Democratic gov candidates battle in first TV debate

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The three leading Democratic candidates for Rhode Island governor sparred Tuesday evening over jobs, the economy, taxes and pensions in the first live televised debate of what is expected to be a contentious race leading up to the Sept. 9 primary.

The hour-long debate between state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and newcomer Clay Pell was held at the Providence Performing Arts Center and hosted by WPRI 12 and the Providence Journal.

Raimondo, the 43-year-old first-term treasurer, said she had the “courage” to bring people together pass the state’s 2011 pension overhaul and would do the same as governor. Taveras, also 43, painted himself as a defender of “working families” and touted his record for reducing the city’s $110-million structural deficit when he took office in 2011.

Pell, the 32-year-old grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell and the husband of Olympic figure-skating legend Michelle Kwan, was aggressive in his first television debate, arguing that he is the only candidate who will immediately raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 when he takes office.

“If we want to change our destination, we need to change our course,” Pell said while promoting his “real and practical” jobs plan.

The governor’s office is open because Democratic incumbent Lincoln Chafee is not seeking re-election after one term in office. On the Republican side, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and businessman Ken Block will square off in the primary. The two are scheduled to take part in their first live televised debate next week, also at PPAC.

The three Democrats rarely disagreed on many of the key issues, although Pell said he does not support the House of Representatives’ move to increase the estate tax threshold from $922,000 to $1.55 million. Raimondo and Taveras said they support the changes proposed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

Pell and Raimondo each pledged to appoint an independent commission to investigate the state’s unsuccessful 38 Studios loan, while Taveras said he believes the state’s lawsuit against the key architects of the transaction as well as a State Police investigation will provide the public with answers about the failed deal.

“Had I been governor, I assure you this would not have happened,” Raimondo said, noting that she was one of the most vocal opponents of the 38 Studios deal when she was running for treasurer in 2010.

The candidates struggled to find significant policy difference between one another, but Taveras argued that his experience “dealing with everything from potholes to pensions” as mayor makes him the most qualified to serve as governor. He called his decision to twice raise property taxes during his first term as mayor a “last resort,” and pledged to consider all other options before increasing taxes on the state level.

“We need to do more with less,” Taveras said.

On pensions, Taveras and Pell said they would both seek to settle the lawsuit brought by the state’s major public employee unions over the 2011 pension law, while Raimondo said she believes the state will be victorious in court. If the state is unsuccessful, it would be “fiscal calamity,” Raimondo warned.

The three Harvard-educated lawyers were split on legislation that would scale back evaluations for teachers rated effective or highly effective, with Pell saying he supports the bill and Taveras and Raimondo saying they are opposed. A report issued last year by the Rhode Island Department of Education showed 95% of teachers earned high ratings, but 60% of school administrators admitted to giving inflated ratings. Taveras said he believes school districts should have more of a say over evaluations, while Raimondo said evaluations shouldn’t be a “gotcha” for teachers.

Raimondo, Pell and Taveras all described themselves as pro-choice and supporters of a ban on the so-called master lever, while they each said they oppose legalizing marijuana as well as having a constitutional convention. Raimondo said she opposes Gov. Chafee’s decision to appoint his director of administration Richard Licht to the Superior Court bench while the others said Licht should have been forced to wait a year..

Raimondo and Pell each gave Chafee a “C” grade on jobs and the economy, while Taveras only said that Chafee was a “good man” who “struggled with respect to getting our state moving again.” Pell earned chuckles from the large PPAC crowd when said Chafee deserved an “A+” for joining the Democratic Party.

When asked to address specific criticism that has been lobbed at each other, Pell defended his experience by touting his time working for the U.S. Department of Education where he oversaw a “multi-million dollar budget.” He said he “absolutely” plans to remain in the race despite his low poll ratings up to this point. Asked about his defense of Congressman David Cicilline after the former mayor left Providence with massive financial problems, Taveras said “it’s important to have Democrats in the U.S. Congress.” Raimondo called criticism that she accepts too much campaign money from Wall Street backers a “deliberate mischaracterization.”

Taveras and Raimondo have been neck and neck in early polling, with Pell a distant third. A WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll released last week showed Taveras in the lead at 33%, with Raimondo close behind at 29%, and Pell at 13%. A fourth candidate, Todd Giroux, was at 1.6%. The survey showed 22% haven’t decided whom they’ll support in the race.

Raimondo holds a significant fundraising advantage over Taveras and Pell, with $3,348,800 in her campaign war chest as of March 31, according to a review of filings with Rhode Island Board of Elections. Taveras reported $1,370,934 in his campaign account, while Pell had $2,012,803 after loaning himself $2 million since entering the race.

Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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