With two weeks until election day, Democrats Clay Pell, Angel Taveras and Gina Raimondo stuck to familiar campaign themes and solidifying support in a spirited televised debate this evening that was long on rhetorical flourishes but short on major policy differences.
It was as if all three aspirants decided to stick with their usual messages and eschewed taking any risks that might cause a gaffe 14 days before the September 9 primary. This came despite the best efforts of journalists Tim White and Ted Nesi of WPRI-Channel 12 and Ed Fitzpatrick of the Providence Journal, who were questioners at the event held at the Providence Performing Arts Center.
As has been the case throughout this campaign, Pell depicted himself as the most liberal of the three, describing himself as a progressive and emphasizing that if the state needs more revenue he would raise taxes on the wealthiest Rhode Islanders.
Both Taveras and Raimondo said they supported a tax system where the wealthy pay more but tamped down expectations on raising income taxes on the wealthy, as some labor and liberal groups have asked the General Assembly in recent years.
Pell was more animated and confident than he has been than in other appearances with Raimondo and Taveras and even launched one of the highlight zingers of the evening. In a new campaign t.v. commercial by Raimondo that touts her business experience in reviving the Narragansett Beer brand and linking it to jobs in Rhode Island, even though the beer is brewed in New York and Massachusetts.
Making fun of the ad, Pell said, ``My campaign has created more jobs in the state of Rhode Island than Narragansett Beer.’’
Raimondo worked in a venture capital for a company called Point Judith Capital, which one was located in Rhode Island but has since moved to Boston.
Pell, who has pumped millions of his own money into his campaign, slammed both Taveras and Raimondo for accepting campaign money from political action committees and lobbyists.
Taveras, who underscored again his up-from-poverty background, said it is easy to criticize candidates for taking interest-group campaign cash, ``when you can write million dollar checks’’ to finance a campaign.
The Providence mayor said Pell’s attitude reminded him of a comment Republican Mitt Romney made during the 2012 presidential campaign when he suggested that young people who want to start businesses borrow the money from their parents.
Raimondo, the state treasurer, who has evolved into a smooth television debater, once again touted the 2011 state pension overhaul that she championed at the General Assembly, saying she took on the ``special interests,’’ i.e. public employee labor unions, to bring solvency to the retirement system.
Taveras and Pell both disputed Raimondo’s pension program, with Pell reminding voters that the matter is currently tied up in a contentious lawsuit in state courts that could take years to decide. Taveras said that he negotiated changes in the city’s pension that helped save Providence from bankruptcy, an avenue for reminding union members that he prefers negotiation to confrontation
There are few differences on policy. All three repeated their messages about getting Rhode Island’s economic recovery from the recession moving faster. Among the ideas all three supported: making state investments in school, bridge and road repair, increasing educational opportunity and job-training and doing a better job attracting tourists to the Ocean State. Taveras, Raimondo and Pell all voiced support for issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. They all oppose using the e-verify federal data base for vetting state job seekers and vendors.
Pell did say that he is against a proposal for putting table games at the Newport Grand slot parlor in Newport, while Raimondo and Taveras both said that if they lived in the City By the Sea they would support that plan.
Raimondo did get in some digs at Taveras for raising property taxes in Providence. His response: he inherited a $110 million deficit and bailed out the capital city with a balanced approach that included tax hikes, personnel cuts and pension reductions. A major Taveras point is that he has the toughest job of the field, with decisions daily that are going to frost a slice of city and state voters.
The latest ProJo and WPRI public opinion survey by veteran pollster Joseph Fleming show Raimondo with a slight lead, Taveras second and Pell a very close third. Last night likely did very little to change the dynamic. Right now, Pell is running well enough to spoil a Taveras shot at the nomination. Taveras repeated his charge that Pell has had eight jobs in nine years to remind voters that the 32-year old with the famous surname has never been elected to anything. Pell’s retort, in a gibe aimed at the mayor: neither Taveras nor Raimondo has ever served in the U.S. military, while Pell is a Coast Guard officer.
If Pell continues to cut into the liberal-labor base of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, which usually has sway in primaries, at the expense of Taveras, Raimondo is the beneficiary. She seemed keenly aware of that tonight.