EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The first televised debate between the three Democrats vying for Rhode Island lieutenant governor was sometimes tense, as the candidates sparred over abortion rights, energy prices and $60 million in taxpayer money for a new minor-league soccer stadium in Pawtucket.

The three women running for the Democratic nomination are incumbent Sabina Matos, state Sen. Cynthia Mendes and state Rep. Deborah Ruggiero. In a 30-minute back-and-forth, the three took turns defending their political records while also criticizing one another.

The full debate is posted on WPRI.com and will air on Newsmakers this Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 and at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence.

Mendes, a progressive who’s running as part of a team with gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown, emerged as the most critical of the three. She slammed her opponents, arguing they didn’t fight hard enough to enshrine legislation into law that would have guaranteed low-income women could use their Medicaid health insurance to pay for abortions.

“We have a major problem with people passing the buck,” Mendes said, criticizing Ruggiero for not using her position on the powerful House Finance Committee to advance the legislation for a final vote. Mendes also took aim at Matos for failing to convince Gov. Dan McKee, who appointed her, that he should include the abortion funding in his proposed state budget.

“It’s unbelievable that we’re in this time where women are buckling to the wishes of the men in charge rather than fighting for our rights,” Mendes said. “What we do with the power we have is tremendously important.”

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Matos fired back, saying she unsuccessfully urged McKee to include the abortion provision in his budget while also acknowledging she expected the General Assembly would step in to pass the legislation, known as the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act. The lieutenant governor — who previously served as Providence City Council president — also argued she’s fought for women’s rights consistently throughout her life in political office.

“I have been working my entire career to support women in leadership and women’s rights,” Matos said. “What we do is important in every aspect of our lives, not just when we decide to run for higher office.”  

The comment was a thinly veiled dig at Mendes, an East Providence lawmaker, who posted anti-abortion messages on her social media accounts in the years before she began her political career. (Mendes said she’s become educated on the issue since then, attributing her earlier beliefs to a religious upbringing.)

Ruggiero, who has served 14 years as a legislator from Jamestown, largely deflected the criticism. She pointed instead to the fact that she co-sponsored the 2019 law that codified abortion rights granted under Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that was overturned last month.

“I’m ready to go back at any time to get this reproductive right for women,” Ruggiero said about the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, adding that she pushed behind the scenes to get it out of House Finance onto the floor for a vote.

“What’s going on with the U.S. Supreme Court is pretty frightening,” she said. “Hopefully, it will happen. If we don’t get back this year, then next year.”  

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Beyond abortion, the candidates also disagreed on the issue of providing taxpayer money to help build a $124 million soccer stadium in Pawtucket. Earlier this week, McKee stepped in as the tie-breaking vote to approve $60 million in taxpayer support for the project, which has ballooned in cost.

Again, Mendes went on the attack, criticizing Matos and the McKee administration for steering public money toward private developers who she argued should be able to succeed without taxpayer “giveaways.”

“We’re really tired of watching corporations take big tax giveaways while working-class people are often left holding the bag,” she said, alluding to the failed video game company 38 Studios that left taxpayers on the hook to pay back bondholders tens of millions of dollars after it went bankrupt in 2012.

“What would be helpful is if we start taxing the rich,” she added. “If we start making sure they pay their fair share instead of taxing the middle class and then giving their money to luxury developers at every turn.”

Matos, a staunch advocate of the Pawtucket project, said the development is sorely needed in the state’s fourth-largest city. She noted that Pawtucket has already lost the PawSox, a longtime Triple-A baseball team that relocated to Worcester, Mass., after a a different group of state leaders refused to provide $44 million in taxpayer money to build a new baseball stadium.

“We lost that opportunity – Pawtucket lost that opportunity,” Matos said. “The stadium means that this is an economic development that’s going to increase the power of the downtown area.”

Ruggiero offered a moderate response, saying she’s generally supportive of the soccer stadium while declining to say whether she would have voted in favor of the project as McKee did. She said she’s also interested in ensuring the rest of the larger development – dubbed Tidewater Landing – moves forward.

To make the recently approved financing plan work for the stadium, McKee and the R.I. Commerce Corp. shifted $27 million from a future phase of the project that would have helped fund hundreds of new housing units to be constructed on the opposite side of the Seekonk River. It remains unclear when that housing development will happen and whether the developer will seek more taxpayer support if so.

“Pawtucket truly needs to be an economic and vibrant destination and soccer is pretty popular,” Ruggiero said, adding that she likes some of the taxpayer protections that were put into the deal with the developer, Fortuitous Partners, including a stipulation that the team remains in Pawtucket for multiple decades.

“This is the very first step on what’s going to be a long process,” she added.    

The three candidates did see eye to eye on some issues, including a ban on AR-15-style rifles, along with a state constitutional amendment to guarantee public education for all Rhode Islanders.

When asked to give a letter grade for McKee’s job performance as governor, Matos and Ruggiero declined to answer. Mendes responded: “Not passing.”

Matos, who was City Council president when the state took over the struggling Providence Public School system in 2019, said she believes the R.I. Department of Education should retain control for at least two more years, especially because the city will have a new mayor in January with Mayor Jorge Elorza exiting due to term limits.

Ruggiero raised similar points, but said she hopes the city can regain control of the public schools before two years. Mendes said the sate relinquishing control “would have been lovely yesterday,” adding she wants to see it happen “as soon as possible.”

The three candidates all raised concerns about the soaring cost of living, notably a recent announcement that Rhode Island electricity bills are expected to rise 50% beginning in October. Matos said her office would do everything within its power to try and soften the blow to ratepayers.

Mendes said the R.I. Public Utilities Commission should step in to make sure Rhode Islanders don’t have to pay the increase, and Ruggiero said she will “implore” R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha to use his job as one of the state’s leading consumer advocates to intervene.

“It’s something small businesses, families and seniors can’t afford,” Ruggiero said.

In a less tense portion of the debate, which was moderated by 12 News reporters Tim White and Ted Nesi, the candidates were asked to identify their favorite Rhode Island beaches.

Mendes: “First Beach.”

Matos: “Roger Wheeler”

Ruggiero: “Mackerel Cove.”  

The three Democrats will face off in the Sept. 13 primary election. A 12 News/Roger Williams University poll released in May showed Matos leading her two challengers, but with many voters undecided.

On the Republican side, Aaron Guckian, a former aide to Gov. Donald Carcieri, is running against Paul Pence, a quality management and food safety coordinator. Ross McCurdy is running as an independent.

Eligible Rhode Islanders have until Aug. 14 to register to vote in the primary election. The last day to apply for mail ballots is Aug. 23. Early in-person voting begins Aug. 24.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White and Ted Nesi contributed to this report.