Candidates for RI governor spar in fiery first TV debate

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In a fiery first debate Thursday evening, three candidates for Rhode Island governor sparred over the economy and school safety while trading barbs about the loss of the Pawtucket Red Sox and the political culture on Smith Hill.

Democratic incumbent Gina Raimondo, Republican Allan Fung and independent Joe Trillo also took turns painting one another as corrupt as they defended their own records as elected officials.

The hour-long first televised gubernatorial debate of 2018 was held at Global Heritage Hall at Roger Williams University and moderated by Target 12 reporter Tim White and Eyewitness News reporter Ted Nesi.

WATCH IN FULL: WPRI 12 Gubernatorial Debate »

Raimondo billed herself as the candidate who as governor helped take Rhode Island from one of the highest unemployment rates in the country to the lowest rate in 20 years by creating thousands of jobs and recruiting businesses to the state through a revamped incentive program. She defended her handling of the controversial Unified Health Infrastructure Project, or UHIP, arguing it has turned a corner following a “bungled IT rollout.”

Fung, who has served as mayor of Cranston since 2009, painted himself as the candidate with a plan to make schools safer by incentivizing communities to hire school resource officers, while also promising to root out corruption by hiring an inspector general and promising to force work requirements for able-bodied welfare recipients. He said he took full responsibility for a scathing State Police report into his police department following a ticketing scandal, but noted that Cranston voters overwhelmingly re-elected him in 2016.

Trillo, a former Republican state representative who left the party earlier this year, referred to his opponents as “Flip-Flop Fung and Giveaway Gina” while labeling them political insiders. He said he has the experience to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars without firing state employees.

The debate comes a week after a WPRI 12/Roger Williams University poll showed Raimondo in the lead at 43%, with Fung running second at 36%. Trillo had 7%. Another 9% of voters were undecided. Other candidates for governor in include Moderate Party nominee Bill Gilbert, independent Compassion Party candidate Anne Armstrong and independent Luis Daniel Muñoz.

On the economy, Fung said he would pay for his proposal to reduce the sales tax to 5% by 2022 by making cuts to R.I. Commerce Corporation, the agency that Raimondo credits for turning around the state’s economy. Raimondo said one of the programs, a tax credit known as Rebuild RI, helped create 10,000 jobs and threatened that people will lose jobs if either of her opponents are elected. Trillo said his proposal for sweeping tax cuts would cost the state between $300 million and $400 million, money he said he would find by going through every department’s budget.

During a rapid-fire segment, Trillo said he is pro-life, while Raimondo said she is pro-choice and Fung said he supports a woman’s health choices. Both Fung and Trillo said they oppose truck tolls on the highway, while Raimondo said she supports keeping them in place. All three said they oppose an existing version of a bill that would allow teachers to continue working under union contracts after they expire, although they each said they were open to considering revised versions of the legislation. Each candidate also said they are open to legalizing marijuana, although they each raised concerns about the idea. Fung and Trillo said they oppose a proposed power plant in Burrillville, while Raimondo declined to take a position.

On school safety, Raimondo said “the answer is fewer guns in schools” while defending her proposal to ban guns in school for everyone except police officers. She also said she opposes metal detectors in schools. Fung said he has a plan to have the state and local districts split the cost of placing resource officers in every school in the state. Trillo said he wants to provide special carry permits for school employees who do want to carry a gun in school.

On the loss of the PawSox to Worcester, Fung and Trillo accused Raimondo of showing a lack of leadership in failing to get a deal done. Both candidates said they would have brought all parties to the table to save the team. Raimondo pinned the blame on the House of Representatives, which she claims sat on legislation for months while letting the team slip away.

The election is Nov. 6.

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

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