Politics: RI Gov's Debate Review


Originally Appeared at Rhode Island's Future in October, 2010.

Welcome to the shove it state, national media. Forgive us if we spill our coffee milk on you. We’re a little star struck. Rhode Island hasn’t gotten this much attention since Operation Plunder Dome and we’re not used to seeing ourselves on television unless it’s Family Guy. This is big. Drudge blew up one of our local news blogs. Chris Matthews talked about us. We even made The Today Show.

But while you allow us our 15 minutes of non-animated fame, please take some time to learn about the wacky governor’s race you’re opining on. For instance, you should know that while it’s shocking that anyone would tell a sitting President to shove it, it’s no more surprising to us that the guy who did it happens to call himself a Democrat. You should also keep in mind that the guy with all the union support who loves Dickens and the weather and sort of reminds you of your pot smoking hippy father actually used to be a Republican.

As for the actual Republican in the race, it’s worth mentioning that what you saw at last night’s debate was new to us as well. He’s surging now and yet, in a time where the entire country seems to be trending to the right, nobody in Rhode Island knew who John Robitaille was a month ago. Oh, and that witty Ken Block guy who takes the incredibly unsexy position of being in the middle of everything might just make the best governor of all.

These are things you need to know. With President Clinton coming to town in an attempt to fix this Shoveitgate mess on Sunday, I imagine you’ll be sticking around through Election Day. So here’s a guide to each of the four candidates based on last night’s debate…

Frank Caprio
To make sense of the Democrat who told the President off, you first have to understand the Rhode Island electorate. The numbers suggest we are one of the most liberal states in the union, but that isn’t exactly true. We seem to have a lot people who vote Democrat but think gays are icky, brown people are scary and call it “Obamacare”. So Frank Caprio is courting that crowd and alienating the progressives.

Make no mistake about it: Caprio’s attack on the President was as calculated as everything else he has done in his campaign. On Tuesday, he defended his comments, explaining to debate viewers, “if it takes telling someone to shove it, I’m going to tell them to shove it, because I’m going to fight for Rhode Islanders every day up at that State House.” His grade for Obama: Incomplete.

Caprio sells himself as the pro-business Democrat who wants to hold the line on taxes and create jobs by making more capital available. Although it has been reported that he considered running as a Republican, Caprio is sharp enough not to blame the state’s social programs for many of its problems the way Robitaille does. But he always seems to find a way to criticize Chafee for being too tied to unions and has made a habit of saying his union support comes from “people who actually build things.”

Among other topics discussed last night, Caprio said his first two priorities as governor would be to institute his $600 million dollar small business loan fund and to go down to the DMV and not leave until “we straighten that place out.” He gave the General Assembly a C for its performance; attacked Chafee for raising Warwick’s property taxes as mayor; and said he’ll give the EDC one week from the day he’s elected to close the 38 Studios deal or he'll “find a better way that works for the taxpayers.” He also enjoys long walks on the beach and his favorite book (seriously) is Lord of the Rings.

Lincoln Chafee
There are times when Linc Chafee leaves you wondering if he knows what year it is, but the man is doing something right. Chafee is building what can only be described as the strangest coalition the state has ever seen. He has the support of the older conservative crowd who remember his father and thought he did a good job as mayor of Warwick as well as the far left who consider him the most progressive candidate of the bunch.

He’s in an interesting position because his biggest flaw is also his greatest strength. His opponents, namely Caprio, attack him for being too close with the public unions, but those are also the people who are going to help him Chafee out the vote on Election Day without any party machine behind him. Unlike some of the other candidates, Chafee has a lot of supporters who live for the first Tuesday in November. They organize. They turn out. They get results.

Chafee is running as an independent and is the only candidate who has proposed a one percent sales tax on currently exempted items. He always makes sure to mention that he is not the one who got us into this mess and that all the experts say a sales tax is far less cumbersome than allowing cities to raise property taxes. Last night, he made it clear that he would veto anything above a one percent tax, citing the need for the General Assembly to stay disciplined.

In his continuing quest to woo Latino voters, Chafee said his first priority as governor would be to repeal E-Verify, which he said has done nothing to lower the state’s unemployment rate. His other top priority would be tackling the budget crisis. He refused to grade the General Assembly because “I have to work with them." He also threatened to come after the EDC if the 38 Studios deal goes bust. His favorite author: Charles Dickens.

John Robitaille
No one had more to prove than the Republican candidate last night. And I think he succeeded. The usually mild-mannered, above-the-fray Robitaille was highly critical of his opponents, especially Caprio, who he said “behaved like a petulant little child who did not get his way” regarding the Democrat’s comments about the President.

I don’t agree with much of anything Robitaille has to say, but his climb in the polls is directly related to Caprio’s downfall. There were a lot of Republican-leaning independents (the anybody-but-Chafee crowd) who thought they had to vote for the Democrat in the race, but that has changed and Robitaille is the benefactor. We won’t see it in any the polls because most took place prior to the Caprio flap, but there is no doubt the Republican could pull off the upset next Tuesday night.

Robitaille said his first two priorities as governor would be to cut spending and cut spending. As Republicans tend to do, he criticized the state for spending too much on social programs and said he doesn’t believe the government can create jobs. He gave the General Assembly an F for its performance and said “that’s being charitable.” He made it clear that he would veto any budget with a tax increase and emphasized the need for the state to become more business-friendly.

Robitaille was also responsible for two of the best punch lines of the night: 1) When Caprio referred to the state’s pension fund favorably compared with other states, the Republican said “that’s like saying the S. S. Minnow isn’t sinking as fast as the Titanic. 2) When asked about something his former boss Governor Carcieri did wrong, Robitaille said, “I think he made a big mistake when he endorsed Linc Chafee over Steve Laffey for Senate in 2006.”

His favorite author: David McCullough.

Ken Block
Let’s put it this way. Ken Block’s Moderate Party will remain on the ballot for years to come. Block was again impressive and full of sharp one-liners throughout last night’s debate. He tugged at people’s hearts when he described creating jobs as being about sitting at the kitchen table and staying awake at night to figure out how to make it work. The other candidates just don’t match up when job creation is the topic.

Block called Caprio a knucklehead for his comments about the President and criticized Chafee for wanting to sue the EDC. He said the state made a deal and it was time to honor it. He said his number one priority as governor would be to give the state’s IT department 30 days to “get the dead people off the welfare rolls,” which prompted WPRI’s Ted Nesi to tweet “Ken Block sees dead people.” Block said his other top priority would be to meet with the General Treasurer and secure one percent of the state pension fund to start his investment plan.

He gave the entire political system and F for a grade and said the General Assembly deserved a D, but mentioned that he was willing to stay after school to help them out, drawing laughs from the crowd. His plan focuses on cutting waste and fraud from the state and he claims to be the only candidate who has a track record for doing so. His favorite author: Orson Scott Card.


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