In what is likely to be their only debate, the three mayoral candidates met this morning in a 90-minute session during which they mostly agreed with one another on issue after issue.
The three – Democratic Mayor Art Ward, Republican challenger Mary Alford and independent hopeful Gary Lawton – had kind words for each other and patted themselves on the back for a campaign marked by civility.
One of the few areas in the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce-sponsored debate where the candidates staked out slightly different positions was on the impact of the nearly completed Route 72 extension.
Alford said she’s concerned that people using the new road, slated to open next year, “will find themselves in a virtual parking lot” because there hasn’t been enough done to beef up city streets so that drivers will have somewhere to go when they reach its end.
But Ward focused on the road’s potential to boost downtown and make big improvements in Forestville’s center.
The new entry to Bristol, Lawton said, “gives us a chance to entice more business.”
Candidates covered a wide range of issues raised by moderator Tom Monahan, a TV newsman, including what to do with the former downtown mall site, how to help Bristol Hospital and whether to seek passenger rail service.
About 80 people, most of them with political or City Hall ties, attended the post-breakfast debate at Nuchie’s Restaurant co-sponsored by the hospital and The Bristol Press.
The most dramatic moment of the event came at the end, when Lawton, a welder, delivered his final words.
After calling himself “a one-man campaign” with no experience or education, he acknowledged that many have dismissed his long-shot bid and urged him to quit.
“I’m not going to give up now,” Lawton said. “This city deserves the best. I think I’m it, despite what some people say.”
Alford, a bookkeeper, said she nearly held his hand during Lawton’s words as the challenger choked up a bit, but refrained for fear that she might cry.
Ward and Alford each said there is widespread concern about the economy. Alford said people are frustrated “and a little bit angry.”
“I feel like the city is holding its breath, waiting for that other shoe to drop,” she said, adding that if problems are dealt with then the other shoe won’t drop at all.
“I would love to lead Bristol to finally exhale,” Alford said.
Each of the candidates said that dealing with necessity of budget cuts at City Hall would be tough, but they agreed on the need.
Alford said that City Hall should become “a lean, mean government machine” that has to be pared down.
Ward said his administration has eliminated 15 positions by attrition, won concessions from municipal unions that allowed for a property tax freeze this year and searched constantly for ways to streamline city operations.
Lawton said that if the community can tap its potential, it could “put Bristol in the Top 100 in Connecticut and maybe even in the country.”
Each of the candidates said that preserving Bristol Hospital is vital for the city’s health and for maintaining more than 700 good jobs.
They said they strongly supported renewed passenger rail service to town, though they cautioned that a system to get people to the train would also be necessary.
As for the Depot Square site where the mall once stood, they largely agreed that it’s best to proceed cautiously and make sure whatever is done will stand the test of time.
They also agreed that Bristol should try to entice colleges and trade schools to open branches downtown.
Alford entered the race after the GOP’s first candidate, John Gill, pulled out unexpectedly. Lawton opted to run for mayor after the Republicans refused to back his bid for a City Council seat.
A free City Council debate is slated for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 20 at City Hall. Bristol Press Publisher Mike Schroeder will serve as its moderator.
The council debates will be shown live on the same channels as the mayoral contest. They will also be aired again at 6 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 25 and at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 28.
The election is Tuesday, November 3. Mayors and councilors serve two-year terms. The next mayor will earn $98,000 annually, 5 percent less than the current salary.
Watch the debate on TV
Watch the debate on TV
The mayoral debate will be shown on Comcast cable channel 96 and AT&T’s U-Verse channel 99 at 6 p.m., Monday, Oct. 19 and again at 6 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 1.
PS: I'll have more on this debate later.
Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org