PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Democrats battling to be their party’s nominee for Rhode Island governor met Wednesday night for a combative debate, frequently attacking and counterattacking over their records in politics and business.

Incumbent Dan McKee faced challengers Nellie Gorbea, Helena Foulkes, Matt Brown and Luis Daniel Muñoz in a freewheeling one-hour event held at Johnson & Wales University by WJAR. It was the first of two TV debates scheduled in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, with the final one airing Tuesday at 8 p.m. live on WPRI 12.

McKee — who had a three-point lead in this month’s WPRI 12/Roger Williams University poll — was frequently targeted at the debate by his fellow Democrats. He faced the most criticism over the FBI investigation into the state contract his administration gave the ILO Group, a consulting firm with ties to one of his closest advisers.

Brown had the harshest words for McKee, suggesting there is “a very good chance” that the governor could be indicted while in office if he wins another term. (There has been no public indication McKee himself is in any personal legal jeopardy.)

“The governor tried to laugh off this discussion about the FBI investigation — I think it’s the main issue of the night,” said Brown, a former secretary of state. He compared McKee to Buddy Cianci, who remained in office after a federal corruption indictment before finally resigning in 2002 after his conviction.

McKee expressed outrage at Brown’s attacks, and repeated the defense of the ILO contract he has given in the past. He insisted his administration engaged in no criminal wrongdoing and that federal investigators will “come up empty.”

“There’s going to be no charges there, because I know what I did,” McKee said, telling Brown, “Next year I’ll make sure you get my address so you can send me an apology for that statement.” (As their exchanges grew more heated, McKee even teased Brown for visibly sweating on stage.)

McKee also found himself outnumbered over his recent vote to authorize $60 million in taxpayer subsidies for the Pawtucket soccer stadium development known as Tidewater Landing. The other candidates questioned the wisdom of spending the money, as well as whether Pawtucket can afford its eight-figure contribution.

“We have to move away from an economic-development policy that is the shiny object and that benefits the very few, to one where we are investing in local businesses, addressing the housing crisis, education and climate change,” said Gorbea, who is finishing her second term as secretary of state.

McKee accused the other Democrats of being ready to abandon Pawtucket on a project strongly supported by the city’s mayor, and alluded to the blow the city suffered when state leaders failed to clinch a deal to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island.

“I think they know how to manage their community,” McKee said of Pawtucket. “They do a very good job. Mayor [Don] Grebien does a very good job.”

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McKee wasn’t always on defense, however, repeatedly touting his record as governor in the year-and-a-half since he succeeded Gina Raimondo. He cited the state’s successful vaccination drive under his watch, its post-pandemic economy recovery, and the tax breaks he’s been able to dole out due to a state budget surplus.

“Every decision I made was in the best interest of the people who live in the state of Rhode Island, and we got results from that,” McKee said.

Nor was McKee the only candidate who found himself under fire. The WPRI 12/RWU poll showed McKee at 28%, with Gorbea at 25%, Foulkes at 14%, Brown at 8%, Muñoz at 1%, and 21% of voters undecided.

Foulkes, a former CVS executive, lashed Gorbea for proposing a set of business tax hikes that includes increasing the state’s corporate tax rate to 8%. She warned it would lead to higher tax bills for familiar Rhode Island businesses such as Gregg’s and Chelo’s.

“We need to be competitive in this state,” Foulkes said. “We have a state which is at a real disadvantage economically. … We are 49th in this country for GDP growth. We are way behind. The last thing I think we should do is raise taxes, especially coming off a year where we had a $900 million surplus.”

Gorbea suggested she would exempt the brand-name businesses cited by Foulkes from the tax increase, though her campaign has not spelled out how. She also sought to turn the tables, casting Foulkes as a cold-hearted executive who cavalierly ordered layoffs when she was leading the retail chain Hudson’s Bay.

“That is not the kind of leadership that in the public sector we want,” Gorbea said.

Foulkes defended her record in business — even wagging her finger at Gorbea at one point — and highlighted her role in the decision by CVS to stop selling tobacco products.

“I resent Nellie’s statement, that because I was a corporate CEO I don’t understand the power of what good business can do,” she said. Getting out of tobacco sales, she said, “was a very hard decision in 2014. We walked away from $2 billion a year in sales, because we put people over profits.”

When Brown wasn’t targeting the others, he doubled down on his progressive agenda, calling for higher taxes on the wealthy to fund new spending in areas such as education and housing.

“Sometimes up here I feel like I’m at the Republican primary debate for governor, not the Democratic primary debate for governor,” Brown quipped in his closing statement, as he reiterated his critiques of Foulkes, Gorbea and McKee.

But Brown himself took criticism from Muñoz, who is also running on a left-wing platform and who failed to qualify for next week’s debate.

“We need a free health care system,” Muñoz said. “We need mixed low-income subsidized and affordable housing. We need an equitable education funding formula. These things will not happen without political courage.”

Other topics tackled by the candidates included truck tolls — Brown and Muñoz said they would get rid of the tolls, while the other three would not — and the state takeover of Providence schools.

The eventual Democratic nominee will face the winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary between Ashley Kalus and Jonathan Riccitelli. Kalus, a newcomer to Rhode Island, has already mounted a major TV advertising campaign that began back in April.

Ted Nesi ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.