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The two candidates in the 5th Congressional race met for a debate in Danbury on October 20th.


One of the issues they discussed was gun control. They were asked specifically about closing the background check loophole.  Democratic incumbent Elizabeth Esty says when the law was passed 20 years ago, very few people bought anything on the internet. She compared it to a terrorist going to an airport and choosing to go through a security check or walk right onto a plane with a bomb. She says Congress is responsible to ensure that law enforcement has the resources they need to make sure felons, the mentally ill, and domestic abusers don't have access to guns. She also said that if someone is too dangerous to fly, they are too dangerous to buy a gun.


Republican challenger Clay Cope says gun control is a three-pronged issue. He says there is a mental health issue, a failure of the FBI to keep track of criminals, and a need to keep the 2nd Amendment in tact.  Cope says background checks are a matter of due process. He wants to make sure citizens rights are not infringed upon by new laws. As First Selectman in a town with a Resident State Trooper, Cope is also the Chief of Police. He has to sign every gun permit. Every time Congress makes a move toward violating someone's 2nd Amendment rights, he inevitably gets an influx of gun permit applications. He knows there is a vetting process in place for those applications.


Esty says Cope is woefully ill informed. Since 12/14, Esty says there have been 100,000 Americans who have died from gun violence. She says the problem is that someone could go to the equivalent of "guns.com" and buy whatever they want without showing an ID.  Esty says ATF, the FBI and others are saying that this loophole is something that can be fixed.


Cope said that Esty should be focused on issues directly impacting the 5th District, and not helping 18 other states get the same strict gun laws that Connecticut now has.  He said the shootings in Orlando, hit close to home for him as a gay man.  Cope looked at his challenger and said that he didn't feel safer after the sit-in she and other Democrats held on the House floor.  He would have instead immediately had meetings with the FBI about why they took the gunman off their watch lists.


Esty said for the 5th District, to represent Newtown, it's incumbent upon someone running for Congress to know details on these laws.


Cope says as he's travelled around the district, people are passionate about their 2nd Amendment rights. He noted that he doesn't have people coming up to him and asking for stricter gun controls. What he's heard is "don't take away my rights".

The discussion turned to mental health services.


Esty says part of the problem is the stigma associated with mental illness. She and Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Tim Murphy have been working to craft a bill to provide wrap around resources for families dealing with mental health issues. She called for first aid-like classes for teachers and coaches to look for signs in changing behavior in teenagers.


Cope says he has a similar philosophy. His mother is a marriage and family counselor. He says it's important to get those who need help, the help they need. Cope says that's mirrored in the opioid addiction crisis that's seen across the country.  He says addiction can be tied to mental health issues, noting that his family has dealt with this problem.  Cope is referencing his brother, who has a learning disability and was medicated through much of his early life and susceptible to drug addiction.  Tim Cope soon turned to criminal activity to support his drug habit and used several aliases to try to cover his tracks.  Clay Cope was one of the aliases he used.  These events happened more than 30 years ago.  Clay Cope shared this story during the primary race to clear up claims made by a challenger earlier this year.  He said at the time that his family does not know where Tim is, or what might have happened to him.


Cope says the biggest challenge to mental health services, is funding. He supports "Did You Know" campaigns. Cope says if people know where they can go to get help, another big challenge can be overcome.

The pair was asked what changes they would make to the country's immigration system.


Cope wants current laws enforced, steps taken to seal the border to keep illegal immigrants from coming in and to reform the process for people to become citizens.  His partner is here legally from Peru, but can't get his citizenship. He says people are coming into this country illegal because they're not able to become citizens. For one friend's parents, he says it it took 17 years.


Esty says the current system is broken. She wants to secure the border, keep families together and give them a legal path to citizenship that includes paying back-taxes if any are owed. She says farmers in the district can't find legal labor to do the work. Esty says the dysfunctional system forces them to make a choice between hiring illegally or being uncompetitive. Esty said she supported a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio in 2013.

The economy and changes to the tax code were also addressed.


Esty says the tax code is massively complicated and needs to be streamlined. She says the system rewards companies for shipping jobs overseas and has a lot of unpredictability. Esty specifically mentioned research and development tax credits that are subject to an end date, which she says makes companies uneasy about making investments. She says good policies make a difference in creating jobs. She added that fewer tax lawyers and more innovators are needed.


When it comes to taxes and spending, Cope says this is one of the places where Republicans and Democrats differ.  But he says simplifying the tax code is a point they can agree on. He owned a small business and had to navigate import taxes for garments.  He called the tax system wildly complicated.

Cope says the tax and spend philosophy doesn't work. He wants to keep spending down and to keep government as small as possible.

Transportation and infrastructure are a top concern for people in the district.


Esty says she helped craft legislation for the first long-term highway bill in almost 10 years. $3.5 billion for Connecticut was included in the bill.  She notes that bipartisan support on the Transportation Committee was key to getting laws passed. She also sits on the rail subcommittee. Esty says speedy and safe rail are needed. She advocated for Positive Train Control technology to prevent crashes like those seen recently on Metro North and New Jersey Transit.  Esty proposed high-speed rail from New York City to Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford and then on to Boston.


Cope says the condition of the roads is so poor, and they don't ever seem to be repaired. He says the priorities need to be shifted back to taking care of the roads. He is against bringing tolls back to Connecticut because it would cripple border towns. He opposed the I-95 toll study that Connecticut recently committed funding for.


If reelected, Esty says she wants to focus on "info-structure", giving an examples of the electric grid and the internet. She says energy is key to the rapidly evolving economy. Esty says an aging electric grid is subject to failure, and to cyber attack. She says briefings on the vulnerability of the electric grid were alarming.


Cope says paying for improvements is a challenge. He is in favor of a pay-as-you-go system. In Sherman, he's been able to keep taxes flat or reduced and change the rating outlook from negative.


