In the final televised gubernatorial debate before voters head to the polls, the four candidates clashed over whether incumbent Democrat Gov. Gina Raimondo deserved credit for improving Rhode Island’s economy and prompted heated discussions about education, school safety and the Department of Human Services’ and Executive Office of Health and Human Services’ controversial public benefits registration system.
WJAR news anchor Gene Valicenti moderated the debate at Rhode Island College, featuring GOP nominee and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, independent Joe Trillo and Moderate Party nominee Bill Gilbert, along with Raimondo.
“When I started as governor (in 2015) we had the highest unemployment rate in the country,” Raimondo said. “We were struggling, … and I put in place a strategy to make it easier and cheaper to do business.”
Fung and Trillo would dismantle her administration’s signature tax credit programs — such as Rebuild Rhode Island — that have encouraged investment in the Ocean State and created thousands of well-paying jobs, Raimondo said.
“Stop with the fairy tales about the economy,” Fung said in response. “This corporate welfare culture is going to stop. The governor should be fired, period.” Raimondo’s tax credits should be scrapped and repurposed as “sales tax cuts” and a “low-fee guarantee” to lower licensing and administrative fees for local businesses, Fung added.
In a discussion about education, Raimondo championed her administration’s investments in the state’s public school infrastructure and curriculum. “Rhode Island is one of the only states in the country where we teach computer science in every grade starting in kindergarten,” she said. “And Cranston had pretty much no pre-K programs until I became governor and brought it about.”
Fung criticized Raimondo for having public universities raise tuition under her tenure, adding that he would end free tuition for students at the Community College of Rhode Island and instead offer them “tax credits” to pay off debt if they stayed in the state to work.
The other candidates offered their own proposals for education reform. Gilbert advocated for the creation of a large-scale vocational training program, while Trillo argued that teachers deserved more control in designing their own curricula.
Candidates also touched on the subject of gun violence in schools. In September, 15-year-old William Parsons was fatally shot outside Providence Career and Technical Academy.
Raimondo urged that the state ban guns on campuses, but the other candidates scoffed at this solution.
“Just passing a law that says ‘Don’t bring a gun to school’ isn’t going to help anything,” Gilbert said. “We can live with the Second Amendment and not expect people to get shot.”
Trillo declared that school buildings should be made more secure, and Fung advocated for funds to let schools decide how to improve their safety — whether through metal detectors, single point entry or bulletproof glass.
Raimondo also came under fire for Unified Health Infrastructure Project, the much-maligned public benefits computerized registration system rolled out under her administration by the Department of Human Services, which has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars due to faulty programming.
“We’ve made mistakes, and I’ve learned from those mistakes,” Raimondo said. “But we’ve turned the corner.”
Both Trillo and Fung said they would fire Deloitte, the company responsible for developing the computer software for DHS’ UHIP. Raimondo failed to show effective leadership in fixing the situation, they added.
Raimondo hit back by targeting Fung’s controversial involvement in a cover up for the Cranston police department in 2015, which was revealed in a 2015 state police report. “You cannot compare an IT glitch with public corruption,” Raimondo said, referencing a report in which an unnamed officer described Fung as running the department “like the mafia.”
“That’s public corruption, and that’s the culture that’s held this state back for too long,” Raimondo said.
Fung countered that Raimondo only “cares about … six-figure jobs for cronies” and denied the corruption charges as “hearsay.”
Candidates were also divided on Rhode Island’s attitude toward undocumented immigrants. In June, Raimondo signed a bill that would allow participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in the state to procure driver’s licenses.
Fung said that undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to receive driver’s licenses. Local police should collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to deport undocumented immigrants, he added.
Enabling undocumented immigrants to legally drive would encourage more “illegal migrants” to move to the state, Trillo said. But Fung’s recent public announcement that Cranston will not be a sanctuary state under his watch was merely symbolic, Trillo added.
Fung “is politicizing public safety to scare people to get votes before election,” Raimondo said. “We follow the law, we follow the constitution. ICE knows every time someone gets finger printed.” Raimondo supports licenses for all undocumented immigrants, she added.
In their final statements, the candidates streamlined their campaign messages for voters.
“I’m asking you for a chance to continuing bringing change and finish the job we’ve started together,” Raimondo said.
Fung promised to bring his ethos of hard work to the job, show strong leadership and avoid wasting taxpayer dollars. Trillo touted his self-funded campaign and independence from lobbyists, while Gilbert emphasized his proposal to revamp the state’s tourism industry.
The election will be held Nov. 6.