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Updated: Wednesday, 29 Aug 2012, 1:28 PM EDT
Published : Tuesday, 28 Aug 2012, 8:41 PM EDT
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) -- Before a sold-out and often spirited crowd, two of the Democratic candidates for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District squared off at Rhode Island College Tuesday night for an Eyewitness News, Providence Journal Campaign 2012 debate.
Coming less than a week after Anthony Gemma waged allegations of voter fraud against Congressman David Cicilline, and a day after an exclusive Eyewitness News poll showed Cicilline holds a 12-point lead over Gemma, the match-up was expected to be a contentious one; and it did not disappoint.
The crowd became so loud and raucous at times that the candidates could not hear each other or the questions being asked. In fact, moderator Tim White reminded the audience several times throughout the televised debate to keep the volume down and show civility.
From the beginning of the debate, Gemma went right after Cicilline's character, calling the Congressman a liar and a fraud.
"If history shows us anything, we can't believe a word that comes out of David Cicilline's mouth," Gemma said.
Gemma repeated allegations, which he claims are under investigation by the FBI and the Rhode Island State Police, that Cicilline and his campaign have engaged in voter fraud.
Allegations that Cicilline denied once again.
"This is absolutely absurd. This is the most reckless, baseless allegation," Cicilline said. "There is not one shred of evidence. He knows it's not true. He did it to win a campaign. Shame on him!"
While the beginning of the debate focused on the fraud allegations, White and panel members, WPRI.com Reporter Ted Nesi and Providence Journal Reporter Ed Achorn, asked a bevy of other questions ranging from education to a nuclear Iran.
When asked by Ted Nesi if the candidates would support raising the Medicare eligibility age, both Cicilline and Gemma said no.
Cicilline said the best way to save Medicare is to reduce costs; not only by cutting fraud, waste and abuse, but also looking to technology and innovation.
Gemma maintained the country has a social contract with its seniors, and Medicare should not be touched at all.
He said the best way to save Medicare is to grow the economy and create jobs.
Cicilline, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Iran can't be permitted to have nuclear weapons.
He said he supports increased sanctions on Iran, which he said are having an effect. However, he also stressed that Israel is the country's best ally, and the United States would stand them.
"Israel's a country that really shares our values and has the right to defend themselves from a nuclear Iran," Cicilline said, adding that the country should do whatever it can to avoid escalation.
Gemma said he also supports continued sanctions, adding "I do support the president, who is the commander in chief."
Gemma, a Catholic, was asked about a change in his stance on abortion.
Previously a pro-life Democrat, Gemma now says he's pro-choice and supports strengthening Roe vs. Wade.
"I have reevaluated my position," Gemma said, saying that the Republican party has gotten more radical in its views on women's rights.
Cicilline, who's always been pro-choice, said he'd continue to fight for women if reelected.
"Women are under attack by this Congress. I have a long and established record of fighting for women," Cicilline said.
Acknowledging both candidates support increasing revenue, Tim White asked Gemma and Cicilline what two meaningful cuts they would make to bring down the national deficit.
Cicilline said he voted for $900 billion in cuts in spending; but maintained closing tax loopholes and ending subsidies for special interests.
After White pointed out those two things would increase revenue and are not cuts, Cicilline said it was a fine balance.
"It's essential to cut spending and generate revenues. We have to strike the big balance," Cicilline said.
Gemma said growing the economy is the key.
"During this debate alone, the national debt will grow by $45 million. It must be brought under control."
He said Republicans and Democrats both agree cuts in defense spending can be made, and that the two sides must start with consensus areas.
Cicilline then added that American troops in Afghanistan must be brought home.
"We're building roads and schools over there, when we're cutting the same things back here," he said.
Providence Journal reporter Ed Achorn asked the candidates if they would support the entire Democratic ticket in November, even if they were to lose in the primary.
Gemma said he would vote for every Democrat, except for David Cicilline.
"With all due respect, based on all of the information I know, Mr. Cicilline is not fit to serve in the U.S. Congress and he's not fit for me to support him," Gemma said. "It's not about Republican
or Democrat. It's about the truth. You cannot elect someone who is not honest with the voting public."
Cicilline, on the other hand, said he would vote the ticket.
"I know the Republican agenda. It's wrong for Rhode Island and wrong for America and I would support every Democrat on the ticket."
Voter ID Law:
While both candidates said they supported Rhode Island's new voter identification law, Cicilline appeared to be lukewarm on the idea, saying he worries about anything that could impede someone from voting.
However, he did say he supported Rhode Island's law because it allows for provisional ballots.
Gemma was more forceful in his support for voter ID, quipping "Mr. Cicilline hears dead people, and they're voting," alluding to the above mentioned voter fraud allegations.
Ed Achorn asked both candidates about their opinions on school vouchers, and both said they do not support it.
"I'm a product of public education. We need to get it right. We need to invest in it," Cicilline said. "But private scholarships to private schools is not the way to go."
Achorn followed up, asking if the poor children should have to wait until things turn around.
Cicilline replied and said no, and that's why he supports before and after school programs and early education programs, such as Head Start.
Gemma, who said he is also against a voucher program, used the question to target Cicilline's job as Providence mayor.
He said Cicilline's assertion that Providence had a world-class school district was the "number one lie" of Cicilline's tenure and accused him of mayoral malpractice against the city's students.
As the televised portion of the debate wrapped up, moderator Tim White asked the candidates to say something nice about each other.
"I like your tie," Gemma said to Cicilline,
The Congressman responded, "I applaud you for the way you have honored your mother," referring to the creation of the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Foundation.
The winner of the Sept. 11 primary faces Republican Brendan Doherty, former head of the state police, in the Nov. 6 election.
Copyright WPRI 12
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