5 takeaways from Tuesday night’s Republican RI gov. debate

Ken Block Allan Fung June debateThe two Republican candidates for governor – Allan Fung and Ken Block – met Tuesday night for their first TV debate of the primary campaign. For a full recap of what they said, check out Dan McGowan’s full story on WPRI.com. The entire video of the whole 60-minute debate is posted on WPRI.com here.

Here are five quick takeaways from this second primary debate of the season. (And here are five takeaways from the Democrats’ debate if you missed them.)

1. This primary is already very heated. The Democratic candidates were disappointingly polite when they debated last week; not so the Republicans. Right from Tim White’s first question – which, granted, was about the “Blockheads” ad – Allan Fung attacked Ken Block relentlessly for supporting Barack Obama and failing to oppose Obamacare early and often. Block responded by saying Fung was once a registered Democrat who donated to Democratic politicians, and by questioning the mayor’s stewardship of Cranston. WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming thought Fung came out on top in the first half – no small achievement since he, unlike Block, had never done a prime-time TV debate before – but that Block got the better of the mayor in the second half; he literally stunned Fung into a brief silence when discussing the Cranston police scandal. Block on the other hand never really seemed rattled, though the flip side of that is he seemed uncharacteristically low-energy at times. This hasn’t hit Cicilline-Gemma levels of negativity yet, though: each man did a classy job when asked to compliment his opponent.

2. The case for Fung: party loyalty and experience. Allan Fung’s pitch to GOP primary voters was clear Tuesday night: he’s the real Republican in the race, and the one who can accomplish their goals. As noted above, Fung’s biggest criticism of Ken Block isn’t about a specific policy but rather about Block’s two votes for Obama and his change of heart on Obamacare – Fung argues those should be disqualifying in the Republican Party of 2014. Apart from that, Fung is highlighting his three terms as Cranston mayor, saying he’s achieved real results there that show how he’d govern the state in a fiscally responsible way. That’s also why the various controversies roiling the Cranston Police Department are a problem for Fung: they raise doubts about his skills as an executive, which are at the heart of his campaign. Notably, Fung also made clear he will protect specific groups of businesses when he feels it’s necessary, with tonight’s examples being Dale Venturini’s hospitality members (on unemployment changes) and Cranston restaurants (on food trucks).

3. The case for Block: an outsider and a wonk. Ken Block’s fight to scrap the master lever illustrates his own case to primary voters. Block took on an arcane, long-festering issue that infuriated Republicans (and good-government groups), then used the bully pulpit to grind down opposition in the General Assembly. In that sense, he is the rare consummate outsider. Block also played up his credentials as a wonk and a manager, pledging to root out tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid misspending and to restructure unemployment-insurance taxes; on the latter, Block hit Fung for defending seasonal employers’ underpayments, saying he’s the one looking out for the majority of businesses. Block is well aware that his votes for Obama are a big net negative with GOP primary voters, so he called Fung’s own partisan credentials into question. He must hope Republican primary voters dislike Smith Hill Democrats even more than the president.

4. Neither of these guys is “Mr. Republican.” Ken Block voted for Obama twice and initially favored Obamacare. Allan Fung was a registered Democrat who donated to Gordon Fox. An undecided Republican primary voter who’s a true believer in the modern-day GOP platform will likely have doubts about both of them; nobody is going to mistake these two for Ronald Reagan. (Then again, Reagan was once a Democrat who cast votes for FDR.) For all their sparring, Block and Fung sounded similar and moderate on a number of hot-button issues: they’re both pro-choice but promised not to act on it; they’ve both flip-flopped on gun control; and they’re both comfortable with letting illegal immigrants get in-state tuition. Joe Fleming, though, says all that could actually help the eventual primary victor win in the fall. “They’re both going to the right, but not to the extreme right,” he said. “If you go too far to the right, you’re never going to win come November in Rhode Island.”

5. Good luck making the math work. It’s no secret that Rhode Island is in for some brutal budget battles in the coming years: ever-rising spending on health care and other programs plus new casinos in Massachusetts are set to send deficits soaring from more than $100 million next year to more than $400 million in 2018-19. Those are the cold, hard numbers facing the next governor. Yet Fung and Block, like the Democrats last week, offered little in the way of specifics when asked how they plan to not only close the deficit but also pay for their tens of millions of dollars in new tax cuts. Block focused on rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in Medicaid; there’s surely some money to be saved there, perhaps quite a bit, but will it really be enough to plug those budget shortfalls? Fung, for his part, highlighted personnel cuts and not paying the 38 Studios bonds. Campaign-trail vagueness is a time-honored tradition, but it could set voters up for a rude awakening come 2015.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

20 thoughts on “5 takeaways from Tuesday night’s Republican RI gov. debate

  1. Is it just me or does anyone find the hypocrisy in Fung attacking Block for his Obama vote but Fung was a registered Dem?????????????

