Correction: Republicans will hold five debates for their party’s declared or potential gubernatorial candidates, the first at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Windsor High School. Information about the Republican debates was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
Voters had their first opportunity Saturday to hear where four of the Democrats running or considering a run for governor in 2018 fall on some of the most pressing issues facing the state.
For two hours, they spoke to a full auditorium at Fair Haven School on economic inequality, the state’s over-reliance on the financial industry, police and criminal justice reform and sanctuary cities.
The event, dubbed “the People’s Symposium,’’ featured Dan Drew, the Middletown mayor who is running to replace outgoing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and three potential candidates who have formed exploratory committees: Dita Bhargava, a former official with the state Democratic party; Jonathan Harris, former mayor of West Hartford; and Joe Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport.
Chris Mattei, former federal prosecutor, announced Saturday morning that he would not participate as he deliberates his potential candidacy.
The four remaining participants vied for the audience’s approval during the wide-ranging forum, hosted by the Working Families Party and a number of other advocacy organizations.
At times, the moderators held the panelists to only yes or no answers before allowing them to expand, a technique that set Bhargava apart as the only one who would not support raising taxes on the top 3 percent of the population to reduce income inequality.
Drew and Harris, said they believe higher taxes for the state’s wealthiest residences is key to lessening poverty in urban areas.
“We can’t treat Greenwich hedge fund managers better than we treat people who work every day for a living,” Drew said, adding that he doubted the rich would flee to other states in the face of new taxes. “It’s a lie that’s been propogated since the beginning of time to preserve the status quo for wealthy people who already do very well.”
But Greenwich resident Bhargava, who worked in finance until 2015, said higher taxes wasn’t the answer. Instead, she said, Connecticut should diversify its industries, moving into renewable energy and organic farming, to compete with Massachusetts and New York.
“Absolutely we need a progressive tax rate and we have one,” she said. “We’ve raised taxes twice over the last seven years, but we need to do something beyond just rely on taxes, and that is to bring more people to our state, more small businesses, more medium businesses, more large businesses.”
Pointed questions to the panelists also revealed Ganim’s differences from the others. Where Drew, Bhargava and Harris said they would support raising the minimum wage to $15 for all workers, Ganim said only that he would consider it.
He said the state lost 6,000 jobs in October, though half of those were in the seasonal leisure and hospitality industry. The state’s unemployment rate in October was 4.5 percent, just above the national rate of 4.1 percent.
“If you don’t have a job at all, it doesn’t matter what the average wage, or minimum wage, is,” Ganim said. “That may be one element. … I’m looking at the big picture.”
Ganim was also the only panelist to say he did not support designating Connecticut as a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants. He said his issue was with the terminology, not the concept, as he did not think local law enforcement should be used as an arm of federal immigration authorities.
The other panelists went further.
“Imagine for a second what the response would have been from Republicans or from Donald Trump himself if Barack Obama had ordered federal authorities to order local police departments to start locking up crooked investment bankers,” Drew said to cheers. “That’s the equivalent of what we’re talking about here.”
On most questions, the candidate and potential candidates shared similar views.
All said they supported enacting laws to guarantee paid family leave, equal pay for equal work and workers’ rights to unionize.
“We have to have the ability to get together to organize to address the imbalance of power we have in our state, that we have in our country, that we have all too much of in our world,” Harris said.
All the panelists also said the state should increase the use of renewable energy and enact police reforms, though the specifics varied.
For example, while Ganim called the expansion of natural gas lines in Connecticut a plus, natural gas is still in limited supply.
Harris spoke of helping expand solar energy in West Hartford and vowed to protect the state’s clean energy fund, which lost millions of dollars in the new state budget.
Bhargava said the state should be at the forefront of electric car development and hemp farming, as well as revitalizing its ports to get cargo off trucks and onto ships.
And Drew said he thought the state could have a 100 percent renewable energy economy if it changes laws that favor utility companies over energy conservation.
As for the issue of reforming the criminal justice system, Ganim was booed by some audience members after a woman shouted at him to say the name of Jayson Negron, a 15-year-old fatally shot by a Bridgeport police officer in May. The state police investigation into his death is ongoing.
Drew said police departments need training in de-escalation and strict policies on the use of military equipment, and Bhargava said police departments need body cameras and officer diversity that reflects the communities they’re policing.
Saturday’s forum was the second gathering of candidates or potential candidates to replace Malloy, who announced in April that he would not seek a third term. Four members of the extensive field, including Democrats and Republicans, attended a debate on marijuana legalization last week at Yale University.