“In some ways this race has the most stark choice between candidates — even compared to the governor’s race and Blumenthal’s race — because Mike was at a rally to celebrate the Dobbs decision right at the state capitol, where the CT Mirror reported on this, where he basically said that his goal is to roll back Connecticut’s protections, which are in statute,” Courtney said.
Courtney said he voted for those protections when he was in the legislature in 1990, and that he voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify Roe versus Wade.
“Frankly, I think that Mike’s activity with the Family Institute, at the rally celebrating Dobbs, in my opinion is totally out of step with this district,” Courtney said.
Courtney said that based living in the district and repeatedly talking with residents over the years about the abortion issue, the best protection for Roe v. Wade is to codify it, which he said the House voted to do.
Courtney said he also voted to protect women who are traveling from other states to come to places like Connecticut.
“And for I think the vast majority in this district, which I truly believe is not just a barely majority position, I think it’s an overwhelming majority position, I provide a much more accountable, secure record in terms of protecting people’s privacy and women’s reproductive health.”
Rebuttal: Mike France
CT Ex: In his interview, Courtney said he did not see much evidence of France collaborating in a bipartisan manner.
“The facts are that I work very well across the aisle in my positions of leadership, both in the Government Administration and Elections Committee and the Appropriations. Committee, working hand in hand with the house chairs, and bringing forward the budgets,” France said.
“And as he should know, and has not clearly laid out for the people, the reality is in the final analysis, there are bills that you work [on] collaboratively to make improvements to make them better, but in the final analysis, still cannot support.”
France said that Courtney may have individual instances of bipartisan agreement on certain bills, the reality is “he puts the party ahead of Connecticut” and that’s evidenced by his voting record.
“When you have a 100% voting record with Nancy Pelosi, that is not a voting record that is bipartisan. When Pelosi held back COVID aid there was no response from Joe Courtney. So it’s fine that he can claim there’s bipartisanship but when you have issues of care that impact the people of Connecticut, he’s silent,” France said.
France said that Biden refused to address the pain that people are facing today at the gas pump and the grocery store.
“Joe Courtney didn’t do anything to try and change the direction of that. And that’s, I think, the more important thing than some bipartisan policy bills and a claim that my approach to governing based on his assertions is anything but doing the same thing,” said France.
CT Ex: In his interview, Courtney said that France voted against a bond package that would have set up a fund for homeowners with crumbling foundations.
“As Joe Courtney knows, and people need to be made aware, a bond package is not one issue,” said France.
France said it was not “an up or down vote” on the Captive Insurance Program to help the residents of principally Northeastern Connecticut.
“So to say that I voted against the bonding packet because of that is disrespectful, frankly, to the people of Connecticut when Joe Courtney knows clearly that was not the only thing that was in there,” France said.
France said the reality was that the bond package had many other things he liked, but that he couldn’t support it.
“We have already had a lot of debt — but it was not a vote on that particular issue,” he said. “So to just claim that I voted against a multibillion dollar bond package because of that one narrow issue in there is a disservice to the voters of Connecticut.”
CT Ex: Courtney said that France voted against a bill in the General Assembly that would have changed the PURA rate structure to make it easier for commercial and small businesses to take advantage of solar tax credits and energy savings.
France said he was not aware of the particular vote that Courtney referenced.
“But broadly, on solar, you have an increase in costs that [are part of] the federally mandated congestion charge, which is factored into the delivery charge that every resident the state of Connecticut pays, and only approximately 25 percent of the houses in Connecticut actually qualify for that benefit.”
France said the program takes money from every resident of the state of Connecticut, but is only serving a quarter of the residents. He said that as of three or four years ago, only 10% of the state had been able to take advantage of that program.
He said his position is that solar and wind are part of the solution for the state’s energy sector going forward.
“To claim that there is some assessment of this, that I voted against something to fix a rate problem — I don’t think [that] matches the alignment of the position that I have related to the solar energy program,” he said.
He said that the solar program in Connecticut as it is structured does not serve all residents of the state
“The government should not be in the business of taking money from all to only serve a select group of people that benefit from a particular program.”
CT Ex: Regarding the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, Courtney said that France is out of step with the people of the district.
“The Dobbs decision was a constitutionally correct decision. Justice Alito laid that out very clearly that there is no constitutional or federal protection, that is it really a state’s role to legislate that,” France said.
There is no role for the federal government in this issue, France said.
“It is a state’s issue as was decided by the Supreme Court, and in that role, the people of Connecticut and the legislature of Connecticut will make that decision,” he said.
France said he does not believe the federal government should be involved in issues that are the responsibility of state legislatures – and that because each state is different and they will come to different decisions.
“That is the beauty of our democratic republic, our constitutional republic that puts those powers in 50 sovereign states who choose to be associated as the United States of America and a republican form of government,” France said. “And that’s the bottom line related to Dobbs. I don’t think that there’s a concern here.”
France said he has talked to many pro-choice people who support him because of his belief that the states need to decide the issue. He said it will be up to the future legislatures of Connecticut to decide.
France said he did not make the quote in the Connecticut Mirror, that he “also advocated for eventually repealing the pro-abortion laws that currently exist in the state,” and said, “The fight continues, but now it goes to the state legislatures.”
“[Courtney] would have no way of knowing that, in fairness — but that is not what I said during that event. I did make the statement that it is now with the state legislatures to make that decision,” France said.
France said he didn’t sense any movement from the people that he has talked with.
“I’ve asked that question in every campaign that I’ve run and I basically said there is no majority appetite to do that. And if you look at the bills that I proposed, I have never proposed a bill to overturn that section of statute that codified Roe v Wade in 1990.”
Editor’s note: Joe Courtney and his wife, Audrey Courtney, have one son and one daughter, not two sons. This story has been corrected.