Candidates for Patrick Kennedy's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives faced off at the Community College of Rhode Island's Newport campus Monday night on topics such as immigration, education, job growth, health care and the war in Afghanistan.
Kennedy has represented Rhode Island's first congressional district since 1995, but announced in February that he is not running for re-election in November.
Six candidates attended the forum moderated by Sheila Mullowney, executive editor of The Newport Daily News. Each candidate was given 90 seconds for opening statements before Mullowney launched into questions adapted in part from audience member requests. She first asked them to compare themselves to Congressman Kennedy.
"He's been a tremendous, tremendous congressman for the state of Rhode Island," former Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch said. "When history looks at Patrick Kennedy, it will be focused on what he delivered for the state of Rhode Island in terms of appropriations … It's significant." Lynch went on to say his family is like "the Kennedys without money."
The debate's most heated moments came on the topic of education. Democrat Anthony Gemma, a local businessman, attacked Providence Mayor David Cicilline's record in the city's public school system. "Providence is a mess." Gemma said. "The Latino population in Providence has scored lower than the entire country."
Cicilline replied, "I am happy to compare my record and the work I've done over the last eight years to improve public education with anyone on this panel."
Gemma repeatedly tried to continue the argument, speaking out of turn and defying the rule prohibiting the candidates from directly engaging one another. "I will ask you to leave if you continue to ignore me," the moderator threatened.
Though all of the candidates agreed that intervention in Iraq was a mistake, they were split on the subject of Afghanistan. Republican state Rep. John Loughlin emphasized his own military service, saying the United States should wait for the report from Gen. David Petraeus to decide on the withdrawal of troops.
Gemma agreed. "We don't have confidential information, confidential documents that one would assume that General Petraeus has," he said. "I would make a decision based on that record." All other candidates favored immediate withdrawal.
When asked how they would have voted on the recent federal health care bill, most candidates held party lines. Kara Russo, a Republican who is also running for lieutenant governor, said she would have voted against the bill. "It gives funds to places like Planned Parenthood, which will increase abortion by 30 percent."
State Rep. David Segal, a Democrat, took the opposing view. "Yes, I would have voted for it. I would have fought like mad for the public option, and I would like to take up that fight if elected."
In the candidate's closing statements, Rep. Segal said, "Most Rhode Islanders want a robust renewal energy, public transit-based economy. Most Rhode Islanders were against the bailout. I want to go to Washington to renew that fight."
Rep. Loughlin emphasized accountability. "Government should be small, local, and accountable," he said.
The forum was the first in a two-part series at the college. The candidates in Rhode Island's gubernatorial race will speak next week at the same location at 5:30 p.m.