The race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination heated up Tuesday, as businessman Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung took part in a fast-paced and frequently contentious debate at the Providence Performing Arts Center.
It was the first televised face-off between the two hopefuls, and attention quickly turned to the negative tone of the GOP race. Over the course of the hour-long debate, the pair sparred over their Republican credentials, records and budget plans – and, in a particularly tense exchange, Fung’s handling of the Cranston Police Department.
The night’s first question went to Fung, whose campaign has taken to the airwaves with television ads characterizing Block supporters as “Blockheads” and sharply criticizing the former Moderate Party candidate for his past support of President Barack Obama and the federal health care reform law.
“The voters in Rhode Island, and particularly the voters in the Republican primary, deserve to know the truth about Ken Block and what he stands for,” said Fung in defense of the ads. “The past is the best indicator of future performance … My opponent has a history of supporting Barack Obama.”
Fung repeated the Obama line of attack frequently throughout the evening, but said his differences with Block extend beyond that issue.
“There’s a lot of policy difference,” he said,
Fung also cited Block’s 2010 candidacy for governor on the Moderate Party ticket, which he said cost Republican John Robitaille in a close contest. He suggested Block’s move to the Republican Party was one of political convenience, while touting his own record as a conservative and his support for GOP candidates.
Republican voters “cannot forgive [Block] for starting the Moderate Party,” said Fung. “He’s flip-flopped more than John Kerry on many issues.”
Block, who has acknowledged having voted for the president twice, and having initially supported the health care law because of his belief in the need for reform, said Fung’s focus on that issue is “an insult to voters, and it’s quite frankly a junior high school level of campaigning.”
He cited the Cranston mayor’s previous affiliation with the Democratic Party and record of donations to key Democratic politicians in Rhode Island and elsewhere.
“What Rhode Islanders worry about, what they really care about, is the fix to the awful economic crisis that we’re in,” Block said.
Regarding the state’s fiscal standing, Fung and Block spoke of their respective plans to reduce the state budget. Block outlined his plan to evaluate the state budget to find tens of millions in savings, and to tackle the issue of unemployment insurance – a system he called “broken” in Rhode Island.
“I’m the only candidate with the demonstrated ability … to find those cost savings,” he said. “I know we can find those savings, and I have a proven track record of doing it.”
Block said Fung in his approach relies on “made-up numbers,” and asserted that the mayor’s tax plan “panders to a very small portion of the business community.”
Fung’s plan focuses on reducing both tax rates and the size of government, and he pointed to his record in Cranston as demonstrating “real reforms, real results.”
“Unlike my opponent, my plan is realistic,” said Fung, calling Block’s plan “bogus.” He specifically pointed to Block’s “321 Plan,” which asserts that for every $3 in spending cuts, $2 will be returned to taxpayers and $1 will be used to address the state’s budget woes.
“Three minus two minus one equals zero,” said Fung. “It’s a lot of rhetoric.”
Fung also said Block’s unemployment insurance plan would have a particularly detrimental impact on the hospitality and tourism industries.
Block echoed a frequent campaign theme that he intends to use the office of governor as a “bully pulpit,” and pointed to the success of the campaign to eliminate the master lever – in which he has played a significant role – as evidence of the effectiveness of that approach.
“We got people to care. We got people to show up,” he said.
Fung continued to cast his appeal to Republican voters as one rooted in a record of results.
Both candidates spoke of their evolving stance on gun rights, and said they are pro-choice. They also agreed on their opposition to legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage and providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Cranston’s ticketing scandal, and the emergence of subsequent issues within the city’s police department, became the topic of perhaps the debate’s most intense exchange.
Block attacked Fung for receiving political donations from union members with whom he negotiated – including police officers – and blasted the mayor’s oversight of the Cranston police department.
“Mayor Fung mismanaged that police department so badly,” he said. “This is not governance, this is not leadership. This is disqualification from being governor, in my opinion.”
Fung defended his handling of the situation – pointing to the involvement of state police and the recommendation that the officer accused of ordering the ticketing be fired – and said he was “disappointed” with Block’s remarks.
“I’m not going to sit here having my ethics questioned,” he said. “The bottom line is, we acted. We held people accountable.”
While the combative tone took up most of the evening, both Fung and Block said they would endorse the other in the general election.
The debate was hosted by WPRI 12 and the Providence Journal. The panelists were Ed Fitzpatrick of the Journal and Ted Nesi and Tim White of WPRI.