Providence – It was Mr. Inside, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, against Mr. Outside, Barrington businessman Ken Block, as the two Republican candidates for governor clashed in the first televised debate of a campaign in which neither candidate has been shy about criticizing each other in the early going.
With about 11 weeks until the September 9 primary, Block and Fung took their shots in a WPRI-Channel 12 faceoff that was sharper than last week’s mostly polite debate among the three candidates for the Democratic nomination for the same office, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and former Obama White House aide Clay Pell.
Throughout last night’s joust, sponsored by the Providence Journal and WPRI, the candidates addressed individual issues that ran the gamut from taxes to gun control. But both Fung and Block largely used the televised forum to feature their overarching insider-outsider themes.
That’s Fung, the 44-year old three-term Cranston mayor, who continually said that Block, who has never been elected to anything, can’t be trusted to be the state’s ceo. Fung said that in perilous times Rhode Island needs a ``proven leader’’ who has dealt with deficits, pension problems and difficult personnel matters.
Block’s comeback was to hammer Fung’s record in Cranston and assert that Rhode Island cannot afford to promote an incumbent mayor to the governorship. ``We can fix what’s broken with Rhode Island but only if we elect an outsider.’’
The candidates were questioned by moderator Tim White of Channel 12 and panelists Ted Nesi of WPRi and Ed Fitzpatrick of the ProJo. The three tried to get the candidates to draw distinctions. But Fung and Block sometimes eluded the questions, par for political debate course as they flogged their messages.
While the rhetoric was at times harsh, both candidates strained to show that they can connect with a Republican base that is largely white, suburban and elderly. And perhaps as cranky as talk show nation. The Republican base is no longer dominated by the politicians of the Linc Almond and John Chafee moderate stripe and this primary will prove just how far right it has tacked.
As good an example as any were the responses on gun control. While public opinion polling shows that most Rhode Island voters want more gun control, that position is anathema to a swath of the rural and some suburban GOP voters in 2014.
Block and Fung were once advocates of various gun controls. Now they say no major new gun laws are necessary and both took pains to say they support 2nd Amendment rights. (Fung did say that keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill would be good policy). Fung says he has taken up ``recreational shooting’’ even though he doesn’t own a gun. Block, too, said he is not a gun owner.
Both said their positions on gun control have evolved. Others will say they both pander bears, in the famous words of Paul Tsiongas.
``Anything that comes out of Ken Block’s mouth has to be carefully examined,’’ said Fung. Meanwhile, Block hammered Fung for accepting campaign contributions from a police union that he has negotiated with in Cranston.
`` I can’t imagine a more non-Republican answer,’’ said Block when Fung defended his negotiations with the union.
Block’s best foray came in the second half of the debate when he pressed Fung on Cranston city issues. Fung stumbled on issues surrounding a parking ticket episode that led some Cranston city council members to assert that the police department had retaliated against motorists in wards represented by councilmen who opposed the police union.
Fung did not have a clear, crisp answer. At another point, under questioning by Nesi, Fung stumbled when asked the size of the municipal budget when he took over as mayor.
Block, too, had some less than stellar moments. He appeared not to understand anything about a state climate change initiative. And his prescriptions for fixing the economy were too often wonky and vague.
Neither candidate made a Rick Perryesque gaffe, but the answers begged of lacking good debate prep.
Fung has been trying to portray Block as a sort of Christine Jorgensen of the R.I. Republican Party, a politician who has reinvented himself for political expediency. Fung noted that Block, founder of the R.I. Moderate Party, voted for Democrat Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. And Fung said that Block’s 2010 largely gadfly quest for governor (he polled 6.5 percent) as a Moderate siphoned off enough votes to kill the chances of Republican John Robitaille and throw the election to independent Lincoln Chafee.
On most major issues, there were few differences between Fung and Block, 47. Both support abortion rights, although Fung says he is against so-called late-term abortion procedures. Both are against making the next installment in the 38 Studios debt payments. Neither supports raising the minimum wage from the current $8 to $9 an hour, as Chafee and the General Assembly supports.
What this campaign will come down to is who can appeal to the miniscule base of Republicans and independent voters who choose GOP primary ballots. Is there anywhere in the United States where a candidate can win a major party nomination for governor with as few as 17,000 or 18,000 votes?
The big difference between Republican and Democratic primaries in Rhode Island is the voter turnout numbers. As many as about 168,000 Democrats have participated in a gubernatorial primary. That was the modern record for the 1990 three-way joust among Bruce Sundlun, Joseph Paolino Jr., and Frank Flaherty that was won by Sundlun.
The last hotly contested Democratic primary for the second floor Statehouse office came in 2002. It was another three-way event among Tony Pires, Myrth York and Sheldon Whitehouse. York emerged victorious in a primary that drew about 120,000 voters.
By contrast, the Republican base in Rhode Island is much smaller. The biggest modern turnout is the roughly 43,000 who participated in the 1994 contest between Lincoln Almond and Ronald Machtley that wasa won by Almond. In 2002, Jim Bennett and Donald Carcieri faced off in a gubernatorial primary that attracted only about 26,000 voters. Carcieri won with about 17,000 votes, a tiny number in a state with more than 700,000 registered voters.
Still, the Democrats have not elected a governor since Sundlun in 1992, so the Republican is worth something. How much in a deep blue state with no Republicans in any statewide or federal office is something the voters will determine.