Like World Cup Soccer, debates between candidates of the same parties offer lots of interesting passing back and forth and chances to evaluate player skills and style of play, but hardly any scoring. If you love the game it’s interesting. If you are not that tuned in to soccer you can easily find more entertainment elsewhere. Despite more sizzle than the Democratic debate, the first debate between Rhode Island Republican primary contenders to represent the Rhode Republican Party in the governor’s race played political soccer Tuesday night at the not so full Providence Performing Arts Center.
The matchup, hosted by WPRI and the Providence Journal and moderated by Tim White also featured of panel of WPRI’s political reporter Ted Nesi and the Providence Journal’s Ed Fitzpatrick. The contenders, Cranston Mayor Allen Fung, and activist businessman, Moderate Party founder and 201 Moderate party candidate Ken Block were able to go head to head unlike the three candidate Democratic field of Clay Pell, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Tavares.
Mayor Fungs opening remarks were smooth, strong, and highlighted experience with real issues. Memorable bullet points were effective; “three term Mayor,” “keeping property taxes low,” “moving city employees into 401k’s,” “a thousand new jobs. ” His themes? “ Real Reforms, Real Results” and “Open for Business” My assessment? Slogans aside? GOOOOAAAALLLLLL! Fung embodied the confidence that comes of three terms as Mayor and hammered home his experience in tackling the difficult tasks of governing in what is truly an adversarial environment unlike one’s own business. He used his time effectively and scored.
Ken Block’s credentials were provided by Tim White and aptly qualified him as a Dartmouth graduate former GTech employee and founder of two software companies. And its only fair to add that Ken Block has demonstrated real energy in founding the Moderate Party, and in addition to being a candidate for governor in 2010, has been active at the state house supporting the proposed reform of the “master lever” straight party voting option in elections. But despite numerous debate performances in his 2010 Moderate party Campaign for Governor, Ken Block did not live up to the pre-debate billing as formidable.
Not a political insider
His opening remarks were biographical in nature, introducing his family, wasted time, really, as the camera did not follow the lead and depict the individuals being introduced. The biographical time was followed by an emotional appeal to the worry of children leaving the state segueing into a campaign slogan to “fix Rhode Island.” In another emotional appeal to frustration Ken block pinned Rhode Island’ s difficulties on “political insiders” arguing “ only an outsider can fix Rhode Island. I suppose Don Carcieri was an outsider too, Bruce Sundlun was a businessman candidate not really a “political Insider” and Lincoln Almond was most recently the essentially non-partisan United States Attorney but here we are. So much for that thin soup.Fung clearly won the opening remarks and he and his team clearly understood what had to be done better and executed better.
But Block had some early help. WPRI has seemed friendlier to the Block candidacy. On News makers, Mayor Fung faced off with Tim White and Former Attorney and political commentator General Arlene Violet . Arlene Violet was a strong Moderate party supporter and attended Ken Block’s announcement and Moderate Party candidate launch early in the 2010 election season. Her questioning of Fung was notably fisheyed. Tim White was no less sharp in his lead off question.
An insult to voters?
Giving full voice to the international reaction to the Fung Campaigns shock and awe “ Blockheads” ad, Tim White immediately put Mayor Fung on the defensive demanding “ how do you defend insulting voters in a primary, right of the bat?” Thus indicted on this “ high crime and misdemeanor” Mayor Fung was placed on his back foot a little but for only a second. Where others might have squirmed, Fung hardly blinked and came right back with a smart answer. The voters need to know what Ken Block said in the past; “the past is the best indicator of future performance” he added. Frankly, it was great goaltending. But Fung scored again!
Having blocked the kick, Fung went on the offensive and emphasized this election is about the jobs and the economy and reminded the audience against of Ken Blocks support for President Obama.
Tim White seemed almost shaken by Fung’s easy parrying of a strong kick. As if representing Ken Block, White cross-examined Fung, trying to lock him into a ridiculous what would be ridiculous statement admission “ So your entire argument here is that your republican opponent voted for Barrack Obama twice…Other than that with Ken Block, you’re okay? ”While this question would objected to in court “Your honor, the witnesses testimony is being mischaracterized” “SUSTAINED” Need I remind you this was not a court of law this was SOCCER?
Fung didn’t need the protection of an impartial judge he not only blocked the shot, he kicked it back to Block’s defender’s again repeating his point that the past matters, words matter, supporting barrack Obama twice matters. A free shot on goal for Block only seemed to demonstrate Fung was no easy match up.
In complete command
Tim White persisted, in a second follow up, White again advocated for Block, and carried Blocks water on giving voice to Block’s Newsmaker interview remarks explaining his early support for Obamacare and his later disillusionment t and disappointment. Fung blocked the shot and kicked it back hard again hammering Block “Shame on Mr. Block for not doing his homework” and citing many costs to the state of Obamacare. And it got worse; Fung used the response time to remind republican primary voters of Ken Block’s anti republican formation of the moderate party. Tim White, repelled three times, realized that about seven minutes into the broadcast, Fung was in complete command. It was up to Ken Block to change the momentum. White asked Block to respond.
