Republican gubernatorial candidates Allan Fung and Ken Block squared off Tuesday night during a televised debate. The skirmish sponsored by Channel 12 and the Providence Journal took place exactly one week before the statewide primary next Tuesday.
After months of campaigning, the two Republicans found common ground on a few issues. But they made their appeal to voters through different messages and clashed on different parts of their platforms.
Block is a Barrington software entrepreneur making his second run for governor, this time as a Republican after abandoning the Moderate Party he founded. Block says he’s motivated in part because of his two children, ages 8 and 12, and the Ocean State’s persistently anemic economy.
"I know that if we don’t fix what’s broken here, my kids will leave the state," Block said. "If your children are teenagers or toddlers, we all have an urgent reason to fix Rhode Island now. Rhode Island has no future when our children are leaving the state."
Fung has been the mayor of Cranston since first winning election in 2008. He says his tenure there shows he has what it takes to be governor, and he’s frequently criticized Block for previously supporting Obamacare and voting for President Obama. Rhode Island’s 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate, John Robitaille, endorsed Block yesterday and calls him a fiscal conservative. Yet Fung, who has the support of Mitt Romney, continues to question Block’s Republican credentials.
"Rhode Islanders and Rhode Island Republicans who are going to be voting in that September 9th primary need to take a look at every statement that Ken Block made, because he’s not a real Republican," Fung said. "He pretends to be conservative. He’ll say anything. He’s more of a political opportunitst.”
Both Fung and Block say making a law so-called Right to Work law - allowing workers in union shops to opt out of joining unions and paying union dues - would help the state’s business climate.They say it would be bad for the Ocean State’s reputation if Buddy Cianci won election as mayor of Providence in November. And both Republicans say it’s the job of the federal government, not the state, to deal with immigration, altough Block and Fung each oppose offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Yet Block and Fung clashed on economic issues, as they debated before a small audience of Republicans at the Providence Performing Arts Center.
Block charges that Fung’s plan to cut taxes by $200 million dollars doesn’t add up, in part since it counts on a $70 million surplus that was mostly used to close a hole in the current state budget. Fung countered by saying he’s open to cutting programs like the Medicaid subsidized healthcare program for the poor, and that he’ll find further savings in the state’s eight billion dollar budget.
"We’ve done that managing budgets in Cranston," Fung said. "These are the same types of experience that I will take to the state level to mange the budget and watch our dollars as they come into the state coffers."
Block says he’s the problem-solver in the Republican primary, and he points to his advocacy for eliminating the master lever. Another issue Block has focused on is how taxpayers pay an extra $13 million dollars to subsidize seasonal employers in the state’s unemployment insurance program. Fung says Block’s proposed fix would be a tax increase for seasonal employers. But Block says he’s open to another approach, and that the issue is about correcting an abuse of the system.
"In the states that have solved this problem through asking the heavy users of the system to pay their way, we have not seen a mass extinction of hospitality and restaurant jobs," Block said. "I know of no state in the country where there’s a lack of restaurant because the states in which they operate made the cost of unemployment insurance more fair."
Because of the small number of registered Republicans in Rhode Island, there’s no reliable polling data on the shape of the race between Block and Fung. Both candidates plan to keep pushing for votes through the primary next Tuesday. The winner of the race will face the Democratic primary winner in November.