Candidates for Rhode Island governor snipe in 1st debate

Rhode Island gubernatorial candidates former state Rep. Joseph Trillo, who is running as an independent, left, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, center, and Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, right, participate in a debate, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, in Bristol, R.I. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Rhode Island’s Democratic Gov Gina Raimondo went after Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung for what she called “public corruption” in his police department during their first gubernatorial debate Thursday, while he fired back that she is a Statehouse insider whose leadership has failed.

The debate on WPRI-TV also included independent Joe Trillo, a former Republican lawmaker, who headed Donald Trump’s state presidential campaign in 2016.

Both Raimondo and Trillo brought up Fung’s police department and a 2015 Rhode Island State Police report that found Fung was among those responsible for deep dysfunction there, including because of what the report said was “political interference and influence” by the mayor and his “unwillingness to take decisive action to correct serious problems.” One officer told the state police that the department was “run like the mafia,” according to the report.

Fung defended his actions, saying that he asked the state police to take over the department, a move he made in 2014. He said things had turned around since then.

“Morale is up in that department. The police department is doing excellent work,” Fung said.

Fung criticized Raimondo for the disastrous rollout of a public benefits computer system. Raimondo decided to go ahead with the launch of the system in 2016, even after a warning from federal officials that it wasn’t ready. Thousands of people who received food stamps and other services did not receive benefits or experienced monthslong delays. Raimondo acknowledged that it was a mistake but said the system has now turned a corner and is paying out claims faster than ever.

“It was a bungled IT rollout. There’s no way around that. I’ve owned that mistake,” she said, adding that the state has not paid the vendor that built the system in over a year.

Fung said that if elected, he would fire the vendor.

“On Day One of a Fung administration, I will pull the plug,” he said.

The Nov. 6 election will be a rematch for Raimondo and Fung, who were both their parties’ nominees in 2014.

Raimondo repeatedly came back to the state’s improved economy, pointing out that during the 2014 campaign, Rhode Island had among the highest unemployment rates in the nation. As of August, it stood at 4.0 percent, one-tenth of a percentage point above the national rate of 3.9 percent.

“There’s roadwork happening all around us. There are cranes in the sky. We are fixing our schools,” she said.

The debate sometimes got heated and turned mean, with Fung and Trillo frequently sparring and hurling personal insults at each other. Fung at one point called Trillo a “loudmouth.” Trillo shot back that Fung was “wimpy.”

Asked to give one-word answers on their positions on abortion, Trillo identified himself as “pro-life.” Raimondo said “pro-choice.” Fung replied, “I respect a woman’s right to make medical decisions with commonsense limitations.”

Fung supported abortion-rights when he ran in 2014 but has since converted to Catholicism. His answer Thursday night prompted a retort from Trillo.

“He can’t answer a question like that. That’s too difficult. He’s pro-life and pro-choice,” Trillo said, causing the crowd to laugh.

Raimondo has tried repeatedly to remind voters of Fung’s support of Trump, and told the audience that neither of her opponents “has the courage to stand up to President Trump when his policies hurt Rhode Islanders.”

A photograph of Fung wearing a “Trump” hat at the presidential inauguration has been featured in attack ads against him. He dodged when asked whether he would wear a Trump hat again but did say that he did not agree with the president on separating children from their families at the border.

The debate began soon after a daylong Senate Judiciary Committee hearing concluded in Washington over the allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted another teenager when he was in high school. All three said there should be an outside investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct before the Senate votes. Fung had declined to give a yes or no answer when asked on Monday and Wednesday whether the FBI should investigate.

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