Democratic rivals target absent Raimondo in first TV debate

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo’s two Democratic challengers, Matt Brown and Spencer Dickinson, faced off for the first time Tuesday evening as they made their cases to primary voters about who is the better alternative to the incumbent.

Brown, a former secretary of state, and Dickinson, a former state representative, met for a half-hour in the live televised debate hosted by Eyewitness News. Raimondo, who is seeking a second term, has so far declined all invitations to debate her two opponents in the Sept. 12 statewide primary.

“I think her campaign made a tactical decision,” said Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming. “They probably looked at polling data and felt that she was OK for the primary. They probably thought she would lose more by debating rather than gain ground – she could say something that would hurt her in the general election.”

A group of roughly a dozen Brown supporters protested Raimondo’s absence outside the debate.

While Raimondo was physically absent from the debate, her presence loomed large as both candidates repeatedly criticized her policies and approach. Brown described her as beholden to corporations and wealthy donors, while Dickinson called her “a bad manager” and recalled fighting her 2011 pension overhaul.

Yet Dickinson did not spare Brown, either. “From my perspective, Gina Raimondo and Matt Brown are the same candidate,” Dickinson said. “We hear certain things from him, but in terms of actual outcome, I think there’s a difference – I bring the fact that I’m not new. I bring the fact that Gina and I have been, actually, on the opposite sides.”

Brown declined to take the bait, saying he is not focused on the possibility Dickinson would siphon off anti-Raimondo votes he needs to win.

“To me, what this campaign is about is that we’ve got a system that is broken for people across this state,” Brown said, adding: “Our government is working for corporations, Wall Street and the wealthiest one percent.”

The two candidates were often in general agreement on policy issues. Both want to restore some benefits that were cut under the 2011 pension law, and both criticized Raimondo’s decision to invest more than $1 billion of the retirement fund in high-fee hedge funds that underperformed. Dickinson also said he wants to recoup some of money by suing the hedge funds and Raimondo.

On health care, Brown reiterated that he wants Rhode Island to move to a single-payer health care system. Pressed on the experience of Vermont – which spent four years trying to create one before abandoning the effort due to cost – he acknowledged it could be difficult, but said he would form a commission to study the right way to proceed.

“The system we have now is not working, it’s not realistic, and it needs to be changed,” Brown said. He declined to say whether he would need to institute the tax rates envisioned in Vermont – an 11.5% tax on payrolls for businesses, and an income tax of up to 9.5% on households – but emphasized he expects his plan to cut administrative costs.

Dickinson said that Brown’s “concepts are correct” on health care, and agreed that costs are too high. As for his own plan, he said he would “put the resources of the [Dickinson] administration behind whatever it takes,” but said the plan might come from lawmakers.

On education, Brown said that while “not every problem is caused by a shortage of money, that’s a big part of it.” He suggested the state has not raised enough revenue due to tax cuts over the last two decades, which has put pressure on local property taxes. Dickinson suggested an increased focus on younger children, and proposed “a unified laboratory school district” for Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket.

On jobs, Brown highlighted his plan to make a major investment in wind energy, while Dickinson suggested the state’s economy is held back by a “pay-to-play” culture that turns off businesses and developers. Both criticized Raimondo’s various tax-incentive programs that provide breaks to companies that add new jobs in the state.

During a rapid fire section, Brown said he would sign the Reproductive Health Care Act on abortion rights if passed, while Dickinson said he would do so “if it’s brought to me by the women legislators.” Brown supports legalizing recreational marijuana, while Dickinson is open to it. Both support continuing contracts for public-sector unions.

Brown said he will endorse the winner of the Democratic primary if he is not successful, but Dickinson said he will not. Neither candidate would take a position on whether Democrat Nicholas Mattiello should be given a new term as Rhode Island’s powerful House speaker if he wins re-election in his Cranston district.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

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