White teed it up for Block “He [Fung] says shame on you for not doing your homework, respond?” Nice. This was going to be sweet. Block totally avoided or missed the opportunity to slash back. He was on a filed not of his choosing and he knew it.
Fung had repelled the assault convincingly and charged back with fixed bayonets… no wait this is Soccer. Fung clearly was now enjoying the home field advantage of an office holder and seasoned veteran of the adversarial processes of law and government.
Block tried to break up Fung’s effective play. He wouldn’t respond directly to White’s offer of a chance to address “why didn’t he do his homework, how was he “surprised” by the costs to the state of Obamacare” Block attempted to juke and parried Fung was trying to make a big deal of the fact he twice [so far as we know] voted for a Democrat. It was so obvious a disengagement, it was painful. Team Block should have seen this coming a mile away and either deceived themselves this moment wouldn’t matter or didn’t appreciate it . Whatever Ken Block proved the point I made in last week’s blog,. He voted for Obama twice. Just what do you say to that? Ken Blog’s answer more or less was “you are being mean.” His actual words were “It’s an insult to voters and quite frankly a junior high school level of campaigning.” Will the Republican primary voters agree? Ken Block claimed the campaign is about serious issues, but Block was only too willing to pick up a media theme that the campaign is about “insulting the voters, ” the very words Tim White offered in his opening question.
Fung was unfazed. On the next question he resisted the suggestion he was calling Block a liar, but simply called him a “flip-flopper” again hammered Block for his past support of Obama, and Tim White conceded the validity of the issue. “ You know Mr. Block for many Republicans this is a big deal. They might take issue with the fact that you voted for a guy that is hugely unpopular in the GOP twice?” and asked Block to respond to the fact he had voted for Obama twice. Again, as I finished my recent “Fung campaign unleashes shock and awe” article, just what do you say to that?
One Billion Dollars
Ken Block almost, almost found the initiative. He simply said “I understand that Tim.” And then talked about his plan save the state of Rhode Island one billion dollars. Unfortunately, in so doing he recreated the character of Dr. Evil from the ”Austin Powers” movies. What he could say is, and might say is “ I’m a ways and means guy” I do believe in government and that is compatible with being Republican and its been hard to be a Republican in an environment where social issues dominated and some extremists were taking advantage of taxpayer outrage and trying to take the party to far outside what mainstream voters expect and want form our government.” Why can’t ken Block say this? Because as a non office holder and an outsider, he has tried to make himself a Republican insider and oddly had to cultivate support among not Republican moderates, but some very right wing Republicans. The strange bedfellows of outsider politics have deprived him of his moderate voice. He doesn’t want to be who he is and lose. Politics seems cruel that way. it demands the most outrageous amounts of courage and perseverance if you expect to be true to yourself. Hardly selling his plan to fax Rhode Island, Block showed how firmly on his back foot Fung had planted him, by shifting attention to guns. Is this gubernatorial contest really about guns? Why?
Block was arguing that Fung changes his mind too. Whatever. Maybe we are having a junior high campaign season. ”Apparently only the mayor is allowed to change his positions over time and I’m not,” Block said. Mercifully for Block, Tim White, holding up his hands almost in a gesture of “ stop the fight” range the bell and a whole new round would give Ken Block a chance to regain his footing where and fight his kind of fight, on policy, budget, and his theme, ideas to “ Fix” Rhode Island. Block articulated a rational by which Rhode Island could expect to save 140 million dollars, half of federally estimated fraud and waste in the medicaid program. But Block then attacked Fung claiming Fung didn’t believe 1% of the state budget could be saved.
Ted Nesi got into specifics about plans to cut state spending. In case you haven’t hear, its not easy to cut the state budget. Fung claimed his specific cuts were realistic. Fung hopes for a 5% reduction I personnel costs, but also relies on not repaying the 38 studio bonds, a cut some might think are unrealistic and he was challenged on that by Block, who while claiming that ship has sailed, also takes the position he would not repay the 38 studio bonds and Mayor Fung pointed out that it is a year by year appropriation. Fung said yes he would veto a budget containing such an appropriation, but foreshadowing a likely Democratic majority and override he said “ yes I would , just to send a message.”
Fung was given a chance to follow up on his plan to find 5% in personal cuts and cited his experience in Cranston and the commitment to execute. Block again, took the position of victim, complaining right out of the gate, complaining that his plan to cut state spending has been criticized by Fung as unrealistic.
Ed Fitzpatirck. Pointing out their similar stances on many issues asked each candidate them to announce one major policy difference that distinguished from their opponent, here Fung made the point that Ken Block’ intentions to reform unemployment insurance would hurt some employers. On this subject , Block made his point that Fung was pandering to a small group of employers whose seasonal layoffs force other employers to subsidize their insurance costs unfairly. Block hurt his presentation however by trying to foreshadow his eagerness to attack Fung as mismanaging the Cranston Police Department. In effect, he interrupted his strength, his smart “ ways and means” approach with his weakness, his campaigns spiral inward into backbiting and infighting and turf fights within the Republican party.