The questions moved to foreign policy and the humanitarian crisis in Syria.


Cope says Syria is a crippled, flawed state because of Obama Administration policies. He says the focus should be on rooting out ISIS. Cope says not all Syrian refugees want to kill Americans, but this country has to be concerned with the ISIS terrorists who want to throw Americans off buildings, referencing some videos posted to Youtube showing that tactic. He called for a multi-national effort to come to a solution, saying ISIS is a deadly challenger.


Esty says Syrian refugees should be welcomed to this country, after a thorough vetting. She believes refugees from war-torn countries should be welcomed. She added that given America's leadership position in the world, it's imperative to this country's moral position to accept refugees. Esty says it takes two years to come to America from Syria. Those seeking to come here must be in a Syrian refugee camp and vetted by international experts. Militarily, Esty says a no-fly zone is something that should be considered.


Cope said something he would have done differently than Esty was on the Safe Act. He would have voted for it, siding with Congressmen Jim Himes and Joe Courtney. Cope says he doesn't feel safer knowing that the pause button wasn't pushed on Syrian refugees coming in. He did agree though with bringing people in safely and legally.

While they agreed on some policy issues, there was a difference of opinion about the Affordable Care Act.  Cope called Obamacare an epic failure and would like to see it replaced.  A Sherman resident shared with him that their family's premium was $570, but it's now tripled and is the same amount of money as their mortgage payment, with fewer benefits.  He would like to see private market solutions implemented. He doesn't think there should be government-required insurance.  Cope says somehow the Affordable Care Act became the wildly Unaffordable Care Act.


Esty says the Affordable Care Act is doing a lot of good for a lot of people, but it's not perfect.  She compared it to Medicare, which got amended over and over again like any big piece of policy will.  She touted a change getting rid of a medical device tax, and noted that the Affordable Care Act has been especially beneficial for people with pre-existing conditions. Esty says the private marketplace was the system before the Affordable Care Act and led to more emergency room visits.


The candidates were also asked about education equality among the states and how to address college debt.


Cope says education is a state and a local concern, but it should not be a federal government concern. He wants dollars redirected to states and towns to take care of education. Cope compared education to shopping local, saying no one knows better what students need than local boards of education.  He also called for colleges and universities to tighten their belts when it comes to administrative costs.


Esty says there was bipartisan support to change the No Child Left Behind Act to give more autonomy to states and municipalities.  Despite the laudable goals of No Child Left Behind, Esty says it wasn't working. In 2013, she fought to keep the interest rates from going up on student loans. She proposed allowing young people to refinance private sector student loans and allowing people with older federal loans to refinance. She says community colleges need to remain affordable, and technical high schools need to be kept open.


Cope says it's crippling for a young person to come out of college in debt, but there are things that cane be done to help them.  He says raising awareness about the best fit for students is one strategy.  He noted that there are some students in traditional colleges who could be better served by vocational schools.


A question was also asked about the Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP.


Esty voted against TPA, Trade Promotion Authority, and said she would vote against TPP.  She said she came to that decision after meeting with people across the district, and recognizing the fact that Connecticut is an export state.  She says any trade deal needs to be good for Connecticut working families.  As she understands TPP, she says it doesn't do enough for labor standards, environmental standards, stopping currency manipulation or dealing with consumer health issues and consumer safety.


Cope says he is opposed to TPP, in part because it was negotiated in secret. He says in light of the failures of NAFTA and Obamacare, he's skeptical of it working.  Cope says there's no rush to pass this through.  He also pointed out poor enforcement from other countries. He wants U.S. interests fully considered.  He also doesn't like the exclusion of the U.S. justice system.


An audience member posed questions about air quality and clean air.

Cope says those aren't priorities he's heard from people in the district.  He called it an interesting question, but one that hasn't been brought up to him.

Esty says air doesn't stop at the borders and water doesn't respect state boundaries, but notes that Connecticut remains downwind from some coal plants. She says children in Connecticut have higher asthma rates and that's why states can't be decentralized. She says Connecticut is not isolated from the effects of what other states do or don't do.

Cope says truck idling bills and clean diesel acts to replace public works vehicles with outdated engines have been a boon for Connecticut.

Esty says there are members of Congress who don't believe in climate change and pushed Cope to answer whether or not he believes in climate change. Cope responded that the climate has changed, but he can't say the cause of it.  He reiterated that this hasn't been an issue people in the 41 towns in the District have pressed him on. Cope says there are much bigger issues that are important concerns for people.


Each candidate was asked what his or her first piece of work would be in the new session.  Esty says she would reintroduce a comprehensive background check bill. She says 189 bipartisan cosponsors signed on to the last gun safety measure.  Cope says he would address illegal immigration and how to create legal immigrants. He says the system is terribly flawed and it needs to be addressed in a bipartisan way.

In closing statements, Cope said continuing down the current path of increased spending and taxes will not improve people's lives. He says there's evidence under Governor Malloy that that is not the solution. He called for a fresh start and a new direction with a commitment to serving the people's needs and not the special interest's needs. He believes the problems and challenges facing Americans are not insurmountable if there is a move toward focusing on solutions and working together. To make Washington work and to change Washington, Cope said people need to change who they send to Washington.  He asked for the chance to make his brand of small town customer service work in Washington.

Esty says the election is about the future of the country, and whether to move forward together or turn on each other. She doesn't want to blame the other guy, but to work to make things better.  Esty touted legislation she's been able to get approved ranging from aid for farmers to helping fuel cell companies. She says the district is wonderfully diverse. Esty says hard work and knowledge are needed to work across the aisle to get things done. She thanked constituents for the honor of serving them, and asked for the opportunity to continue to do so.

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Todd Schnitt
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