2012-11-01 / News

Hopefuls discuss issues

Candidates for Congress, General Assembly debate
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

The candidates for Rhode Island State House offices and U.S. Senate participated in a forum last week sponsored by the Jamestown Shores Association. During the two-hour discussion, the four men and two women gave their views about what they thought was the state’s biggest problem, and how to turn around student performance. They also explained their stands on casino gambling, abortion rights, voter ID and the Studio 38 fallout.

Anthony Mastrostefano and Deb Ruggiero, both of Jamestown, are running for the District 74 seat in the state House of Representatives. Geoff Cook and Teresa Paiva Weed, both of Newport, are seeking the District 13 state Senate seat.

In the U.S. Senate campaign, Barry Hinckley of Newport will challenge Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. In the race for U.S. House, David Vogel will challenge Republican Brendan Doherty and incumbent David Cicilline.

Whitehouse, Doherty and Cicilline did not attend the forum.

Mastrostefano, Cook and Hinckley are Republicans. Ruggiero and Paiva Weed are Democrats. Vogel is an Independent.

The moderator, Susie Quinn- Romano, is a former member of the Jamestown School Committee. She said the questions came from several sources, including the Taxpayers Assocation of Jamestown.

Before the forum started, Quinn- Romano summarized the ground rules, which gave each candidate time for a personal introduction. When the round of questions started, each speaker had two minutes to respond plus 30 seconds for rebuttal. Only two rebuttals per candidate were allowed, however.

Hinckley began his introduction, “This is a very important election, as I’m sure you’re aware.” He went on to say Rhode Island is “a lastplace team. I don’t like being a last-place team.” Hinckley said he started a company on a credit card with two buddies and grew the business successfully.

“That’s the American spirit,” he said. “That’s the American dream. We need to turn Rhode Island around.”

But that won’t happen, Hinckley said, if voters continue electing career politicians with no business experience.

Vogel said he is an immigration and corporate attorney for a Florida company. “I am not exactly a household name,” he said. He shares some of Hinckley’s views.

“We both feel Washington is broken, but for slightly different reasons,” he said. He referred to the “wall of money” separating citizens from Congress. Vogel said he has promised not to accept any campaign donations.

Paiva Weed said she has represented Jamestown for 20 years and summarized some recent accomplishments.

“This last session has been one of the most challenging economically and fiscally,” she said, noting that the General Assembly reformed the state pension system, “completely restructured” the state income tax, and took steps to address other long-term issues.

Cook quipped that his British accent alerts everyone to the fact he is not a native. He was born in England and became a legal immigrant. He ultimately decided to run for office because he “needed to be involved.” Cook said only 5 percent of Rhode Islanders say the state economy is good.

“I want to represent the taxpayer,” he said. He wants the State House to “look at labor reform and how unions seem to have a strangle hold on the General Assembly.” He also wants to “get us out from unemployment.”

Ruggiero said she promised to continue to be responsive to the constituents and stressed that one of her strengths is bringing people together. As the incumbent, she sponsored a statewide antibullying law. She also has chaired several State House committees, including small business and renewable energy, and has worked with the state Department of Environmental Management to foster the Rhode Island’s agriculture and seafood industries.

Mastrostefano said he has the skill set needed at this time. He was trained as a mechanical engineer. “That means problem solving, and I understand business,” he said. He also holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Rhode Island.

Mastrostefano fielded the first question, which was to state the biggest problem facing Rhode Island.

“The major problem is the business environment,” he said. Specifi cally, he said, state government policies make conditions hard for existing businesses to grow, and new businesses will not come here because Rhode Island is known for having the worst business environment in the country.

“My plan is to address that,” he said, starting by eliminating many of the fees the secretary of state’s office charges. He promised to take steps to change the anti-business policy, including ending the minimum corporate tax and cutting the gas tax. Mastrostefano also wants to end the inheritance tax.

Ruggiero said she has worked to foster small business in Rhode Island. “It’s also important to shore up businesses already in our state,” she said. “They need customers. They need people to buy their products.”

