As an audience of about 300 waited for sharp exchanges about sexual harassment or censures, the mayoral candidates at a forum Monday night talked mostly of business development and taxes.
With controversy swirling around two incumbents on the Republican ticket, several Democratic officials privately speculated that Mayor Ken Cockayne and council member Jodi Zils-Gagne might not show.
But both put on strong presentations, with Cockayne peppering his opponent with attacks while Gagne offered some of the most detailed answers from any of the 12 council candidates.
Democratic mayoral contender Ellen Zoppo-Sassu only briefly alluded to the city council censuring Cockayne last week, and he didn’t respond. She said his administration has been too concerned with keeping power instead of governing with integrity, and said, “It’s time we start making headlines for all the right reasons.”
Questions at the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum at St. Paul Catholic High School focused on jobs, business regulation and ways the city could make itself more attractive to employers.
Cockayne several times went on the offensive, saying Zoppo-Sassu’s positions revealed inexperience. He said he had to craft a development plan for the long-vacant Bristol Centre Mall property because the city bought it in 2005, when she was on the council.
“I’m fixing the mess my opponent bought in the middle of the night,” he said.
After Zoppo-Sassu, who works for the Connecticut Pharmacists Association, said she has a four-point plan for dealing with the opioid crisis, Cockayne said, “We’re joining the lawsuit to sue pharmaceuticals [manufacturers]. She works for them. She is isn’t going to go after the same people who pay her.”
Cockayne also tried to paint Zoppo-Sassu as “a tax-and-spend Democrat,” saying she’s allied with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“If you think the state is going great, I’m not your guy — vote for my opponent,” said Cocakyne, who added that Zoppo-Sassu took a photo alongside Malloy at a fundraiser for her 2015 campaign.
“That’s not the worst picture I could be taken with,” she replied, alluding to accusations that Cockayne showed compromising photos of Zils-Gagne and her husband, Stephen Gagne, to a council member earlier this year.
An investigative report concluded Cockayne and his relatives circulated the photos to embarrass Stephen Gagne in retaliation for inviting Zoppo-Sassu on his internet radio station. The council censured him last week; a year earlier, it censured him after determining he had retaliated against a city worker who'd accused him of sexual harassment.
Cockayne repeated his campaign theme that Bristol is enjoying a low crime rate, declining unemployment, steady taxes and a high bond rating.
“We had a $66 million increase in the grand list last year. That doesn’t happen by accident,” Cockayne said.
Zoppo-Sassu said Cockayne is campaigning on platitudes and misleading numbers, emphasizing that taxes have risen twice during his two terms — but always in the years between elections. She said opioid-fueled car break-ins are rising sharply, and that homeowners’ property values have dropped during Cockayne’s time in office.
The election is Nov. 7.