EAST LYME — The two candidates vying for retiring state Sen. Paul Formica’s seat in the 20th district jousted Tuesday night in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters at the East Lyme Senior Center.
For much of the debate Democrat Martha Marx took aim at Republican Jerry Labriola Jr., claiming her opponent was aligned with Trump Republicans and social conservatives, especially on abortion rights – claims that Labriola denied repeatedly.
Labriola, who was chosen to speak first, introduced himself as “a commonsense, centrist Republican” and “generally a positive person,” who has been endorsed by retiring state Sen. Paul Formica and the Connecticut Independent Party.
“I’m not too far to the right. I’m not too far to the left,” said Labriola, a real estate attorney specializing in closings.
He said he had been crisscrossing the district, knocking on doors for about four and a half months.
“Frankly, I’ve been doing a lot of listening and what I’m hearing is that people have very real concerns. They’re concerned about sky high taxes. They’re worried about how to put food on the table, how to pay for electric and very high home heating bills. They want affordable health care. They’re very concerned about public safety and the crime rate.”
Marx introduced herself as a lifelong resident of the 20th district, and as a mother of four and grandmother of one. She said she has been a nurse for more than 38 years and a visiting nurse for more than 20 of those years.
“I’m in the homes of the constituents of the 20th District every day. I listen to them. Like somebody said earlier, I’ve taken care of a 101 year old woman and then I’ve taken care of the veteran who lives in the Red Roof Inn. I know the pulse of the 20th district and I am ready to take that energy and care.”
Labriola said his family has a tradition of community service and that he has served as a town attorney and chairman of the Board of Assessment Appeals. Labriola’s father, Jerry Labriola Sr. was a state senator, and his brother, David K. Labriola, has served for 10 years as state Rep. in the 131st District.
“I do feel I can hit the ground running. I’m experienced. I’ve been around the halls of the Capitol. I’m quite certain I can execute and advocate this position very well.”
Marx said that she does not know the “halls of the Capitol all that well” and underscored that she was running because she has a passion for working class people.
“It’s what I’ve done my whole life. I listen when I’m with my patients and I hear how our healthcare policy and our policy works and how they don’t work. I get very frustrated when I see legislation that was passed and doesn’t work.”
Marx then pivoted to what she said was Labriola’s stance on the Affordable Care Act.
“The Affordable Care Act took away pre-existing conditions, yet my opponent when he ran for Congress in 2010, not as a centrist but pretty much as a Tea Party Republican, his number one goal when he became Congressman against Rosa DeLauro was to get rid of the Affordable Care Act that has pre-existing conditions, that lets our children stay on our health care till they’re 26, and that expanded Medicaid,” said Marx. “So I am going up to Hartford, because I care about working class people, not because I know the halls of the Capitol.”
Labriola said that Marx’s statement was a “reckless misrepresentation of the truth.”
“I never advocated for taking away health care from millions of people, as my opponent is inferring. I care about and I will fight for affordable health care. I’m a consumer myself of health insurance. My wife and I spent nearly $30,000 last year on health insurance,” Labriola said.
He pointed out that the Democratic insurance commissioner had recently approved steep increases in health insurance premiums.
Addressing the validity of voting and elections, Marx said “our elections are honest,” and then focused on the events of January 6 in Washington, D.C.
“It scared me and when we talk about crime, that’s probably the worst crime we’ve ever seen,” Marx said. “So I would love to ask my opponent if he feels that the past president, if there was a seditious act and treason, or if he thinks those were just a bunch of people a little upset by what happened with the presidential election.”
Labriola said voting irregularities “are something that is concerning to all of us,” and pointed out issues in Stamford and Bridgeport that involved absentee ballots.
“I’m always an optimist, and I’m always hoping that we have fair and free elections – every vote counts, and we never want to have anyone be disenfranchised,” he said. “With regard to January 6, I thought that was a disgrace. I believe Joe Biden is the President.”
Marx responded that Labriola did not answer “whether the past president committed seditious act and treason probably because [Trump] is going to be the Republican nominee for president” and “doesn’t want his base to get angry with him.”
“The things that were said about the voting system by our past president was probably one of the biggest travesties that our democracy ever saw,” Marx said.
On tax relief, Marx said she supported an extension of the gas tax holiday and making the car tax less regressive. She also suggested a look at how hospitals are taxed.
Labriola responded that Marx had flipped her position on tax relief.
“I’ve seen her on a video boasting about raising property taxes or taxes in New London on the city council. I also just watched her video from the New London Day where she was asked, ‘Would you be willing to return any of the state’s massive $4 billion or maybe $5 billion surplus back to the taxpayers?’ Her answer was no. She’d like to put all of that money into the rainy day fund in case there’s a hurricane,” he said. “So I don’t know how you can square that, Martha. I don’t know when you converted to being a tax cutter. Maybe it was last night?”
Marx said that video “was like eight years ago.”
“This is [why] they don’t want people taping debates because then the trolls on the Republican side took a tiny little bit of a debate and memed it,” she said.
For top priorities in the upcoming legislative session, Labriola said the state needed broad-based tax relief. He said he’d proposed a 50 basis point reduction in the sales tax. He suggested reducing the “nuisance” taxes that place burdens on small businesses through regulations and licensing requirements.
Marx said her top priority that “I would be screaming from the rooftops like I have done for the last four decades” is women’s reproductive care. Again she challenged Labriola on his position concerning abortion rights.
