PROVIDENCE — With the Sept. 13 primary a week away, the four leading Democratic candidates for governor took part in their last televised debate, clashing over issues such as flooded streets, abortion rights, an FBI investigation, and election machine errors.
The WPRI-Channel 12 debate began with questions about the Labor Day deluge that left motorists stranded for hours, with flooding shutting down Interstate 95 in both directions.
Governor Daniel J. McKee defended the state’s response to and preparation for the storm. “First of all, everybody is safe, and that is the most important thing in any form of crisis,” he said, praising the response of the state Emergency Management Agency, State Police, and Department of Transportation. “My feeling is it was handled well.”
McKee said that while meteorologists predicted heavy rains, there was no way of knowing that 11 inches of rain would fall in Cranston in a short amount of time. “They cleared the roads as quickly as they could,” he said. “It was an inconvenience, but no one got hurt.”
Former CVS executive Helena B. Foulkes had tweeted that the McKee administration’s response to the storm reflected “government incompetence.”
She said she does not blame McKee for the weather, but she does blame him for the response to it in two areas. First, she said, “We didn’t have a plan. Just two weeks ago we had a major rainstorm. We could have learned from that experience and planned ahead on drainage and how to deal with it.”
Foulkes also faulted the administration for “very poor communication,” saying, “We knew people were stuck on that highway at 3 in afternoon for hours, and the first we had a press conference on Zoom with the governor leading it was at 6 p.m., which was far too late.”
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea had tweeted that the storm response showed a failure by McKee and state Department of Transportation director Peter Alviti Jr.
Gorbea said her parents were stuck on I-95 for three-and-a-half hours during the flooding with no information about what was going on and when they would get help. “So I take this very seriously,” she said. “I know the lack of communication because we experienced it.”
The issue is not about one rainstorm, Gorbea said. “The issue here is climate change is real,” she said. “Our climate is changing, and this administration has not done anything to really take care of that problem.”
She did not commit to getting rid of Alviti as Department of Transportation director. But Democratic candidate Matt Brown, a former secretary of state, said he would fire Alviti.
“I was outraged to hear him say at a press conference that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Brown said, emphasizing that the flood was caused by climate change.
“The climate crisis is caused by the fossil fuel industry and the politicians that prop them up,” he said. So the state needs a transportation director who will take “urgent action” to address climate change, including investing in public transit, expanding urban green spaces, and creating higher capacity storm water management, he said.
The debate moderators, Channel 12′s Tim White and Ted Nesi, grilled the candidates about issues they’ve been criticized for during the campaign.
For example, abortion rights have become a major issue since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Nesi asked Gorbea why supporters of abortion rights should trust her when she walked door-to-door for former House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, an opponent of abortion rights.
“I am an ardent supporter of abortion rights,” Gorbea said. She said she supported the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act, which aimed to protect abortion rights in case Roe v. Wade was overturned. “I went against the wishes of the speaker,” she said, adding that she made her views known to Mattiello at the time. “I said that I supported codifying Roe v. Wade.”
Foulkes has been criticized for donating $500 to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014 — months before Republicans regained control of the Senate in the November 2014 midterms.
“I will say something politicians up here do not say: I made a mistake,” Foulkes said. “I wrote a check for $500 in 2014. I was part of a CVS executive group that was working on the Affordable Care Act to make sure that we kept certain elements alive. We needed to have support on both sides of the aisles. I regret that action.”
McKee has been criticized over an FBI investigation into a contract for up to $5.2 million that his administration awarded to ILO Group, a consulting firm that formed two days after McKee took office.
McKee said he has not been subpoenaed in that investigation, but he repeatedly refused to say whether his administration has received a subpoena. “I’m not going to comment on that,” he said. “The way that it is being handled right now is the way it should be handled — by somebody that has experience relative to the issues.”
The House and Senate oversight committees conducted hearings into whether the ILO Group had an unfair advantage in securing the state contract because of its ties to McKee. The legislature ended up passing legislation to revamp state purchasing laws in response to the controversy, and McKee signed that bill.
“We did follow state statute and the procurement process,” McKee said. “I know what I did and didn’t do. Every decision I’ve made since becoming governor has been the best interest of the people of the state of Rhode Island and no one else.”
Gorbea faced questions about two recent election machine mishaps: New touch-screen ballot machines erroneously displayed some 2018 candidates on the Spanish-language ballot during early voting, and Providence mayoral candidate Gonzalo Cuervo’s name was misspelled as “Gonzolo” on the screen of a Spanish language ballot marking machine.
“I was outraged at the mistakes that were admitted to by (Elections Systems & Software) and the lack of oversight that the Board of Elections displayed,” Gorbea said, adding that she has called for an audit of the machines.
During a “pop quiz” section of the debate, Foulkes did the best although she was the only candidate on stage who has not held state office.
For example, Foulkes was the only one who knew what percentage the state pension fund must be funded for retirees to get back their cost-of-living adjustments. Correct answer: 80 percent. And Foulkes said the median price of a home in Rhode Island last month was about $400,000 while Gorbea said about $300,000, Brown said $250,000 to $300,000, and McKee said $350,000. Correct answer: $410,000.
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, another Democratic candidate for governor, was not allowed to take part in the Channel 12 debate because he did not meet Nexstar TV criteria. The event took place at Rhode Island College.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.