Senate race gets hot in TV debate


He thinks Sen. President Paiva-Weed deserves an A- and Governor Chafee deserves a C; she thinks the Senate leadership should get a C- and Chafee should get a B.

Senate District 29 candidates Laura Pisaturo and incumbent Michael McCaffrey don’t agree on much. Though they’re both Democrats, the two are vastly different, a fact that was apparent on Friday morning as the two debated on WPRI Channel 12’s political roundtable show “Newsmakers.” (Watch the "Newsmakers" debate in full here)

McCaffrey and Pisaturo exchanged pleasantries in the vestibule of the Catamore Boulevard station and indulged in small talk with the show’s hosts while putting on their microphones; there were even laughs during the commercial break when a floor director instructed them to be wary of tipping the table on which their coffee mugs and notes were set. But once the cameras were rolling and the questions began to fly, McCaffrey and Pisaturo were all business.

Tim White, WPRI’s investigative reporter and host of “Newsmakers,” gave McCaffrey and Pisaturo 30 seconds each at the top of the show to tell viewers why they should win the District 29 Senate seat.

McCaffrey, the incumbent seeking his 10th term, said he should be re-elected because he’s a family man that’s invested in the well-being of the community.

“I want [my kids] to grow up in the city of Warwick like I grew up in the city of Warwick,” said McCaffrey. “I want them to enjoy the city of Warwick.”

Pisaturo said she believes it’s time for a change and thinks she can provide the people of District 29 with a fresh perspective.

“If there ever was a time for change in Rhode Island, it’s now,” said Pisaturo, who resides in the Governor Francis Farms neighborhood. “Warwick is a great city and I love making it my home.”

Pisaturo, an attorney who currently serves on Warwick’s Planning Board, called herself “proactive, accountable and accessible.”

Because they are both Democrats and no other candidates have declared for the district, the winner of the District 29 Senate seat will be decided in the Sept. 11 primary. But their kindred political affiliation doesn’t mean the pair has the same opinions on hot-button issues.

The issue that splits them most starkly is that of same-sex marriage. McCaffrey serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which deals directly with the same-sex marriage bill. Although the committee has heard the bill, it has never taken a vote on it, a point that White raised Friday.

“Senator [Rhoda] Perry, I assume, has done a head count of the committee, has done a head count of the senate and said, ‘I may not have the votes for this,’” said McCaffrey as the reason for not taking the same-sex marriage bill to vote.
McCaffrey implied he did not have a problem with voting on the matter but is opposed to same-sex marriage, and said repeatedly he believes marriage is between a man and a woman.

Pisaturo, who lives with her wife, Maria, is a proponent of same-sex marriage. She said she believes equal protection under the law is taking a back seat, and that all Rhode Island families deserve equal treatment.

“I think even more than giving it an up or down vote, we should be advocating for it in Rhode Island,” she said. “This is a no-brainer; this needs to happen in Rhode Island.”

Pisaturo said she believes most Rhode Islanders agree with her position on same-sex marriage; McCaffrey disagreed.

Statewide Public Policy Polls from February of 2011 (the most recent data available) show that 50 percent of Rhode Islanders support same-sex marriage, while 41 percent oppose and 9 percent have no opinion on the matter. The bulk of the opposition comes from Republicans and senior citizens.

White raised the issue of the ethics commission, and whether or not it should be reinstated.

McCaffrey said he believes the General Assembly should not police itself.

“If we’re going to change the authority of the ethics commission, we should also look at the separation of power to see how that’s going to interact with that,” said McCaffrey, an answer White said was “eerily similar” to that of one given by Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed at an earlier juncture.

Ultimately, McCaffrey conceded to the idea that law enforcement should be responsible for the ethics of the General Assembly.

“Leave it up to law enforcement,” he said. “Work to address the concerns of the ethics commission, changing the ethics commission, and separation of powers all in one.”

But Pisaturo said an internal committee would foster accountability.

“I don’t think there’s any substitute for an outside group being the people’s watchdog,” she said. “I do believe we need to give the ethics commission more teeth. I think that’s what the people deserve; that’s what they’ve asked for.”

Ted Nesi, a reporter and regular panelist on “Newsmakers,” asked McCaffrey and Pisaturo why Rhode Island’s 10.8 percent unemployment rate was still the second highest in the nation.

“Why hasn’t the Assembly taken more action to bring the joblessness rate down faster? Things are so much worse here than in the rest of the nation,” he said. “Why can’t we at least do something to be 25th?”

“The unemployment number is moving in the right direction; it’s moving slowly but it’s moving in the right direction,” said McCaffrey, who mentioned that the General Assembly was doing things like loosening fire codes and doing cost-analysis studies to help small businesses grow and expand.

“I think the General Assembly is taking actions,” he said.

Pisaturo, who said Rhode Island is “consistently the first to come into the recession and consistently the last to come out of the recession,” said the General Assembly should look at the flat tax, a tax enacted in 2006 that gave high earners fixed income tax rates, rather than progressive. Nesi pointed out that income tax reforms modified the 2006 incarnation of the flat tax. Still, Pisaturo said the General Assembly was guilty of not paying enough attention to helping small businesses on a regular basis, pointing to the flat tax as an example of that.

“Why don’t we invite small business to the table?” she said. She then brought up the 38 Studios debacle and called it an “insider deal.”

“There are a lot of small businesses that could have benefited from the money that was given to the EDC,” she said.

Arlene Violet, Eye Witness News analyst and former Attorney General, also sat on the “Newsmakers” panel Friday. She brought up the issue of tax-exempt properties, calling T.F. Green an “elephant in the room” in terms of monetary contributions to the city.

She asked McCaffrey and Pisaturo if they would favor specific changes to taxation of the airport corporation.

Pisaturo said she would look to local officials, like the mayor and City Council.
“I don’t see why something like that couldn’t work in Warwick,” she said. “The city should absolutely make sure that it receives its fair share.”

McCaffrey referenced a memorandum he drafted and parties agreed to this year in which Johnson & Wales will pay $40,000 this year and $400,000 over subsequent years of the agreement on the Radisson Hotel. He said he is hopeful that Warwick will feel the positive economic impacts of the airport’s expansion.

Violet also brought up the topic of pension reform, and asked what the General Assembly’s role should be in municipal pension reform. McCaffrey said after the involvement of the city officials, the General Assembly could step in if necessary.

Initially, Pisaturo skirted around the issue of whether or not she would have voted for the pension reform bill. Eventually, she answered.

“If it didn’t have everyone around the table, I would have voted it down,” she said.

Nesi asked McCaffrey if he would seek the Senate presidency if re-elected. McCaffrey was at first hesitant to answer, but then said he would have to survey the landscape if and when Paiva-Weed stepped down.

Nesi asked Pisaturo if it was threatening to know her opponent was a front-runner for the Senate presidency.

“My opponent has been a part of senate leadership for years,” said Pisaturo. “So whether he holds the title of president or not, I don’t think that’s going to change business as usual for the residents in District 29.”

But McCaffrey thinks otherwise.

“I have a family in Warwick, I’m always in Warwick,” he said in his defense, listing legislative grants he’s helped to get for organizations like the Academic Decathlon, Volunteers of Warwick Schools and the Rocky Point Foundation. 

The debate was heated but while cameras were still rolling, the pair amicably shook hands. Relieved that no one had literally tipped the table, they removed their microphones and set off for the rest of their day’s activities.


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