Democratic incumbent Congressman Jim Langevin squared off against Republican challenger Michael Riley in their first televised debate on Fox Providence Tuesday night. Langevin was soft-spoken throughout, defending himself against Riley’s attacks, which were often abrasive and sometimes directed toward the moderating panel.
WPRI’s investigative reporter and host of “Newsmakers,” Tim White, served as the moderator. WPRI.com reporter Ted Nesi and Arlene Violet, former Attorney General and Eyewitness News analyst, joined White on the panel.
Riley chose to center his opening remarks on his children and his marriage, calling both his “greatest accomplishments,” while Langevin immediately brought up the importance of strengthening the middle class.
When asked what his greatest accomplishment in Congress has been thus far, Langevin cited his Lifespan Respite Care Act from 2006, which established a program to assist family caregivers.
As a counter to Riley’s numerous attack ads, which allege that Langevin has passed no legislation to help Rhode Island’s economy, Langevin said his work as a member of the House Armed Services Committee has helped to put people to work at Electric Boat. He also said his efforts to close the skills gap in industries like information technology has directly impacted the economy positively.
Langevin, who is seeking his seventh term in Congress, has faced fierce challenge from Riley, a former Wall Street day trader who has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign.
Riley, who has never held elected office, said his age and his business experience make Congress an “entry level position” for him, and that career politicians aren’t necessarily the best people to hold office at this time of economic crisis.
“It’s a real mistake to think that being in public office your entire life is the qualification for being U.S. Congressman,” he said. “Our founders didn’t believe that, I don’t believe that.”
Instead, he said his experience as a businessman is what the country really needs.
Violet asked Langevin for his game plan on creating and bringing jobs to Rhode Island.
“I’ve outlined my support of the robust defense industry in Rhode Island,” he said, then again referencing closing the skills gap.
“There are jobs available but we’re struggling to find workers with the right skills,” he said.
Riley said his job creation plan focused on the national economy and simplifying the tax code.
“We need to take 77,000 pages of tax code into 100 pages,” he said. “If you really want jobs in this country, simplify the tax code.”
He also thinks removing many regulations will help with job creation and economic revival.
But Langevin said Riley’s plan, like GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s, would mean a tax cut for the wealthy and an accompanying tax hike for the middle class.
“The overall policy is going back to the Bush-era policy of trickle down economics,” said Langevin. “We somehow just wait for the benefits to trickle down to the middle class and it just doesn’t work.”
But Riley countered, saying his cuts were “revenue-neutral.”
“I want to lower taxes for everyone,” he said. “I want to create a better playing field for everyone. That’s how you create jobs.”
Nesi asked Riley how the country could afford broad-based tax cuts like the flat tax with federal spending and rising national debt.
“You just don’t get it,” said Riley, who believes the cuts would contribute to the growth of the economy, and therefore create a way to cover federal spending. “The answer is growth. The answer to all of this is growth.”
Taxes weren’t the only areas on which Langevin and Riley differed. Riley said he would not vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, while Langevin quickly said he would. Riley said he would support abortions in the case of rape or ill health of the mother, but Langevin said his focus is on preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Riley is in support of 6-year term limits for Congress, while Langevin said Congress already has “term limits” of two years. He added that if term limits were adopted, he would like to see it happen across the country, rather than on a state-by-state basis.
On immigration, Langevin said we should have tougher border security but also a “path to come out of the shadows” for illegal citizens to attain citizenship. In a rare moment, Riley agreed, seconding Langevin’s logic that those illegal citizens must get in the back of the line when it comes time to attain legal status.
As the debate drew to a close, White asked both candidates for letter grades of both Governor Lincoln Chafee and President Barack Obama. Riley gave Chafee a C (for “cloudy”), and Langevin gave him a B+; for the president, Riley gave Obama a D (for “distracted”) while Langevin gave him an “incomplete.”
Abel Collins, the independent candidate who started an online petition to be included in the WPRI debate, gathered more than 1,000 signatures. Still, he was not included in yesterday’s taping, which took place at 10:30 a.m. despite the debate’s prime time airing.
Collins live-streamed a response to the debate at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening. His answers to the debate questions are now available on RIFuture.org.
In an earlier interview, Collins said that WJAR Channel 10 had offered him a spot on their Congressional District 2 debate should he earn 10 percent support in the Brown University poll. The poll, released yesterday, gave Collins roughly 5 percent support with a six-point margin of error. Yesterday Collins said WJAR confirmed his invitation to debate Langevin and Riley on Nov. 2.
In addition to earning Collins a spot on WJAR, the Brown University poll showed that 49 percent of the 235 Congressional District 2 voters polled would vote for Langevin, with Riley earning 31 percent. Fourteen percent were undecided. Thirty-two percent of registered voters polled also gave Langevin a rating of “good,” with only 9 percent rating him as “excellent.” A combined 44 percent of voters polled rated Langevin “only fair” or “poor.” The poll was conducted from Sept. 26 to Oct. 5.
You can watch the full debate between Riley and Langevin at www.WPRI.com.