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

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