In the first televised debate of the gubernatorial election, incumbent Democrat Gov. Gina Raimondo went head-to-head with Republican nominee Allan Fung and independent candidate Joe Trillo at Roger Williams University Sept. 27.
Target 12 reporter Tim White and Eyewitness News reporter Ted Nesi moderated the tense, hour-long debate that aired on WPRI, questioning candidates on issues such as gun control, proposed tax cuts and economic growth. The debate was hosted by Danielle North, anchor for Eyewitness News This Morning.
Raimondo faced tough questions on Unified Health Infrastructure Project, her controversial computerized health care and benefits program, and the PawSox’s decision to move to Worcester, Massachusetts. She touted her policies promoting small business investment and school safety through gun control reform, as well as her willingness to stand up against the policies of the Trump administration.
Cranston Mayor Fung refused to disavow the Trump administration explicitly, though he opposed its policy of separating immigrant families.
Fung criticized Raimondo for her failure to keep the PawSox in Pawtucket and difficulties in implementing UHIP. He repeatedly charged that she was an “insider” influenced by corporate donations. When asked about his own track record, Fung acknowledged responsibility for his role in a case of corruption in the Cranston police department in 2015. Fung told the audience that, if elected, he would focus on “common sense” polices such as implementing stronger work requirements for able-bodied adults on welfare.
Trillo, a former R.I. State House deputy minority leader and ardent Trump supporter, highlighted his self-funded campaign and ability to fight — without partisan allegiances — on behalf of taxpayers against lobbyists. He attacked the proposed Burrillville natural gas power plant and promised that public tax dollars would be spent more efficiently under his administration. Trillo, who is trailing considerably in the polls, took fire from the moderators for not actively opposing Raimondo’s UHIP initiative in the past.
“What I hope happened tonight is that voters got a chance to see where candidates stand,” White told The Herald. “That’s the purpose of these debates — to try and cut through the noise and get to the signal of what people are saying.” Raimondo and Fung refused to participate in pre-primary debates in order to “coast through the primary,” which was a “disservice to voters,” White added.
Raimondo led Fung 43-36 percent points with a 4.8 percent margin of error in a WPRI/RWU poll conducted earlier this month. In the same poll, Trillo came in at 7 percent. There are three more independent candidates in the gubernatorial race — Bill Gilbert, Luis-Daniel Muñoz and Anne Armstrong, none of whom were invited to participate in the debate.
Here’s where Raimondo, Fung and Trillo stood on some key issues:
“When I began, Rhode Island had the highest unemployment rate in the country,” Raimondo said. “Today, we are at the lowest unemployment rate we’ve had in 20 years, … and last year, Rhode Island had the highest wage growth in the country.”
Raimondo asserted that her economic policy — built on investments in small business and infrastructure through programs like Rebuild RI — has created thousands of jobs.
White pressed Fung on whether his tax plan would require cuts from social services and education sectors. In response, Fung promised to root out fraud in state government and reshape Rhode Island commerce by ending the “culture of corporate welfare” that he accused Raimondo of nurturing.
Raimondo stated that her economic policies have not been influenced by campaign donations.
Trillo proposed reducing taxes for Rhode Islanders. To balance the books, Trillo said he would “go through every state department with a scalpel” to reduce inefficiencies. His experience in construction would help him avoid wasting tax dollars on development, he said.
Both Fung and Trillo criticized Raimondo and the State House for not doing more to keep the PawSox in Rhode Island.
“It’s a failure of leadership on all parts,” Fung said. “They all should have been at the table. That’s what I would have done.”
Raimondo said she lamented the loss of the team as much as anyone and that she had done all she could do in putting together a deal the team said they would accept. Instead, she blamed the legislature for taking “a year and a half” to act on her proposed deal as the PawSox found a more attractive offer.
“I won’t rest until McCoy (Stadium) is full,” she said, referring to the PawSox’s old stadium in Pawtucket.
Renewables and climate action
To varying degrees, all candidates consider protecting the environment a priority, pointing to renewable energy as a potential way to meet the challenges of climate change.
“We need to move as fast as we can toward 100 percent renewables,” Raimondo said. Under her term, Raimondo added that she oversaw the creation of an offshore wind farm.
Raimondo has previously endorsed the polarizing $1 billion Burrillville natural gas power plant, which is in the midst of a legal dispute with the Conservation Law Foundation.
Fung also said he supported renewable energy but that it “can’t be forced down people’s throats.” He highlighted Cranston’s solar project developments as evidence of his successful environmental policies. Fung is against the Burrillville plant, as he "support(s) local control" and claims that the town’s residents oppose the plan.
Trillo hesitated in his support of renewable energy, endorsing it with some qualifications. “I would only support it if the rate to the tax payers is going to be very competitive with what it is right now for fossil fuel,” he said. “If the rate is higher and the impact on our fishing industry is too great, then I can’t support it.”
School safety and gun control
All candidates agreed on the need to create safe school environments for children in light of recent national and local school shootings, but they differed on which policies would create safer schools.
Raimondo is vocal in her support of gun control and has pushed for bans on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines. However, she defended her position against putting metal detectors in schools. “Schools shouldn’t look like prisons,” Raimondo said.
Fung championed a plan to put additional security guards and retired police officers on school campuses to increase safety. “Unlike the governor, I don’t believe in having a piece of paper saying no guns in school — that’s not going to stop criminal acts,” Fung said, referring to Raimondo’s “red flag” executive order enacted earlier this year to remove guns from individuals deemed a threat to public safety.
Trillo pushed for teachers to receive special concealed carry permits to prevent school shootings and stressed that guns are not the only way to cause violence in a school, listing bombs and knives as potential dangers.
“There’s a fallacy out there that guns are the problems,” Trillo said. “If there is a shooter in a school and I’m a teacher and I have a gun and I know how to use it, I’ll take the person out.”
The moderators pressed Raimondo on UHIP, a computer system intended to integrate social services and health care for hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders. UHIP has been plagued by technical issues and has cost the state approximately half a billion dollars.
“UHIP has had its share of struggles, but we have turned the corner,” Raimondo said. “Having said that, mistakes were made, which I own.”
The other two candidates remained firmly against UHIP.
“I’m not sure if UHIP is ever going to be fixed,” Fung said. “On day one, I will pull the plug.”
Trillo said that he fought against UHIP and has tried to protect taxpayer dollars from being wasted.
Every candidate agreed that the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh should be paused following the testimony yesterday by Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. All candidates stated they believe the claims warrant an independent investigation.