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Governor Candidates Face Tough Questions in Recession Plagued RI

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


From experts in politics to advocates for expansion of marjuana rights -- each is poised for unveiling questions and deciphering strategies for the two upcoming gubernatorial debates in June. It’s quickly shaping up to be all about the economy, but as the NAACP’s Jim Vincent made clear, even that is a matter of perspective.

“The unemployment rate in Rhode Island for individuals of color is approximately 15% or double the unemployment rate for white Rhode Islanders,” Vincent said.

Vincent said he would ask the candidates for specific plans to lower the unemployment rate for people of color. Presently, Rhode Island unemployment rate is reported 8.7%.

Jobs in Rhode Island

Providence College Professor Joe Cammarano, of the Departments of Political Science and Public & Community Service, said he would ask the candidates for concrete paths to job creation.

“Candidates all discuss the need for generating jobs, but in Rhode Island we have had several tax cuts for high income earners since 2005, and several other well-worn attempts to kick start the economy. Other than addressing tax issues or tax credits, what new policy needs to happen to provide for the natural generation of new jobs?”

Barrington Town Councilwoman and Roger Williams University Professor of Political Science June Sager Speakman said she would ask the candidates about their strategy for helping small businesses to stay here as well as drawing new ones to the state. She’s also curious about their approach to managing public sector workers.

Mike Stenhouse, Founder and CEO of the RI Center for Freedom and prosperity, said he is focused completely on public policy rather than election politics. He’d ask the candidates if they support and would continue to move forward with the "Rhode Map RI" economic development plan currently being advanced by the Chafee administration.

He’d also ask them if they believe that net, broad-based tax and spending cuts are required to jumpstart the state's struggling economy.

“Is Rhode Island and its cities and towns paying too high a cost, in dollars, when it comes to collective bargaining provisions for public employees?”

A question of ethics

The recent raid of Speaker Gordon Fox's State House office also raised questions and sparked the need for the next governor to take leadership in ethics reform. Cammarano questioned the ethical compass of the General Assembly.

“The new Speaker of the House seems uninterested in making the General Assembly accountable to any kind of ethics requirements. They do not even engage in self-regulating activities for their members,” Cammarano said.

He wonders how the citizens of Rhode Island can be assured that its members are actually conducting their official duties with the highest level of integrity.

“A familiar comment is that Rhode Island’s politicians are the ‘same old, same old and that nothing will change,” said Laura A. McNamara, Executive Director of the East Providence Area Chamber of Commerce.

She wants to know what the candidates will do that hasn't been attempted or accomplished before.

Political questions

Dr. Edward M. Mazze, Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration at The University of Rhode Island, told GoLocalProv that a Republican governor would need to find a way to expand the power of the executive office.

“Block and Fung have to talk about the real costs and benefits of their programs,” Mazze said. 

Cammarano wants to know how the potential governors will compete with the constitutionally more powerful positions of Speaker and Senate President.  

“They have to tell the truth about the impact of their programs on the general public particularly when they need a Democratic General Assembly to approve their programs.”

Steve Kass, former Spokesman for Governor Donald Carcieri, is curious about some of the nitty gritty parts of the next governor’s job -- Kass told GoLocal that he thinks it’s import to know how the would-be governors would handle the pension and healthcare unfunded liability if the judge rules against the state.  "You appeal to the Supreme Court and lose again," said Kass. 

Many of those interviewed were also curious about the candidates’ stance on repaying the 38 Studios bond, gun control, and consolidation of resources.

The Marijuana Question

"These candidates would all do well to come out in favor of legalizing and regulating marijuana, especially since polls show that that's where a majority of Rhode Island voters want to see the state headed,” said Tom Angell, a native Rhode Islander and Chairman of Marijuana Majority.

“Clay Pell, as a young candidate seeking to gain traction, should especially think about using this as an opportunity to make waves. If you look at age group breakdowns in polling, there's no question that legalizing marijuana is the future. If Pell wants to position himself as a progressive leader that represents the voice of a new generation, there's no question he should be out in front of this issue.”

Angell continued, “Given that surveys show many Rhode Islanders use marijuana, would you prefer they continue to buy it on the black market with some of the profits going to gangs and cartels, or would you rather the trade be brought above ground where it can be regulated and taxed,” is the first question he’d ask the candidates.

After that, he’d ask them if they ever smoked pot.

“If so, how would your life be different had you been arrested? And what do you think the appropriate punishment is for people who use marijuana like you did?”

