Friday afternoon, with many people still at work or preparing for a night of tricks and treats, Rhode Island's candidates for U.S. Congress sparred in their third and final debate for the District 2 seat. In the radio debate, aired on WPRO's The Dan Yorke Show, GOP challenger Mark Zaccaria and Democratic incumbent Congressman James Langevin argued mostly about the economy in the hour-long discussion.
Friday's debate signaled a shift in the makeup of recent Ocean State political races. In recent campaigns, neither District 1 Congressman Patrick Kennedy nor Senator Jack Reed, both Democrats, has accepted debate requests from underdog challengers.
Langevin said he would not take any race for granted, despite being elected four times in a row, and once again appealed to Rhode Islanders to "place their trust and confidence" in him during the discussion. "I take every opponent very seriously," he said.
Langevin is seeking his fifth term. He served in the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1988 to 1994 and in 1994 was elected Rhode Island Secretary of State.
Zaccaria, who runs a private North Kingstown marketing consulting firm, criticized Langevin for his lack of influence in Congress, citing the "power rankings" recently unveiled by Roll Call, a publication covering Capitol Hill.
Ranked 217th of 235 Democratic congressmen, with a score of "zero" in the "influence" category, Langevin responded to the criticism of his effectiveness by saying his work took place in committees behind closed doors and often went unnoticed. He said that, if re-elected, he will focus primarily on national security, universal health care and stem cell research.
During the debate, Langevin mostly criticized Republicans in Washington before finally attacking his challenger's experience.
"My opponent wants to go down to Washington as a freshman under a minority party whose policies have failed miserably," Langevin said. "(The Republicans are) going to lose seats dramatically."
Langevin and Zaccaria started off the debate on good terms, agreeing on a couple of points. They both expressed concern that tax payers might bear the burden of poorly managed construction projects in Rhode Island for roads and bridges.
They also spoke in favor of publicly financed campaigns. Langevin criticized Senators Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. and Jack Reed, D-R.I., for taking "money from the environment they regulate."
"I have long said we need to do more to take money out of politics," Langevin said. "I would love to see a public financing system to fund campaigns."
Langevin conceded, however, that "until the process changes, we'll have to live within the system we have."
Zaccaria, who described himself to The Herald as "an underfunded challenger" agreed with Langevin's position but argued that the system, not individual politicians, was to blame.
"The problem is not Dodd, Schumer and Reed. ... (It's the) rules of the game we are forced to play," Zaccaria said. "We have to expect that the government is organized so that we can get good, appropriate responses from people in government."
When the conversation went toward the recent federally backed $700-billion dollar bailout plan, Zaccaria dismissed the topic. "People have to raise funds all the time."
"You created a mortgage origination industry where, instead of bankers granting mortgages, you had commission sales people," said Zaccaria, who traced the trend back to the Carter administration.
Langevin blamed the Bush administration for encouraging Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to grant more affordable mortgages. "They did virtually nothing to properly regulate these financial entities. ... There was not enough oversight in Congress at this time."
Langevin voted in favor of the current bailout plan, but acknowledged the plan was far from perfect.
"I don't like that vote either. ... There were no very good options," Langevin said.
Zaccaria is opposed to the plan and told The Herald he was upset with the nationalizing of banks.
"Say you have (a) mortgage loan owned by federal government - who are you going to call? Call (Congressman) Barney Frank?" Zaccaria said. "Who's going to do the customer service - the same damn banks."
Zaccaria, though he has held several positions in North Kingstown government since 2000, has never before run for state or federal office. An Air Force ROTC cadet at Colby College, Zaccaria graduated in 1970 and spent five years in active duty as a flight instructor.
Despite his limited political background, Zaccaria said he believes he is the more qualified and experienced candidate.
Langevin "has not been (a) member of military, a husband and a father," Zaccaria told The Herald. He added that Langevin has not experienced the "issues of living in (the) corporate world."
Zaccaria told The Herald he has met between 5,000 and 6,000 voters and estimates that the electorate will split 60 percent to 40 percent in favor of either candidate. He said he thinks that about 20 percent of voters in District 2 are "truly unaffiliated." Zaccaria said this is not a "Yankees versus Red Sox" rivalry where supporters see the "other guy (as) a bum."
Langevin, who said he was confident he would win Tuesday, nevertheless said he thought Zaccaria's involvement in campaigns and elections was "admirable."