EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The two Democrats running for Rhode Island general treasurer clashed Friday over their records and how they would run the office that oversees the state’s $9.9 billion pension fund.
Former Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and former state Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor are both seeking the Democratic nomination. They are vying to replace outgoing Democrat Seth Magaziner — who is term limited and running for Congress — and they took turns criticizing one another while also trying to convince viewers they are best suited to hold statewide political office for the first time.
“The cuts that occurred to pensioners were significant,” Pryor said, referring to Diossa’s time as mayor of the state’s smallest city, which was recovering from bankruptcy and receivership for much of the time he served. The city eventually handed over its local pension plan to be controlled by the state.
“The ultimate solution was giving up the system and giving it away to the state,” Pryor said, arguing the move means Diossa isn’t qualified to manage the state’s much larger pension system. “As state treasurer, you don’t have an option like that.”
Diossa fired back, pointing out he was the only candidate in the debate with experience managing pensions – one of the most critical jobs of the state’s general treasurer. He also criticized Pryor’s experience as head of Commerce, a state agency responsible for helping businesses and using public subsidies to spur economic development.
“All he did was wine and dine with CEOs and cut deals,” Diossa said. “I had to manage a pension that really impacted people, such as firefighters and police officers.”
The full debate, moderated by 12 News reporters Tim White and Ted Nesi, is posted on WPRI.com and will air on Newsmakers this Sunday at 5:30 a.m. on WPRI 12 and 10 a.m. on Fox Providence.
In a 30-minute back and forth, the two candidates answered a series of questions related to the general treasurer’s office, and at times they both showed a lack of understanding about some of the specifics of the job.
For example, during a pop-quiz segment of the debate, the men were asked what share of the state’s pension fund is currently made up of U.S. equities. The answer is roughly 22%, but Pryor didn’t know and Diossa said 55%. (The pension fund currently has about 55% invested in public and private equity combined, but only about 22% of the fund is in U.S. equities.)
Pryor correctly said about 7% of the pension fund is in hedge funds, with Diossa acknowledging he didn’t know. Both men correctly answered that the fund’s targeted rate of return is currently set at 7%.
The general treasurer’s office has been relatively uncontroversial during Magaziner’s tenure, a stark contrast from his predecessor, Gina Raimondo, who championed a state pension reform that effectively put a freeze on annual cost of living adjustments for retirees.
The annual adjustments aren’t slated to return again for nearly another decade. Both candidates said they’d be interested in addressing that in some way – especially in a time when families are getting hit with dramatic rising cost of living due to rapid inflation.
“I want to explore options to provide a stipend as an adjustment to their income,” said Diossa, adding that he would otherwise maintain the currently established timeline for lifting the freeze. But the former mayor stopped short of providing any specifics about what the stipend would look like, and how and when he would give it out.
Pryor said he would look for opportunities to accelerate investment into the pension fund, which he argued could allow the state to arrive at the 80% benchmark required to lift the freeze earlier than expected.
“If there are opportunities where there are surpluses and, working with the governor and the General Assembly, we see fit to make increased contributions to the pension fund as a method of getting there faster, that’s another way, so I would look to increase benefits responsibly,” he said.
The two candidates did agree on some issues. When asked to grade Magaziner’s job performance as treasurer, both men gave him an “A.” (Magaziner has not endorsed a candidate in the race.)
For Raimondo’s tenure as treasurer, Diossa offered an “A” and Pryor – who came to Rhode Island eight years ago to serve under Raimondo when she was governor – offered the now-U.S. commerce secretary “high marks.”
Diossa said he supports forgiving student loan debt nationally; Pryor said he’d support it “if we have revenue for the purpose.” Among other responsibilities, Rhode Island’s general treasurer oversees the state’s CollegeBoundfund, a college-investment tool for parents, worth billions of dollars.
Both Pryor and Diossa also support the recent approval of $60 million to help the private developer Fortuitous Partners build a 10,000-seat minor league soccer stadium in Pawtucket, which has ballooned in cost since it was first unveiled in 2019.
Pryor, who led negotiations for the state as Commerce secretary, said he supported the recent decision to shift previously approved funding toward the stadium and away from a future housing development phase of the broader project dubbed Tidewater Landing. And he pushed back on criticism that the stadium isn’t projected to generate anywhere near the revenue required to pay back a $36 million bond taxpayers are floating for the stadium, saying Tidewater Landing will eventually pay for itself when future development happens.
There’s no public money currently allocated for future phases of the project, and Pryor acknowledged that may be necessary and he’d support it “if merited.” He also suggested that after the state bounces back from the current economic slowdown seen nationwide, the project might even “stand on its own two feet,” suggesting no public money would be needed. (Fortuitous and Pawtucket have already unsuccessfully asked for $30 million in additional state support for the project.)
Diossa, whose hometown of Central Falls is part of the Blackstone Valley economy, said he likewise supports the public financing for the stadium project, and he has “full faith in leadership” that the other parts of the development will happen in the future. But he repeatedly refused to answer whether he’d support providing more public money for Tidewater Landing.
“We haven’t gotten to that point,” he said.
In a more lighthearted section of the debate, the candidates were asked what restaurant they would recommend to a couple going out on a first date.
Diossa: Shark’s Peruvian Cuisine in Central Falls.
Pryor: Siena in Smithfield or Los Andes in Providence.
The two Democrats will face off in the Sept. 13 primary election.
On the Republican side, James Lathrop, a South Kingstown accountant who ran his own small business, is running unopposed.
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.