Last week I reviewed the debate between Rhode Island Republican gubernatorial hopefuls Cranston’s Mayor Allen Fung and software and traffic control device entrepreneur, Moderate Party Founder, Ken Block. In “Fung Holds the Field in First Debate” I argued that Fung had won the entire debate, with Block failing to score in the first half at all and merely appearing to be at least more involved in the second half, but to little effect.
I don’t even think I got into some of Ken Block’s weaker moments in the second half, like reversing an arguably reasonable 2010 position supporting a ban on sale or manufacture “ very large caliber automatic and semi-automatic firearms” and claiming he had become educated from the first moment of his campaign in 2014. I don’t think I even noticed the eye roller that the executive committee of the Moderate Party “compelled” so to speak, to make his 2010 run for Governor. Talk about Stockholm syndrome!
I just never saw Ken Block as winning any part of the debate. Nobody, I mean nobody, thought Ken Block won the first half of the debate. But I was surprised to hear some pundits saying that Ken Block had won the second half. WPRI political reporter and debate media panelist Ted Nesi, reported in his popular “Nesi’s Notes:”
WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming thought Fung came out on top in the first half – no small achievement since he, unlike Block, had never done a prime-time TV debate before – but that Block got the better of the mayor in the second half; he literally stunned Fung into a brief silence when discussing the Cranston police scandal. Block on the other hand never really seemed rattled, though the flip side of that is he seemed uncharacteristically low-energy at times.
A Cranston mess
Nesi’ right. There’s a big difference from being the longshot of six, then four gubernatorial candidates on stage in 2010’s numerous candidate Q&A forums and a head to head high stakes debate where the loss might mean your candidacy is over by 9:30 PM on September 9th. Block was tight, exceedingly scripted and measured and too reliant on themes the media was handing him, that Fung had “insulted primary voters” with the “Blockheads ad” and “the Cranston Police is just “a mess.”
When Block had a chance to hit his themes, I will say again, as I did last week, a couple of sensible sounding reform ideas to lower the cost of unemployment insurance and the TDI program, Block still wasn’t clouting the ball as Fung had at Block’s expense.
Brown University Professor Wendy Schiller more generally and correctly credited Mayor Fung with doing well in the debate to the likely distress of WPRO morning fill-in host and former Republican Candidate John Loughlin who used Monday’s fill in appearance for Gene Valicenti (who’s been great btw) as a virtual “ Block for Governor” advertisement. But to my bemusment , appearing on Loughlin’s show. Professor Schiller seemed to endorse the Nesi-Fleming view that held that Mayor Fung had been “stunned” into a brief silence by Blocks “messy Cranston Police” attack. For two seconds I was literally stunned, confronted with the possibility of the impossible. Had I been wrong?
That “Cranston mess” was Ken Block’s high-water mark, so let’s examine it.
Moderator Tim White asked Mayor Fung to respond to a pre-selected viewer question “how could [Fung] be trusted to lead the state when the Cranston Police is such a mess.”
Fung answered, that he had responded and handled the matter but for the second time in the debate, White was not willing to accept Fung’s answer and he cross examined Fung with a succession of questions, insisting that Block had only reacted to the media cameras, while Fung firmly maintained each time he had begun responding earlier, to a media request for information. White was unrelenting and as in the first half, became visibly frustrated with Fung’s steadfastness under cross examination. White was determined to further portray as Fung as scrambling and grasping in his reaction to media coverage. White indicted Fung for canceling his plan to bring in an out of state consultant to examine the department, and finally agreeing with the City council to bring in the state police instead.
But Fung simply didn’t crumble. As with the “insulted voters” offensive in the opening minutes of the first half, Fung handled multiple questions and sounded reasonable, responsible and confident enough in his response to the “mess.” Fung pointed out over and over that his administration does hold people accountable and his administration had been concerned and responsive. Whether or not Reporter Tim White or business owner Ken Block or anyone for that matter thought the response was perfect enough or timely enough, there really wasn’t that much smoke to prove a fire, just leading questions.
Having advanced the ball down the field with great exertion Tim White again gave Ken Block the chance to make the score. “If you become governor, is it really fair to hold you accountable for the actions of everyone below you?” he asked Ken Block. You could almost see Ken Block’s eyes get bigger seeing that 84 mile an hour fastball coming in belt high and right over the plate.
“A thousand percent yes” said Mr. Block adding “Mayor Fung said he wasn’t micromanaging his police department. I don’t believe he was Macro-managing his police Department.” Whoop there it is! The sound byte moment was here.
