With six days before the primary for attorney general, the three Democratic candidates for the job amped up their rhetoric as they faced off on issues, ranging from qualifications for the job to votes made in the state Legislature.
On Tuesday, the Connecticut Law Tribune and the New Haven Independent co-sponsored a one-hour debate with William Tong, the Democratic party’s endorsed candidate, and Paul Doyle and Chris Mattei at the Bethel AME Church in New Haven.
Watch The Debate:
The Democratic debate, the final of three, touched on issues ranging from guns to opioids to marijuana legalization and fighting the policies of the President Donald Trump. The second half of the discussion often featured the candidates tossing barbs at each other. That continued in phone conversations the three candidates had Wednesday with the Connecticut Law Tribune.
One issue that Mattei has mentioned repeatedly, and which has appeared to rile up Tong, is that of Tong’s qualifications for the job. The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled that its attorney general must have 10 years of experience in active practice of law. During the debate and again on Wednesday, Mattei questioned Tong’s qualifications.
“He has only been involved in one trial, and that was as the second chair,” Mattei said the day after the contentious debate. “Whereas, I have spent my entire career in the courtroom and supervising other lawyers. That’s a critical difference.”
During the debate, Tong, who has worked for Big Law in New York and Connecticut, and is currently the co-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told the audience of about 100 people that Mattei was using state Republican Party talking points.
In his interview with the Connecticut Law Tribune Wednesday Tong went even further.
“Chris has completely mischaracterized my experience,” he said. “I am the only civil litigator in this race who has real experience litigating big cases for almost 20 years. I have tons of litigation experience, over 400 matters for hundreds of clients.” Tong emphasized that, because of the nature of civil litigation, many times, it takes years and years to handle these cases, which are rarely tried to verdict. He said questions about his qualifications are not “just frivolous and absurd, but offensive.”
During the debate and again on Wednesday, Mattei, a trial attorney and former Connecticut assistant U.S. attorney, said he was the most progressive candidate. He went after what he said was Tong’s record in the Legislature, in an effort to paint him as not as progressive on issues facing Connecticut.
“I’m in favor of a $15 minimum wage, indexed to inflation.” Mattei said during the debate. “Willie voted against a 25-cent increase to the minimum wage when it was eight bucks. I’m in favor of progressive taxation. Willie voted against increased taxes for families making over $500,000 a year. I’m working to make sure workers can collect if they have been the victim of wage theft. Willie voted recently against allowing workers to collect.”
Tong also came under fire from Doyle. During the debate, Doyle noted that he helped pass a bill often known in Connecticut as the “#MeToo” legislation in the state Senate. Doyle questioned why Tong, as co-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was not able to get approval in that body.
On Wednesday, Doyle elaborated: “The hot issue today is women finally standing up for themselves. This legislation would have given more rights to women and, for example, extended the statute of limitations on sexual assault. It died in the House.” Tong said he favored the legislation, and countered that the bill died because of House leadership.
At one point during the debate, Tong said his vote against legalizing medical marijuana in 2012 was a mistake. Mattei is the only one of the three to unabashedly support recreational marijuana use in Connecticut. A vote in the state Legislature could come next year to do just that.
Doyle, a lawyer and the son of a Superior Court judge, took aim Wednesday at his two opponents, saying they focus too much on attacking the Trump administration.
“An important part of the job is challenging the Trump administration,” Doyle said. “But that’s not the only part of the job. The other essential part of the job is to fight for the people for consumer protection, The other two candidates only talk about Trump.” Doyle has called for a special consumer protection hotline to be part of the Office of Attorney General.
Doyle, who appears to be the most conservative of the three candidates, said Wednesday: “I am an independent thinker. I have a record of doing what’s right, regardless of the political pressure or costs.”
Tong has the support of most of the state’s labor unions, as well as the Connecticut Working Families Party, which is considered more liberal than the state’s Democratic Party. Mattei noted Wednesday that more than 100 attorneys this week endorsed him in an open letter. “It’s often impossible to get 10 lawyers to agree on anything, let alone 100,” he said.
Tong said he tried to stay above the fray. “It was very clear that Paul and Chris were going to attack me,” he said Wednesday. “It is a week out and they are desperate. I was there [at the debate] to talk about the issues.”