She supports reinstating the historic preservation tax credit, which the state repealed in 2008. The credit, which was in effect from 2002 to 2008, resulted in 11,700 jobs, she said.

“That’s what we need – labor, government and business together creating jobs,” she said. Ruggiero also favors increasing the estatetax exemption.

Cook would like to see Rhode Island develop manufacturing and high-tech jobs, and attract those companies by offering a better tax package and a better-trained labor force. He cited studies ranking Rhode Island last among the 50 states for worst business climate.

“Rhode Island usually runs in the top five for unemployment,” he added. Also, leaders must look at education. Too many students are leaving school at 16 and 17 and lack job skills.

“The corporate tax is one of the things that really stings,” he said. Cook also favors cutting the gas tax.

Paiva Weed said she was unhappy about the CNBC poll that listed Rhode Island with the nation’s worst business environment, but said the poll does not reflect the current reality.

“We have turned a corner, and we are making progress,” she said. “Rhode Island leaders need to start marketing Rhode Island. Rhode Island is a state with low self-esteem.”

Paiva Weed said state leaders have already accomplished some regulatory reform. More needs to be done, she said, but added the rankings are not entirely about taxes, but also consider state infrastructure and roads.

Vogel said he would focus on the economy, education and state identity. “Give people a reason to be here,” he said, and added the tax policies and the economy must change to “allow this place to be inviting.”

“Education is a big deal, but I look at education a little bit differently,” said Vogel. He said that there is no reason why parents shouldn’t use technology to teach kids before they start school so the children already have acquired basic problem-solving skills before they start reading and writing.

“Third, Rhode Island lacks an identity,” he said. “Mr. Potato Head just didn’t cut it.”

Hinckley refuted Paiva Weed’s claim it was just one poll that ranked Rhode Island’s business climate last in the nation. Forbes also ranked Rhode Island last, he said. He added that he would “constantly pressure Smith Hill” to make Rhode Island “business friendly.”

The state has been managed into last place, he said. “When the Red Sox ended up in last place, the team fired Bobby Valentine.”

Continuing the baseball analogy, Hinckley said losing team owners find out what the winning teams are doing and copy them. Rhode Island did the opposite. “Rhode Island doubled down on every bad policy,” he said. “It’s not like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. We know what works. Smith Hill needs to change its attitude about business.”

Paiva Weed rebutted Hinckley and others who faulted the State House for failing to create a healthy business climate.

“We in the Senate have worked very closely with business leaders,” she said, and cited a number of examples, including taking the lead against the sales-tax increases that Gov. Lincoln Chafee proposed.

Mastrostefano rebutted Vogel and Paiva Weed’s comments about the failure to market the state correctly. “That’s not the government’s job,” he said.

“I completely reject the idea Rhode Island has an identity problem or that we look down on ourselves. The goal of the government should be to create an environment where everybody chasing their dreams can establish a business or enterprise.”

Quinn-Romano turned to the two gambling questions on the November ballot. Mastrostefano said he does not support the referendum.

Cook said he does support table games at Newport Grand and Twin River.

“Whether we like it or not, casino gambling is one-third of state revenue,” he said.

Paiva Weed also said she supports the expansion to preserve jobs and revenue in the short term. She said the state is dependent on the revenue from the slot parlors, and said the Bay State’s decision to go forward with casinos will pose a threat to Newport Grand and Twin River.

Vogel said gambling is a bad deal for communities, which will see depressed property values, an influx of “bad elements,” and traffi c snarls if they allow table games. Moreover, he said, casinos typically stay in business only 20 to 25 years. He personally has nothing against gambling, he said, but voters should “understand what they’re getting into.”

Hinckley said the referendum is a sad statement that Rhode Island has to look to a “vice” to support its state finances. He called the po- litical reaction to the Bay State’s decision to introduce casino gambling more of the “me-too factor.”

“When are we going to lead?” he asked.