Debate strategy

With Raimondo and Taveras running nearly neck and neck, their upcoming debate could be a chance for them to differentiate themselves.

“It's possible, but not very likely unless one of them makes a mistake or has a particularly strong performance,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senior Editor of The Cook Political Report.

“Debates are about the only forum that voters have to see the candidates side by side. The positions that the candidates take are important, but so is the way they present themselves, how they handle questions, and how they handle criticism and attacks. That said, debates don't often make much of a difference, especially this early in the process.”

Speakman believes there can be more at stake, even in an early debate.

“That’s the point of debates, is it not? But there’s a risk at differentiation … it requires taking clear positions, and that often involves making hard choices, and that means losing support somewhere.”

And as Nixon learned the hard way in the famous televised debate with Kennedy, sometimes it’s not about the argument or the answers. It’s about being liked.

“Because I believe that likability is the key factor as to why people vote for someone, I think that is more important than any specific question,” said former Attorney General Arlene Violet.

“Taveras and Raimondo have exchanged barbs about whether one of them is the Main Street candidate versus the Wall Street candidate, so I expect a question about how much each of them has committed pension funds to hedge funds during each of their tenures. Yet, it will be the way they answer the question or any question that will count. Both have to watch out not to come across as condescending since in a male/female race it's a booby trap to speak down at your opponent.”

Pell, currently trailing with low polling numbers, may be able to gain ground in the debate – especially if the banter between the front runners gets ugly.

“Pell can use this to gain ground, but he will need to either stand out as someone with deep and unique ideas, or perform well while the other two candidates slash at each others' positions and reputations,” said Cammarano.

Darrell West of the Brookings Institutions believes Pell performance is crucial to his public persona.

“Pell needs to prove he is up to the job after a weak kickoff speech. A debate always is a great opportunity for a less known candidate to push himself out of the crowd.”

Block and Fung

“Block and Fung have to emerge from the debate as the candidate most likely to win in November,” Violet said.

“The Republicans want a winner who can go toe to toe with the Democrat contender and that is what they will be looking for during the debate.”

It’s not as if Rhode Island isn’t open to Republican governors, but getting elected with an R next to your name typically means courting Independent voters.

“Fung has to convince conservative Republicans that he is conservative enough, while not alienating moderate and liberal Republicans and independents who might decide to vote in the Republican primary because of Fung,” Cammarano said.

“Block has to convince Republicans that he is serious about change, and not just another wealthy person with deep pockets who thinks that serving in government is simply taking his private sector skills and applying them. He also needs to reassure Republicans that he is not just running for their nomination because he figure he can never win as an independent.”

On the issue of the Republican candidates and their strategy, Speakman pulled no punches.

“Rhode Islanders know how to vote for Republicans for governor. Republican gubernatorial candidates know how to get votes, and that involves not pulling to the right on social issues and avoiding the national Republican strategy of harsh criticism of the Democratic Party.”

Vincent said Independent and undecided voters want details from all the candidates. This includes Republicans Block and Fung.

“In order for candidates Fung and Block to win over independent and undecided voters they need to speak specifically on what they would do to spur economic development, vastly improve education and to fix our crumbling infrastructure,” Vincent said.

Do the debates even matter?

Jared Moffat is the Director of Regulate Rhode Island, a nonprofit, grassroots coalition of citizens committed to ending marijuana prohibition in the Ocean State. He’s hoping for pro-marijuana stances from all the candidates.

“Any of the candidates could distinguish themselves by taking the right stance on marijuana policy reform. Currently they've all taken the ‘let's wait and see’ non-position,” Moffat said.  “Taking a substantive stance on the issue, even if it's against, would demonstrate leadership, which is what Rhode Islanders want to see right now.”

West, who has seen more than his share of Rhode Island campaigns, believes debates are important, as the candidates will use them to differentiate themselves.

“They all are quite different in terms of background and life experiences so I would expect them to emphasize those types of things in their discussions,” West said.

“Block and Fung have to establish their bona fides with traditional Republicans while also appealing to Independents that may decide the primary. Unless one of them can do well with Independents, it will be difficult for either to do well in November.”


The first televised debate will feature Democrat candidates Angel Taveras, Gina Raimondo and Clay Pell. It will be held on June 10th. 

On Tuesday, June 17, "Campaign 2014: The Republican Gubernatorial Debate" will feature Republican candidates Allan Fung and Ken Block.

Editor's Note: A previous version of the story had incorrectly attributed quotes from Tom Agnell to Victor Moffat.





Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Gina Raimondo Has to Answer When Running for Governor

Prev Next

10. Money

Can she explain the amount of out of state money?

Most of the candidates for Governor need to answer the question, can they raise enough to be competitive? That is not a problem for Raimondo. She has proven to be the most skilled fundraiser, but her issue is justifying that the vast majority of the money is coming from out-of-state.

Raimondo will face a number of questions regarding who is really behind her campaign - the amount of out-of-state dollars is just one of the questions.

Prev Next

9. Pension Reform

Did she only reform certain pensions?

Raimondo rose to celebrity status because of her leadership on pension reform. Her efforts helped to stabilize the pension system, but the reform was hardly democratic.

Teachers took the vast majority of the hit, while major groups of pensioners escaped reform including the judges, state police and disability pensioners. Raimondo has some explaining to do.

Prev Next

8. Lack of Transparency

If she lacks transparency as Treasurer, what will it be like as Governor?

From her deepest critics to the media and even members of the retirement board, many have questioned her and her office's willingness to share information and provide the public insights into her management of the investment commission and the performance of the fund under her leadership.

Data which historically was easily accessed by the public and media is now locked behind the Raimondo wall. Often this raises serious questions and forces the media to seek the simplest information via FOIA requests.

Prev Next

7. Wall Street

Why is Wall Street spending so much money supporting Raimondo?

Raimondo is the queen of fundraising and so much of it derives from the major players on Wall Street.

Prev Next

6. Performance

Has Raimondo managed the pension fund competently?

The most important job of the General Treasurer might be the management of the state's retirement fund. The blockbuster investigative piece by Stephen Beale unveiled that the pension system under Raimondo lost $200 million

While she may be able to blitz the airwaves with positive messages about her bio and her leadership in pension reform, her Democratic primary competitors and/or her GOP opponent in the General Election may be able to destroy her credibility by playing up her "mismanagement of the pension system."

Prev Next

5. Hedge Funds

Will Raimondo pay the price for shifting so much of the assets into Hedge Funds?

For the past six months, Raimondo has been under constant critique for shifting more than 20% of the State's retirement dollars into unregulated Hedge Funds. The critics has included forensic auditor/Forbes contributor Ted Siedle, Rolling Stones magazine's star reporter Matt Taibbi, former General Treasurer and candidate again, Frank Caprio, as well as many of the public unions. The combination of where she gets her campaign dollars, coupled with the shift in investment strategy and the under performance of the fund may all build into a snowball effect.

Prev Next

4. Connect to RIers

Educated at Yale and Harvard, a Rhode Scholar and a millionaire, can she connect to the average RIer?

Raimondo is a born and bred Rhode Islander, but for her adult life she has been educated at the best colleges in the world and living a professional life aligned with many of America's super rich associated with Wall Street. In her announcement she mentioned a number of times she was a mother, but did not mention that her husband is a partner at Mckinsey - and according to Forbes magazine probably takes home $2 million or so per year.

Raimondo talks a lot about her father losing his job when she was a child, but she has come a long way since then. She could come across as the ultimate RI success story or be perceived as an out of touch venture capitalist.

Prev Next

3. Siedle and Taibbi

Neither Ted Siedle or Matt Taibbi are going away - can she deflect their questions and charges?

In the past two months, both forensic auditor/Forbes columnist Ted Siedle and Rolling Stone's star reporter Matt Taibbi have raised serious issues about Raimondo's motivation and judgment.

As Taibbi wrote, "The dynamic young Rhodes scholar was allowing her state to be used as a test case for the rest of the country, at the behest of powerful out-of-state financiers with dreams of pushing pension reform down the throats of taxpayers and public workers from coast to coast."

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/looting-the-pension-funds-20130926#ixzz2o2bLhqKW

Prev Next

2. Is she a Democrat?

Will Taveras and Pell paint her to be too conservative?

Raimondo is simply hated by the teachers unions and others - big blocks of voters in the Democratic primary. Both Clay Pell and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras will tack to the left and may compete for the same voters allowing her to sneak through to the general. However, progressives and unions may decide to pick Pell over Taveras (who is struggling to raise money and whose track record in Providence may come under fire) and then Pell can take the left leaning primary.

Prev Next

1. SEC Investigation

Can Raimondo survive an SEC investigation?

Both Siedle and a state senator have written to the SEC calling for an investigation into the investment practices of Raimondo. A federal investigation would be at a minimum a black eye to the General Treasurer and an enforcement action might end a credible campaign. Timing may prove to be everything.


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