“My opponent says he is pro choice. Well, actually, he doesn’t say it, he has his wife say it on a video because I think he’s afraid to say it, because he knows he will lose his base. And I would like him to tell me if he is pro-choice, what exactly does that mean? What do you think about parental consent? What do you think about the IUDs, and contraception and emergency contraception?” Marx said.
She said that reverting to illegal abortions was out of the question. “ We never want to go back there. And if the Republicans won – I’m sure he’s supporting Mike France and Levy – we’ll lose it.”
Labriola replied that he is pro-choice.
“Like I said, in my opening remarks, I am pro-choice. And I’ve said it repeatedly and consistently. My opponent always wants to distract away from the real issues. She doesn’t want to talk about her party’s record on the economy, on taxes and inflation and the crime rate. So she’s always going to find a way to discuss something [that’s] less of an issue instead of the issues that actually everyone talks to me about on a daily basis.”
On laws regarding same sex marriage, LGBTQ+ rights and a woman’s right to choose, Marx reiterated that she wanted clarification on Labriola’s views.
“I really want to know when my opponent says he is pro-choice. It wasn’t in one of his priorities about what he’s going to work for when he gets up to Hartford. He’s going to represent 50% of the people, [who] are women, maybe a little bit more. What does pro-choice mean to him?” she said. “And LGBTQ, I’ve always been an advocate. You can love who you want to love. You can dress however you want to dress, just be who you are, and be happy with it… I will be a fierce, fierce advocate in Hartford.”
Labriola reiterated that he is pro-choice and supports the LGBTQ community wholeheartedly and always has.
“I don’t know how I can say it any more directly — I am pro-choice. I will defend a woman’s right to choose. I’ve said that consistently throughout the campaign,” he said. “I support same-sex marriage, I would be open to even more protections and in talking with the community, if there’s more protections they want, they would have an open ear in Senator Labriola. So I think there’s not much distance between us on that issue.”
“There is so much distance between us on that issue,” Marx said. “If you are a Republican and you are going to vote for your ticket, your ticket wants to take away a woman’s right to choose. That is one of the first things they will do in Washington if your candidates get elected. It means at 15 weeks, you want to take away a woman’s right to choose.”
The candidates did share support for adding EV plugs at train stations, increasing bus transportation, supporting housing near large employers and adding more bike lanes to roads.
Labriola said it was important to have a robust electrical grid to support the increase in electric vehicles and stressed the importance of the long-term viability of Millstone.
“We’re lucky to have Millstone here — the power purchase agreement is turning out to pay dividends, which I’m excited about. The concern is that that doesn’t flow through to the rate-payer because of convoluted rate formulas, but the purchase agreement that Senator Formica championed four years ago is starting to pay dividends,” he said.
On the question of the state ensuring equitable access to housing, Labriola said he gave a “very lengthy answer” in the New London Day. He said inventory has been a problem, but “prices are softening, inventory is growing.”
“I’m hoping things are turning in the right direction and market forces will help us in that area,” he said, but emphasized that with affordable housing, local control is the most important factor..
Marx said that market forces would not change equitable access to housing and that the state needs 85,000 units of housing. She said systemic racism has prevented many people in the 20th district from building generational wealth.
“We have to look at everybody uniquely and we have to build more workforce housing all over the 20th district. It can’t just happen in one town,” she said.
In his closing remarks, Labriola emphasized that he is a centrist.
“I don’t want to be put in a box. My opponent has been trying to do that because I was a state party chairman so that means I share the views of all the candidates in the Republican Party 10 years ago — that just doesn’t work that way. That’s just way out of line,” he said.
He said in his interview with CT Examiner, he talked about a number of issues relevant to the district.
“There’s a lot of things that still are going to happen in this campaign. Most of it is just going to be both of us hitting the ground and meeting the folks and telling them about what we can do to help them up in Hartford. I tried to keep this campaign about the issues. I feel I’m the better candidate to represent the 20th senatorial district, I’m a good fit. I’m a centrist. And I’m not a single issue candidate like my opponent.”
In her final statement, Marx said that her single issue, “besides working people,” is her knowledge, love and passion for the district and being a voice for its people.
“If being progressive means that you care about choice, that you care about the LGBTQ community, that you care about affordable health care, then, I guess call me progressive,” she said. “The Day paper doesn’t really know me and they shouldn’t have labeled either of us,” she said. “I would label my opponent as an extremist.”
Marx said that when Labriola ran for congress against Rosa DeLauro, the Family Institute of Connecticut — which Marx said is against any form of abortion as well as LGBTQ rights – supported his candidacy.
“So I do call that extremism. I have never seen anything that he has done that is bipartisan. When you’re chair of your party of your state, and he was the first one to endorse Marco Rubio in the entire country – and Marco Rubio wants to get rid of all abortion.”
Labriola told the moderator that Marx’s statements were “very, very harsh attacks” and said he thought he deserved an opportunity to respond to Marx’s remarks.
But moderator Carol Reimers of the League of Women Voters said responding to a final statement was against the rules of the debate.
Immediately after the debate, Labriola told CT Examiner that Marx’s statement was “a reckless misrepresentation of the truth.”
“It was nothing more than fear mongering. Even the New London Day described her mailers, which essentially contained her attack, as ‘fascist propaganda.’ It’s very disappointing and it just tells me my opponent’s campaign is built on negativity. I am keeping my campaign to the issues and I will continue to be a positive force both during the remainder of this campaign and in my tenure as serving as state senator.”
Marx told CT Examiner that she brought up Labriola’s support of Marco Rubio because “if he had become president of the United States, he would have banned abortions.”
“You can’t say you’re pro choice and then vote for a president that wants to ban abortions with no exceptions,” Marx said.