Moderate Party head looks to make his mark in RI governor's race

Providence, R.I. – By anyone's measure Ken Block is a lucky man. He has a wife he adores, two small children and a large house in the attractive town of Barrington. But he wants more. He wants to be governor of Rhode Island and says his experience as president and owner of two high tech companies qualifies him to do the job.

"It's crucially important to get people involved who are capable of leading, who aren't beholden to others and who are interested in doing right by the majority of Rhode Island voters," he said. "And we just haven't been getting that."

Block now spends a lot less time at home with his family, and a lot more time meeting voters, as he did recently at Kennedy Plaza in Providence. Block is so dissatisfied with the status quo he started his own party - the Moderate Party - which promotes the four "e's": education, environment, ethics and the economy.

Block says Rhode Island could erase at least half its $400 million operating deficit by cracking down on welfare and Medicaid fraud. He says that's what one of his companies, Simpatico Software Systems, did for the state of Texas by introducing a debit card system.

"In states that have done waste and fraud detection within their Medicaid programs, they found on average between 10 and 20 percent waste and fraud," he explained. "That's $200 to $400 million on a $2 billion program. So if we can stop the people from stealing from us, I believe we can come very close to balancing our budget without raising taxes, without cutting necessary services."

Once the deficit is erased, Block says he would turn his attention to attracting businesses to the state by expanding the Economic Development Corporation and, and cutting business taxes - which he says would make Rhode Island more competitive with Massachusetts and Connecticut.

"We have to become a better tax deal than Massachusetts if we're going to incent these businesses to come," he said. "So it's a two part plan. The first is to close the budget deficit, stabilize the economy; and then as quickly as we can once we've done that we have to continue the job of becoming a better deal than Massachusetts."

Although ethics is one of the keystones of the Moderate Party, Block got off to a rough start with the state elections board. He was forced to pay a $2,000 fine and admit that he broke state law by donating $20,000 -- $10,000 more than the maximum -- to his fledgling party: an episode he now calls an "extraordinarily unfortunate incident."

"We discussed what we wanted to do multiple, multiple times and we were told multiple, multiple times that what we were doing was proper, correct, and within the letter of the law," he said. "The board of elections changed their mind as we were doing it."

Block's campaign is largely self-funded. He says he's chipped in $349,000 of his own money and received about $75,000 in donations. So far he's been spending most heavily on efforts to enhance his name recognition through a series of commercials called "kick the can."

"Recycling is good for the environment, but recycling politicians is bad for Rhode Island," he announces on the commercial. "Rhode Island's politicians just kick the can down the road."

It's hard to know how effective the ads have been. Block has not been included in any of the polls done so far. But one of his supporters - former attorney general Arlene Violet - suspects the commercials, which the average Rhode Islander has seen 13 times, are helping enhance his profile.

"In Rhode Island, the people who contribute to people do so on the basis of whether they have to worry that they might get in and they haven't contributed to them," Violet said. So there's a lot of people who contribute to several campaigns, not just one. So if he starts being more than a blip on a poll he's going to attract outside money."

Block, who has refused to release his income tax return, says he's willing to spend whatever it takes to be competitive.

Naturally, Block has his detractors like Patrick Crowley of the National Education Asssociation/Rhode Island.

"I don't think they're Moderate at all," Crowley said. "I think he's taken some pretty conservative positions when it comes to this election. And when it comes down to it, he sounds just like any other conservative businessman when it comes to running for office.

But Block claims he is far from being the most conservative candidate in the gubernatorial race. Unlike some of his competitors, he believes Rhode Island's public employees' pension system -- which has a four billion dollar unfunded liability -- can be saved: his solution - raise the retirement age from 59 to 67, and replace the 3 percent annual raises with increases pegged to the cost of living.

"I would like to fix the problem and I believe we're going to have a very frank and blunt choice to make as a state in negotiations," he said. "Do we preserve a pension plan? Or do we, by default, have to go to a 401k? I would prefer to work cooperatively to preserve a pension plan."

Block would be the first to admit that his campaign will be an up-hill climb. But instead of being a winner or a loser, he could be a spoiler. So says Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor who's now with the Brookings Institution. West says Block would most likely pull votes from independent Lincoln Chafee.

"I think his candidacy helps whoever comes out of the Democratic primary because some of his positions are more Conservative, some are Moderate and Centrist and that's exactly the Real Estate where Lincoln Chafee is located," West said. "So he may end up hurting Lincoln Chafee more than the Democrat."

Block may be running for governor, but he also has his eye on something else: to build a new political party in Rhode Island - and that may be a more realistic goal. If he wins at least 5 percent of the vote, the Moderates will qualify for the 2012 and 2014 ballots - without having to engage in the kind of signature gathering marathon they had to do this time to be recognized as a legitimate third party.