In a joust that broke little new ground, Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung hammered away at each other tonight in a WPRI-Channel 12-Providence Journal televised debate that came a week before their September 9 Republican gubernatorial showdown.
Block, a Barrington businessman, and Fung, a lawyer first elected mayor in 2008, wrestled by emphasizing their familiar campaign tropes: Block the outsider, never elected to anything, who wears as a badge of honor that he isn’t a ``career politician.’’ His thrust is that people who have been part of Rhode Island’s electoral system can’t be trusted to work in the interests of citizens.
Fung, a mayor who before that was a city council member, touted what he terms his ``conservative reforms’’ in Cranston, such as cutting costs, switching some city employees from city-financed pensions to a 401k system and holding the line on taxes. Fung’s parry is that Block can’t be trusted because, never having had to make public sector decisions, voters can’t be sure what he would do.
The debate was held at the Providence Performing Arts Center. The media panel was comprised of moderator Tim White of Channel 12 and questioners Ted Nesi of Channel 12 and Ed Fitzpatrick, the ProJo’s political columnist.
While the policy differences between the two Republicans are not as great as the gap in campaign rhetoric and prickly responses, both aspirants took shots at each other that made the Democratic gubernatorial debates look tame by comparison.
Block started at the outset, using his opening remarks to jab away. He seemed a bit nervous at the beginning, momentarily forgetting his children’s birthdays, but soon settled into his outsider monologue, saying he is needed to ``fix Rhode Island.’’
They even fought over endorsements from other Republican figures. Fung touted his endorsements by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential candidate, and former Gov. Lincoln Almond, a Republican who served from 1995 until 2003, and had a largely successful administration, especially at creating jobs. Block countered with the backing of John Robitialle, a top aide to former Gov. Don Carcieri, who was the unsuccessful GOP candidate for governor in 2010.
Block scoffed at Romney’s support for Fung, saying Fung only got it because he hired a Massachusetts consulting firm, the Shawmut Group, with long ties to Romney and other GOP candidates. Block said he considered hiring the firm to work on his campaign and that they promised to get him Romney’s support.
Fung said that wasn’t the case and insisted his hiring of the firm came with no promises of Romney backing. (Perhaps Romney discovered that Block acknowledges voting for Barack Obama for president in 2012). At times Block sounded like the Shawmut Group was a shadowy group like the Tri-Lateral Commission of conservative campaigns of yore.
On other issues, they both hewed to the conservative Republican base point of view. Both said they weren’t much for unions, with Fung saying he would support making Rhode Island a Right-to-Work state that bans union shops.
Both are against granting driving licenses to undocumented immigrants and both said that the E-Verify federal citizenship data base should be used to screen state employees and vendors. Carcieri had issued such an executive order, but Gov. Lincoln Chafee rescinded when he took office in 2011.
Block also belittled Fung’s record as Cranston mayor. For instance, Block said, that Fung’s program to move some Cranston city employees out of public pensions and into the 401k system was little more than a ``necessary baby step, but only a baby step.’’
Both Block and Fung reiterated their positions on the emotionally-charged abortion matter. They both support abortion rights but Fung took pains to explain that he opposes so-called late-term abortions, unless the health of the mother is at issue. Fung, who has the support of a local right-to-life organization, said, in answer to a question from Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, that he is open to having the state offer a health insurance plan on HealthSourceRI that does not offer abortion coverage. He called it ``an option for those that are pro-life.’’
Block said he is for smaller government and said he doesn’t believe the government has a role in the abortion issue. ``Government needs to be out of this question,’’ said Block.
They battled over whether the numbers for Fung’s $200 million tax cut proposal add up and whether Block’s plan to raise unemployment insurance tax rates on seasonal employers who use the system often was fair.
In the end, they each pledged to support the other should he lose next Tuesday. And both Block and Fung lanced all three Democratic contenders as being big government spenders.