Mattiello and Frias spar in first and only debate

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With just four days left before Election Day, Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Republican challenger Steve Frias made their final pitch to voters during their first and only debate Friday morning.

The two attorneys sparred for almost 30 minutes during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers moderated by Tim White and Ted Nesi. They are battling to win over 10,693 registered voters who live in Western Cranston’s District 15, but the race has statewide implications because it will decide whether Mattiello remains speaker of the House.

Mattiello, who was elected to the seat in 2006 and became speaker in 2014, painted himself as the “jobs and economy” speaker, noting that he had led the charge on reducing taxes, improving government and crafting a “robust ethics agenda” that includes allowing an upcoming ballot question that would give the state Ethics Commission more oversight over the General Assembly.

Frias, the Republican national committeeman for Rhode Island, said he would be a change agent at the State House, focusing on eliminating truck tolls, giving the governor line-item veto power over the state budget and making Rhode Island “a better place for my children.”

When it comes to policy issues, Mattiello doubled down on his campaign pledge to eliminate Rhode Island’s car tax, promising to find the roughly $214 million needed to reimburse cities and towns for the revenue and get rid of the tax within five years.

Frias attacked Mattiello for being vague on specifics, noting that he paid little attention to a House Republican proposal earlier this year to zero out the car tax. He accused Mattiello of being part of the Democratic leadership team that agreed to former Gov. Don Carcieri’s 2010 proposal to bring back the widely despised tax. Mattiello said that decision came during the recession.

On guns, the two both said they are supportive of the Second Amendment, although Mattiello has won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and has a higher grade from the group. Frias said he supports legislation to block individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes from owning a gun, even if the charge is a misdemeanor.

The two candidate took turns accusing one another of being unethical, with Frias criticizing the speaker after a former Republican candidate for the District 15 seat told friends in an online chat that she endorsed Mattiello after being “promised” that anti-vaccine legislation would get another look from the General Assembly.

Mattiello said neither he nor any member of his campaign has promised legislation in exchange for an endorsement.

“Every time someone endorses me of a conservative nature or a Republican, they get attacked,” Mattiello said.

Mattiello accused Frias of having a “political job” at the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and then going to work for a private law firm that represents National Grid, which is regulated by the PUC. Frias has promised to recuse himself on any legislation involving National Grid if he is elected.

The tensest moment of the debate came when Mattiello suggested that Frias’s wife is conflicted because she now has a job at the PUC. Frias quickly punched back, noting that he has never attacked Mattiello over his son’s job at a construction company with state contracts.

Immediately after the debate, Mattiello backed off Frias’s wife, acknowledging the family should not be included in a political race.

During a rapid-fire segment, Matiello declined to give Gov. Gina Raimondo a letter grade while Frias said she deserves a D-. Mattiello said he doesn’t support legalizing marijuana, but he wants to monitor Massachusetts before making a final decision. Frias opposes legal pot.

Frias said he supports a line-item veto, while Mattiello said he’s currently studying the issue. Both candidates are pro-life and oppose driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Mattiello is supporting Hillary Clinton for president and Frias is backing Donald Trump.

Mattiello has outspent Frias six-to-one since July 1, shelling out $186,000 from his campaign fund since race began. (Not all of that money has gone toward his own race.) Frias has spent $28,000 since entered the race.

Election Day is Tuesday.

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