WARWICK, R.I. — Thursday’s gubernatorial candidate forum illustrated the wide range of choices Rhode Island voters will have this year, not only between the two major parties, but within the Democratic field.
Five Democrats and one Republican took the stage at the Crowne Plaza hotel for the event hosted by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, disagreeing on issues ranging from taxing the rich to changing a law designed to address police misconduct.
They also had very different choices when asked to name the current or former elected leader they admire most.
Ashley Kalus, the only Republican candidate on stage, drew an audible groan from the audience when she named Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz said: “Bobby Kennedy, the last 90 days of his life.”
Governor Daniel J. McKee said: “Barack Obama.”
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea said she’d read “Killer Angels” about Joshua Chamberlain, a Union Army general in the Civil War who became a Republican governor of Maine from 1867 to 1871.
Former CVS executive Helena Foulkes named former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Former secretary of state Matt Brown named the late US Representative John Lewis, who led a voting rights march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The candidates differed on a proposal to raise Rhode Island’s top marginal income tax rate from 5.99 to 8.99 percent on income of more than $475,000, essentially the top 1 percent of taxpayers.
McKee said his budget proposals have never included broad-based tax increases. “This is not the way to go,” he said, saying he wants to increase people’s incomes instead. “This is not the time to raise taxes. We are coming out of the pandemic stronger than any state in the Northeast right now.”
At another point, McKee indicated he’s considering a reduction in the state’s 7 percent sales tax rate. “I think we should be looking at being competitive with both Massachusetts and Connecticut,” he said. “They are about three-quarters of a percent lower on the sales tax rate right now, and I think that is something that we should be looking at.”
Kalus said, “I think that we need to look at it more, but generally I am not for things that make us less competitive regionally, and this would increase the tax rate for Rhode Islanders. I just don’t think that it is a great idea.”
Muñoz said, “If we want to do something to help people, let’s have some exemptions for tangible property tax for micro-businesses. Let’s have a progressive tax and, yes, taxes on the top 1 percent because 95 percent of people ... are living paycheck to paycheck.”
Foulkes said she is not in favor of raising the top income tax rate. “Right now we have a very big surplus in this state, and I don’t think we should be raising taxes,” she said. “We want to be competitive with the other states.” But on the national level, she said she’d support “making sure that billionaires get taxed and making sure that corporations pay their fair share.”
Brown supported the proposal, saying Rhode Island tried cutting taxes for the wealthiest residents and it has cost the state more than $1 billion. “How does small business survive when people in the state have no money to spend, when we give it away to the wealthiest 1 percent, we give it away to corporations, and wages stay flat and their housing and health care costs have gone up?” he said. “I hope you all agree by now that the trickle down approach is a failure.”
Gorbea said that before getting an influx of federal funds, the state was running structural budget deficits. “We have been cutting taxes to the point where possibly we honestly can’t afford to do what we need to do,” she said. “So I would support taxing at higher levels of our incomes in the state, both individuals and corporations. But I would do it in a way where we actually target those monies. If any of you come with me and walk in the shoes of those who honestly can’t afford to live in the state, you would agree to help those people out.”
The candidates also disagreed on what to do about the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. Following an outcry over the killing of George Floyd, legislators and activists have been calling for the overhaul or the repeal of the law, which dictates how departments around the state deal with police officer misconduct.
Brown and Muñoz said they would repeal the law. McKee, Gorbea, and Foulkes said they’d “reform” the law. Kalus said, “I would want to look at it a bit more.”
The moderator, WPRI-Channel 12 reporter Steph Machado, cited reports that a draft US Supreme Court opinion would overturn Roe v. Wade, asking the candidates whether they support the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act, which would allow abortions to be covered by the state’s Medicaid program and state employee health insurance.
Gorbea said she supports that bill. “Rights that cannot be accessed are not rights,” she said. “And I absolutely support and have testified multiple times in support of allowing the use of Medicaid dollars as well as state employees insurance plans to cover abortion because abortion is health care.”
McKee said, “Yes, I support that as well as making sure that a woman’s right to choose is protected.” He said he would look at the idea of making it a budget amendment.
Kalus said, “I am pro-life. And I want to also say that the right to an abortion is codified in state law. Nothing changes based on this in Rhode Island.” She said, “I do not support any further extension of the law, but I can also count votes.”
Muñoz said he supports legislation that provides abortion coverage. “Women will always have autonomy over their health,” he said.
Foulkes said, “Absolutely. I am firmly in support of the proposal.” She said one-third of the people in the state get their health care through Medicaid, “and I don’t think that your insurance should allow us to decide if you get access to abortion or not.”
Brown called for passing the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act immediately. “It makes the right to an abortion real in this state,” he said.
Also, Brown said he would not endorse or accept endorsements from any elected official who is opposed to codifying Roe v. Wade or who voted against the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act, which aims to protect abortion rights in Rhode Island if Roe v. Wade is overturned. He called for his opponents in the governor’s race to make the same commitment, noting that 32 current legislators, including 19 Democrats, voted against the Reproductive Privacy Act.
The debate marks the first meeting of all the major candidates for governor. McKee had said he would attend, but then he backed out before deciding to participate. During his closing remarks, he thanked RIPEC for hosting the event and for “saving my chair while I was deciding how I would get here.”
In February, Gorbea, Foulkes, Brown, and Muñoz took part in a Zoom forum that was hosted by the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus, which split from the state Democratic Party in 2019 amid a bitter dispute over whether the women’s caucus could endorse candidates and raise its own money. McKee, who had returned that day from a Democratic Governors Association meeting, did not participate in that event.