  2. Fung was clearly taken back when called out on the police scandal in Cranston. This was a very telling point in the debate. He can’t even handle managing his own city, how can he ever manage the state?

  3. Fung’s lack of support for Robataille in the last race may be the deciding factor to explain his loss to Block this time around.

  4. Fung is clearly a polished Politian as Block is not. Block has this election if he drives home Fung’s support of Gordon Fox, police scandal and his “former” party affiliation. Time for a new comer with fresh ideas.

  5. My take on the debate I attended last night. Besides quietly listening to the supporters of both candidates? Each has positives and negatives in the past and the same for their future solutions proposed. It will be who can move the Republicans and unaffiliated voters to their side by September 9th. BTW, I can make a “devil’s advocate” argument with any of the comments posted so far. Hmmmm. Not moved to either, yet. Yes, I will commit once I’m convinced….BEFORE well in advance of September 9th. There was one question the candidates were asked, and neither delivered the answer I was there to hear, and answering it could have done wonders with the bully pulpit they both had last night.

  6. These guys really dislike each other and came off as immature in their attacks. They may have done more to make sure republican voters stay home than anything else. They’re both Republican light which is probably a good thing in Rhode Island. The only damage I saw delivered last night was from Tim White when he called out Fung on the Cranston ticketing scandal and how he handled it.

    BTW, There is a new poster using “George” as well as me.

  7. I have not watched the debate yet. I am a VERY ACTIVE Republican and Hopkinton Town Council Member. I am a Fung supporter without apology. I have NEVER been a Democrat, and been a Republican since 1972. The deal is this: A lot of Democrats become Republicans. This is heavily a Democrat state. So that is bound to happen. I do not think Allan was EVER an ACTIVE Democrat? Remember Ken Block formed the Moderate Party which still legally exists, and threw his own creation “under the bus”. If Mr. Block is nominated likely the first time in history, both the Republican and Democrat candidate for Governor voted for the Democrat President twice!
    Government and business is different. In a company you are your own boss, or have partners and they call the shots. In bigger companies you have stockholders, who have a say. But when you are a Mayor or Governor you have to deal with your legislative body(Council or State Legislature),. Allan Fung has been a great Mayor. In fact the last mayoral election Allan was Unopposed. Allan Fung has proven record in BOTH Government and Business. He understands the problems of our municipalities. Allan Fung was a Romney Delegate in Florida, the same year Ken Block was voting for Barack Obama. Allan has had to work with Democrats in Cranston. As far as the police scandal, you have union issues and the like, and these situations are usually not resolved easily.

    • Try watching the debate before supporting Mayor Fung “without apology”. Neither of these guys came off well. Mayor Fung stumbled badly over the Cranston ticketing scandal. The personal attacks were sophomoric. I’m not sure but I think Fung changed parties when he didn’t get the Democratic nomination for Mayor (Mr. Nesi can you confirm whether on not this is true?). Hardly ideological if true. As far as I’ve seen Mayor Fung has done a great job in Cranston, but these guys need to put away the personal attacks and focus on issues. Right now both candidates are electable. If the winner has to crawl into the general election Raimondo will smoke them. Against Taveras and Pell they might win. Let’s just hope Pell doesn’t drop out.

      • Focus on issues ? We have had unemployment at 9% for 6 yrs and the sheep ( Rhode Islanders ) are being led to think 38 Studios is the only issue. Keep following 38 and you might get 38 more weeks of unemployment.

        What a brain dead state.

  8. Interesting read on GoLocalProv re Fung while a Cranston city councilman working as a lobbyist for MetLife in getting a bill changed that had been designed to inform home owners whether their insurance specifically covered flood damage.


    • ProJo should take a page from GoLocal and remove the blog postings. 25 to 30 daily, twisted, miserable minds that repeat themselves every post.

  9. Bringing in the Sheep,

    Yes, there are more important issues; unemployment (MA is at 6%), the economy, infrastructure. Lets start with those three. But, 38 Studios does matter to many Rhode Islanders at a visceral level. People can’t understand how we don’t pay a moral obligation to our retiree’s but do feel a moral obligation to pay off bonds we neither voted for or legally owe.

    • George the more you hear 38 the more unemployment will be 9% or higher. 38 will be put of sight after November. Then the brain dead can call talk radio for four more years and complain about jobs.

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