Another memorable moment was Fung’s sound byte mocking Ken Block’s “ 3-2-1 plan “ you know it sounds great.. but when you take that deep dive into what that plan means, 3-2-1 equals zero. It’s a lot of rhetoric.”. Block needed and claimed his best moment smacking Fung for appearing to pander to one employer who Fung literally named.
At this point, very close to halfway through the debate, Fung had fended of three consecutive volleys from Tim White, and used his response time to hammer Block. As the second thirty minute began, Block took the chance to bask in possible glory and celebrate his efforts toward the repeal of the master lever.
After followed the rapid fire segment which is so often just a fire of of quick litmus test issues for those who vote only on one issue. I will not digest them here.
The second half did give Ken Block a good chance to mitigate run for Governor and arguable “ block “of a Robitaille victory. He explained he had to run, so as to preserve his party. So it wasn’t a “ block” thrown on Robitaille, but decision taken with nothing to do with the then mostly unknown Robitaille.
Also, Fung was criticized for supporting brick and mortar rent and tax paying and tangibles tax paying restaurant owners against food trucks parking nearby. Block found a low moment. He characterized Fung’s duty to protect taxpayers as “political insider.” It insubstantial, and insulting, the very thing Block complained of so many times in the debate.
This lead naturally enough to the “Cranston Parking Massacre” (“ticketing scandal”) wherein overnight parkers in violation of a long established overnight parking ordinance where, no exaggeration her, ticketed for overnight parking. In the end, the council realized that when they had raised the overnight tag penalty to $50, they had discouraged enforcement and the police had stopped tagging. Fung has not been connected to the night of broken windshield wipers when police decided to ticket all violators in certain areas ( those likely to have overnight parkers by the way) with orders to ticket violators. And nobody has appeared claiming their vehicle was moved into the street for the purpose of ticketing. But Block accused Fung, that if he cannot manage the Cranston Police Department, he is not fit to be governor. Block did not cite any actual experience managing either a city or a police department.
Fung resented the personal ethics attack and reminded Block that he was fined by the State Board of elections for a violation in the financing of his Moderate party.
To their credit, in the end, both candidates were able to effectively shake hands and call it a good game, and credited each other with respectable accomplishments and attributes. Then, came closing remarks
Although seeming a little weary from his efforts, Fung competently layed out his main themes and repeated his accomplishments in Cranston. Block injected more enthusiasm into his final remarks, but as with the opening, had to rely more on slogans than history. History matters.
Junior high campaign
Ken Block, casting himself as the outsider, has suffered from focusing too much on becoming the Republican insider. As a result, too much of his presentation was a portrayal of himself as the victim of meanness. But in reality, the Block campaign seemed all about what he called a junior high campaign. “Fung was mean to run the Blockheads ad. “ “I can’t believe Fung criticizes my plan to save the state money as unrealistic.” And the accusation that Fung is not fit to be Governor because he “ can’t manage the Cranston Police department?” That only serves to accentuate more real history, that the Block campaign was as enthused about those Mayoral challenges as a shark in chummed water, and was and is very harsh in it’s criticism of Fung. The media even seemed to be on board.
Fung took the best shots for his “ negative ad” and the Cranston police issues, and wasn’t even rattled. And, Fung used his response time to hammer Block. When he wasn’t responding, he came across as a competent experienced Mayor capable of being governor. Despite Ken Block’s many debate appearances in 2010, he appeared a novice by comparison. His best opportunities to core where with the assistance of the media panel and he simply missed.
Fung argued convincingly that Ken Block’s history matters and predicts his future performance. Fung’s “experience as a “ political insider” also allowed him to rattle off accomplishments relevant to serving as governor and in doing so , in the critical early part of the debate Fung completely dominated. Ken Block’s campaign went off the rails when instead of blooming the RIGOP with moderate influence and nourishment, he started fighting for his share of the small pie. He stopped winning supporters and instead sought to carve out a fiefdom in the tiny GOP. This has to be at the expense of Fung and requires too much focus on attacking Fung and opportunism whenever Fung has a difficulty, as Mayors do. Block’s fundraising hasn’t demonstrated he has broad support anywhere. And his campaign people think the party’s endorsement is meaningless, yet the fight for the little piece of the pie belies that. Against such a campaign, Fung only has to be resilient. Not only has he been resilient, Tuesday night showed he was under-rated.
I’ve said it before, Mayor Allen Fung is the home team. Ken Block has a tough chore in trying to win on the road. Tuesday night, Fung won so convincingly, that at about 7 minutes, they probably should have stopped the fight but, they couldn’t. Its soccer. There’s lots and lots of passing and running up and down the field to have the game decided by one or two goals. The goals Tuesday night were all Fungs.