Raimondo, Fung exchange fire in 2nd debate for governor

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SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – Four candidates for Rhode Island governor met Monday night in the second debate before the election, tackling issues ranging from the economy and immigration to education and abortion.

Democratic incumbent Gina Raimondo, Republican nominee Allan Fung, independent Joe Trillo and Moderate Party nominee Bill Gilbert sparred for an hour at the University of Rhode Island, in an event broadcast live on air by The Public’s Radio (formerly Rhode Island Public Radio) and online by The Providence Journal.

Raimondo and Fung mostly focused on each other, attacking their respective records as governor and mayor. Raimondo took credit for an improved Rhode Island economy while questioning Cranston’s financial health; Fung argued he will offer the state a turnaround modeled on Cranston and assailed Raimondo’s term as a disaster.

“Every other man on this stage wants to undo what I’m doing and go back to where we came from,” Raimondo said, adding later, “Our progress hasn’t been by accident.”

“Rhode Islanders have had enough,” Fung said. “She’s had four years and it isn’t working. We need fundamental change and we need it now.”

Raimondo echoed her campaign’s major themes, repeatedly highlighting her administration’s stepped-up spending on infrastructure repairs, K-12 and college education, and job training. She pointed to multiple tax increases in Cranston since Fung became mayor, as well as its state designation as a “distressed community” and underfunded pension system, to make her case against the GOP nominee.

Fung suggested small businesses will be a prime focus for his administration, promising lower taxes and fewer regulations. He alleged a litany of missteps by the Raimondo administration, including the botched UHIP computer system, ongoing problems at the Department of Children, Youth and Families, and questionable hirings for senior jobs. (Just after the debate, his campaign scheduled an event for Tuesday on DCYF.)

Trillo started out on the defensive, questioned about whether last week’s revelations of two physical altercations in his past – including one involving a 12-year-old Nicholas Mattiello – show he does not have the temperament to be governor.

“I’m not a laid-back, easygoing guy,” Trillo said. “If you’re looking for that, it’s not me. But I’m the guy that’s going to get in your face, and we’re not going to allow you to continue to do what you’re doing.”

Fung highlighted a Trillo comment last week suggesting he would remain in the race solely to hurt the Cranston mayor, whom he blames for the release of the 1975 police report involving Mattiello. (Trillo has since tried to walk that comment back.) Fung suggested it shows that a “deal’s been cut” between Raimondo and Trillo.

Trillo insisted he is a serious candidate, lumping Raimondo and Fung together. “We’re becoming a poverty state, and the only people that are coming into this state are people that are looking to be taken care of, and they’re coming in with their hands out,” he said. “I’m all about taking care of people, but there’s a point you reach where enough is enough.”

Gilbert, getting his first major exposure of the campaign, sought to capitalize on the disenchantment many voters feel about establishment politics. He urged them to “join a different movement” by supporting the Moderate Party, and criticized Raimondo’s allies at the Democratic Governors Association for running TV ads focused on President Trump.

“I think negative advertising is why half the people don’t participate in politics,” Gilbert said.

The candidates showed a contrast on immigration.

Fung noted that he recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure the Cranston police cooperate on immigration. He also said he would seek to freeze state aid for municipalities like Providence that designate themselves as sanctuary cities, arguing that they are “throwing the middle finger at federal funds.”

Trillo, a longtime critic of illegal immigration, indicated he would reverse a Chafee-era policy and have the R.I. State Police cooperate more with ICE in dealing with criminals. “This is putting the whole community at risk right now,” he said.

Raimondo insisted her administration is following the law and the U.S. constitution, but said she does not support having local agencies take a more active role in enforcing immigration law. “Stop politicizing public safety,” she said, referring to Fung and Trillo. “It’s wrong and it scares people.”

During a rapid-fire round, Raimondo was the only candidate who expressed any openness to letting Providence monetize its water supply to help bail out the city pension system. She was also the only one who hesitated on whether to cut the sales tax or establish an inspector general’s office. Raimondo and Gilbert both said they would sign a bill to codify Roe vs. Wade in state law, while Fung and Trillo would not.

The debate was moderated by Ian Donnis of The Public’s Radio along with Patrick Anderson of The Journal and Lianna Blakeman, a senior at URI who is editor-in-chief of The Good Five-Cent Cigar, the school’s student newspaper. A group of protestors carrying a “Black Lives Matter” sign disrupted the debate at times, training their fire on Trillo over an allegation – which he denies – that he used a racial slur during the 1975 incident.

Monday’s event came two-and-a-half weeks after Raimondo, Fung and Trillo debated for the first time, in a broadcast televised by WPRI 12 from Roger Williams University. Recent polls have shown Fung trailing Raimondo, who has maintained a financial advantage in the race. The candidates are currently scheduled to do another debate on Nov. 1.

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.

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