Mastrostefano said gambling “keeps our eyes off the ball” and “keeps us from doing the hard work necessary to go to a positive business environment.” He said in a valid business, people create a product and sell it at a profit, making money for the owner and employees. With gambling, people go to casinos and lose their money.

“I don’t support the referendum,” he said. “I don’t think anything good can come out of it.”

Ruggiero said it will be up to the people to make a decision but she is supporting table games. Ruggiero called Newport Grand part of the hospitality trade and not a gambling destination. She also said Newport Grand employs 200 and will add 50 new jobs if table games are approved. The revenue stream is also important to the state economy and could be at risk.

“Massachusetts will have three casinos,” she said, “and one in Taunton probably.”

The third question dealt with education. Rhode Island is 32nd in the country for student achievement, Quinn-Romano said, and students score lower on standardized tests here than in neighboring states.

Vogel said he would like to see changes in early childhood education so that children acquire basic problem-solving skills by age 3, 4 and 5. “Those are the building blocks,” he said. “In my world, you build a foundation first.”

Vogel said the state also must close the skills gap so Rhode Island’s labor force has the training needed for new jobs.

Hinckley favors “private innovation” to solve the education woes. He would expand Pell grants to cover kindergarten through grade 12 by giving parents the money to send the children to the school of their choice. Such change would foster competition and reduce the local taxpayers’ burden for public education, he said. He also noted many politicians support public schools, but send their own children to private schools. “Actions speak louder than words,” he said.

Mastrostefano said the schools should be restructured to apply better teaching techniques. There is a tendency for our schools to put kids on a single track, he said, ignoring the fact children have verbal, spatial and interpersonal skills.

Ruggiero said the state needs to close the “work-skills gap” because half the jobs in Rhode Island require mid-level skills, and the labor force does not have the qualifi cations.

“Education is economic development,” she said, adding that people need to become lifelong learners to stay in the middle class.

Cook said throwing money at education is a lost cause. He feels that parents and teachers must step up to get their children to be engaged. He favors vouchers so parents can choose the best school.

Paiva Weed said the schools need to improve, but the state has taken steps, such as the hiring of Deborah Gist as education commissioner. Rhode Island has landed federal government funds through the Race to the Top program and schools are currently implementing reforms through that system, she said.

Meanwhile, state leaders have developed an education funding formula. “Rhode Island went for years without a formula,” Paiva Weed said, adding that the state needs to lengthen the school day and adopt other reforms. “Teachers need to be part of the discussion.”

Cook used a rebuttal to complain about a public-service commercial on the “I Pledge” campaign for showing a Rhode Island principal saying she pledged to be “all about children’s education.”

That, Cook said, is what they’re being paid to do. “That’s what you should be doing when you walk into your office every morning.”

The next topic was 38 Studios, the video game company owned by former Red Sox ace Curt Schilling that went into bankruptcy earlier this year. Rhode Island had guaranteed $75 million in loans for 38 Studios.

How did we get to this point, Quinn-Romano asked.

Ruggiero said the 38 Studios case was “not the way it was intended to be.” She said the General Assembly voted in April 2010 to allocate money for the Economic Development Corporation to help small business. At the time, banks were not lending, she said, and the chambers of commerce supported the concept. “It’s tragic it wasn’t the winner it was supposed to be,” she said.

Cook said the 38 Studios debacle is “a sad moment.” According to Cook, the money could have been better spent being put into the Community College of Rhode Island or spread around to several different companies.

Paiva Weed said the loan guarantee program was enacted “at the urging of the business community” and stressed no one had voted to give money to 38 Studios specifi- cally. She also said the EDC was “all businessmen,” because since the state adopted the separationof powers reforms, no members of the General Assembly have sat on the EDC.

“I can’t say why it didn’t work,” she said, but suggested restructuring the EDC to make it clear the governor is responsible for economic development.

