Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung clashed in their second debate within 24 hours this afternoon, a meeting that produced more heat than enlightenment and revealed few major policy differences between the two candidates vying for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the September 9 primary.
The debate, sponsored by WJAR-Channel 10, Rhode Island Public Radio and Johnson & Wales University, is the last television joint appearance before next Tuesday’s election. Both Fung and Block aimed their eleventh-hour appeals at the Rhode Island Republican Party’s tiny conservative base.
As has been the case throughout the campaign, Block sounded anti-government themes and pledged to fight the Democratic Party’s majority in the General Assembly. He was on the attack from the outset, asserting that Fung, first elected mayor in 2008, represents the state’s political establishment.
Fung’s plans, Block said, are little more than ``politics as usual.’’
Fung’s retort: That Block, who has never been elected to anything, has a glaring ``lack of experience’’ that would not serve citizens well if elected.
Block took some wild swings at the forum, but none so blatantly false as to claim that his computer jockeying saved the state of Texas ``a billion dollars’’ in that state’s Food Stamp program. Whatever he and his software company did for the state, it couldn’t possibly have saved Texas taxpayers any state money because the food stamp program is financed with 100 percent federal money.
Block depicted himself as the candidate who could ``get things done’’ at the Statehouse by battling lawmakers and using the ``bully pulpit’’ to arouse public opinion. At one point, Block said he would hold two daily news conferences if he needed to educate the public. (Good luck with that one; reporters aren’t going to show up after about the third day).
Fung said that Block just wants to pick fights and that change doesn’t happen with talk show rhetoric. Fung said he ``has a record’’ of accomplishment in Cranston in helping businesses create jobs in the city and controlling city government spending.
While they toss barbs at each other, the differences between Block and Fung are mostly style over substance. Both express support for smaller government, high-stakes testing of high school students and a public school teacher evaluation system. Fung said would model his governorship the lines of former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond, a Republican who has endorsed Fung. Block said he admires former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. Both Almond and Weld were Republicans in the moderate New England Republican mold.
The most salient aspect of a Rhode Island Republican primary is that so few voters participate. Nowhere else in the U.S., with the possible exception of Vermont, where voters aren’t registered by party, can a candidate win a major party gubernatorial primary with as few as 15,000 or so votes. That will likely happen on Tuesday, a state with more than 700,000 registered voters.
Yet, history tells us that general election voters in the Ocean State don't care much about the small Republican voter base. A Republican has won every Rhode Island gubernatorial election since 1994, except for 2010, when Republican-turned-independent Lincoln Chafee won a four-way tilt with about 36 percent of the vote.