Block was enjoying the moment. “Mayor Fung mismanaged that police department so badly, Mr. Mayor, if you can’t manage your own police department, how can you ask these voters for a promotion to be governor.” He might have stopped for applause, but no applause was permitted.
Given Fung’s demonstrated ability to turn these moments around, Block wisely continued. He still had the floor. Block laid out a timeline where Fung had accepted campaign contributions from police union members, all while negotiating contracts with them and then agreeing to and submitting them to the council, contracts Block characterized as too generous. Block was claiming that Fung had compromised his executive office function as Mayor and duty to the taxpayers because he had taken campaign contributions from police union members. Fung hesitated for a moment before responding. Let’s take that moment, now ourselves.
No doubt, it is fair to question the Mayor on possible bias in this regard, but, the final product is brought before the council. There is no secrecy; there is no failure of disclosure or concealment. The police contract is negotiated, and the Mayor has to propose it in a public and adversarial process unlike any Ken Block has had to face in either his business or his Moderate party or his Republican campaign committee meetings in 2014. Fung is a member of the Rhode Island Bar, investigated and examined before he could be sworn in and admitted, a former prosecutor, an attorney in good standing bound to honor a professional code of conduct unlike any found in business. He is literally licensed to be trusted
Against that, you had, on top of Tim White’s three or four questions, an insulting personal attack based on innuendo and appealing to a not very well thought out conspiracy theory. This is what John Loughlin described post-debate as when “Ken Block put the hammer down” on Allen Fung.
Put the hammer down?” Yes! Drink! Celebrate! For no matter what happens On June 26th at the GOP state convention, or on the primary on September 11th, Ken Block will be received by Odin in Valhalla! The hammer blow was struck!
Fung stood and searched for an answer. Perhaps he wondered where to begin, perhaps he had to weigh all that had been claimed. Maybe he wished he had sacrificed more to Odin. Perhaps he had to bite down some anger, and focus it into action. For two seconds, it looked like Ken Block might find the miracle finish his needed after being out-slugged and held harmless, practically scoreless, for two thirds of the debate already.
But just two seconds after the “hammerblow’” Mayor Fung was striking back! Within seconds Fung returned the favor of the personal attack on his ethics. Fung reminded everyone that Block had been fined by the State Board of Elections in connection with his contributions to his Moderate party, adding “ Let me be clear, I have always put the Cranston taxpayers first.” Now, Fung demolished the glib attack literally demanding, “if I were negotiating unfair contracts, how can we have three straight years of no tax increase?” And “Do you think union members liked when we laid people off?” “Do you think union members liked when we had to freeze their COLA’s?” “Do you think they liked moving into 401ks like us in the private sector?” Fung had more still, adding that not only was his administration firing an officer now, they had fired two officers in the past when necessary emphasizing that in Cranston public employees are held accountable.
This was not soccer as I had trivialized it in my first report of the debate. John Loughlin was right. This was epic Viking combat and a struggle between heroes. Ken Block had “put the hammer down” on Mayor Fung, but now, the Mayor was now raining punishment on Ken Block. It was exactly like I saw on that “Vikings” show I like, as if Mayor Fung had opened Ken Block’s back, and Mayor Fung was chopping his ribs from the spine so as to remove his lungs and leave them on Ken Block’s shoulders, leaving him suffering while a couple of anti-climactic questions about 38 studios and drivers licenses for illegal aliens closed out the debate. It’s no wonder poor Ken Block’s closing remarks were just a gasping repeat of his “only a political outsider [named Ken] can fix Rhode Island.
In the end, Fung had defeated his opponent, but attacked personally, honor and the ancient Viking code required him to “Blood Eagle” his opponent.
Ken Block suffered heroically, complimenting Mayor Fung, and Mayor Fung helped Ken to assure his place in Valhalla, in turn complimenting Ken Block and they both promised to support the primary victor in the General election. Odin would be pleased.
I had thought to simply write “Did Ken Block win the second half of the debate? “to examine that legend and prove it a myth with meek Christian text. But John Loughlin’s glorious tale of Ken’s “putting the hammer down” on Mayor Allen Fung showed me my error, and therein I understood the true glory of what will now be a tale worthy of Viking lore. In the second half of the debate, Mayor Fung Blood eagled Ken Block.”
Perhaps I am just looking forward to the next season of “Vikings” too much.
Mike Gardiner is an attorney basedin Providence, former Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, and host of the Mic Gardiner Show, Tuesdays at 6 PM.