Vogel said he couldn’t understand why Rhode Island invested taxpayer money in 38 Studios after Massachusetts had passed on a similar opportunity. He also said the official investigations into the debacle were “lipstick on a pig” and did not address the problem.

Hinckley said 38 Studios is a poster child of what government shouldn’t do. He said government can put obstacles in the way of business or remove them, but should not be investing in business.

Mastrostefano said the EDC “looks to me like centralized planning,” and that’s not the model that made this country great. He said his own father started the family business with $20, and the company is still going strong today.

On asking voters for identification, Hinckley, Cook, Paiva Weed and Mastrostefano said they support the measure. Vogel opposed it. “It’s got to go,” he said. Ruggiero said she voted against voter ID after hearing testimony about voter fraud. Ruggiero said there isn’t significant voter fraud, and she is not convinced voter ID is necessary.

Vogel rebutted Mastrostefano’s statement saying he was in favor of voter ID because of illegal immigration. Mastrostefano said without voter ID, some illegals could be voting.

Vogel said illegal immigration doesn’t have anything to do with voter ID, and Mastrostefano shot back that according to the Constitution, “Voting is to be done by a citizen.”

Cook used a rebuttal card to tell an anecdote about going to the Division of Motor Vehicles and having the clerk start to offer him a voter-registration card only to withdraw it because of his English accent.

The next question was introduced as a national issue. “The high cost of fuel oil is a major burden on many Rhode Islanders,” Quinn-Romano stated. “What can be done?” she asked.

Cook said the price at the pump has climbed from $1.90 to $4 a gallon while Obama has been president, but has started to drop as the election approaches. He said the federal government has pushed oil and gas exploration further away, and the Congressional delegation should advocate for using U.S. oil and gas resources. Rhode Island should also reduce the gas tax, he said.

Paiva Weed said she will continue to support renewable-energy initiatives at the state level. She would also like to look at sales-tax incentives for electric and hybrid cars.

Vogel said although renewable energy is not yet the solution, he would offer federal subsidies, foster fledging industries and remove incentives for fossil fuels.

Hinckley said the United States needs both fossil fuels and renewable energy, but the country is a long way from renewables being the answer. He agrees government should help emerging industries, but added, “We can’t let politicians place the bet because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Mastrostefano said the time is not yet right for renewables because of high costs. He suggested people save energy and look for programs that help pay for insulation.

Ruggiero added she is chairwoman of the state renewable energy task force and petroleum advisory committee.

On the question about abortion rights, Paiva Weed and Mastrostefano said they are pro-life. He added the Constitution is the law of the land, but said he could not believe the Founding Fathers ever envisioned abortion rights when they wrote the Constitution.

Ruggiero is pro-choice.

Vogel said he believes the First Amendment gives women the right to choose.

Hinckley is pro-choice politically, but personally pro-life, he said.

Cook said he is childless partly because his ex-wife discovered she was pregnant while they were in the process of divorcing and chose to end the pregnancy. He would choose life but added he doesn’t think government should be regulating the decision. However, he also feels the government shouldn’t fund abortions. “It’s sad people use abortion as contraception,” he said, echoing Mastrostefano’s comments.

Finally, the candidates were asked for ideas on closing the gap between the nation’s wealthiest citizens.

Hinckley said the gap has deepened because of the economy, which has made the rich even richer.

“Only in a thriving economy can you bounce back,” he said.

Mastrostefano said government could make it easier to climb out of poverty by removing “barriers to entry,” such as limiting regulations and making it easy to start a business.

Ruggiero said when John F. Kennedy was president, the key was a job. “Right now, it’s affordable health care,” she said, and predicted the “next big crisis” will be college tuitions.

Cook said people need to start with employment and jobs have been scarce. “Companies are just not expanding,” he said.

Paiva Weed said college costs are becoming a problem, as Ruggiero noted. She also said the state income tax restructuring has resulted in savings for most taxpayers.

Vogel said the United States does not have a tax policy and needs one to bring jobs back. He also favors reducing salaries for chief executives.

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