Field reporting by Walt Buteau,Field reporting by Tim White
Updated: Oct 23, 2012 11:43 PM
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) -- With just two weeks before Election Day, one of Rhode Island's candidates for U.S. Senate urged voters to allow him to continue his work in Washington; while the other, fighting to make his name known to Rhode Islanders, positioned himself as a job creator who would bring new ideas to Congress.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and his Republican challenger, businessman Barry Hinckley squared off Tuesday night on the issues ranging from the economy to Libya to the tax code during a live
WPRI 12/Providence Journal Campaign 2012 Debate at Rhode Island College.
Moderator, Target 12 Investigator Tim White, along with Providence Journal Political Columnist Edward Fitzpatrick and
WPRI.com Reporter Ted
Nesi asked the questions - starting with the economy.
Jobs & Economy
Tim White pointed to an exclusive Eyewitness News Poll, which showed Rhode Islanders considered jobs the most important issue this election cycle. With a rate of 10.5 percent, Rhode Island has the second highest unemployment in the country.
Whitehouse said it was vital to grow the economy from the middle class out. He said he'd continue to focus on innovation, manufacturing and infrastructure to help revive the economy; pointing to federal funding for construction projects and a new crane and pier at Quonset.
"All of that may ring hollow for the 60,000 Rhode Islanders who are out of work. Why will the next six years be any different?" White asked, pointing out the state's unemployment was 4.8 percent when Whitehouse was elected in 2006.
"[The recovery's] been painfully slow," Whitehouse said. "That's why we need to do something that will create jobs. The easy thing is infrastructure. Rhode Island is one of the worst states in infrastructure."
White then asked Whitehouse what he predicted the state unemployment rate would be six years from now. Whitehouse said six percent.
Hinckley, the founder of a software company, said his experience in the private sector uniquely qualified him to help fix the ailing economy, both in Rhode Island and the country as a whole.
"We're the last place team. Rhode Island is
50th in business friendliness, and with that comes high employment," Hinckley said.
White pointed out that Hinckley's platform called for reducing the corporate tax rate, job training, paying teachers more, all while capping spending.
"How do you plan to pay for those promises?" White asked.
"You pay for it by growing the economy. You don't have teachers, police or firefighters if you don't have people paying taxes," Hinckley said. "We need to make Rhode Island the most attractive place in the world to do business.
Businesses move to where they are treated well."
Acknowledging he would have not control over Rhode Island tax policy, Hinckley said if elected he would urge state lawmakers to change the business climate.
"Our Congressional delegation never pushes Smith Hill to be more business friendly. It's very expensive to put people to work in America," said Hinckley, who pointed out that for a worker who takes home $49,000 a year, the employer pays more than $90,000 in salary, taxes and benefits.
When it came to taxes, both men agreed the Country's tax code was broken. However, they differed on how to go about fixing it.
"Our tax system is a nightmare right now. CVS pays a full 35 percent tax rate. But, companies like Carnival Cruises pay zero. It makes no sense," Whitehouse said. "We need a fairer and simpler tax code, but it can't put more of a burden on the middle class."
When asked about the 9-9-9 plan proposed by former presidential candidate Herman Cain, Hinckley said at least it's a new idea.
"Our current tax code is four million words long. We need a new tax code to compete in the
21st century," Hinckley said. "We need lower rates for families, lower rates for businesses."
Whitehouse said Cain's plan, which called for nine percent income tax, nine percent capital gains tax and nine percent sales tax, would shift the tax burden to the middle class.
"It's not a fresh idea, it's a lousy idea," Whitehouse said.
Pointing out that two Supreme Court Justices were in their
70s , Ed Fitzpatrick asked the candidates what would their first question be to a nominee and which Supreme Court ruling they would like to overturn.
Neither answered the first question. Whitehouse said it would depend on who the candidate was.
Hinckley said he was unhappy with the decision by Chief Justice John Roberts to not overturn the healthcare mandate included in President Obama's healthcare plan.
Whitehouse said he would like to overturn the Citizens United decision, which held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.
"That ruling overturned 100 years of regulation in the elections world and unleashed billionaires and foreign corporations to have influence on our elections," Whitehouse said. "It's a prescription for scandal and disaster.
when asked by Ted
Nesi who their favorite justices were, Hinckley said Clarence Thomas, Whitehouse said Justice Sonia
Medicaid & Medicare
Nesi asked about the growing cost of Medicaid and Medicare.
Whitehouse pivoted, and said the problem was with the cost of healthcare.
"The nation can't continue to spend what it spends on healthcare," said Whitehouse. "It would be a mistake to redefine the problem to say it's just a Medicaid and Medicare cost."
Nesi then asked Hinckley if he would support a voucher program, which would give seniors the option to chose Medicare or a private insurer.
"When you walk into a restaurant, do you want one choice or two?" Hinckley asked. "Medicare is going out of business and it's not good for any American.
He maintained there needs to be bi-partisan effort to solve the problem.
"The Senate won't even debate it, they shoot it down without a debate," he said. "The government has no track record of running things on budget and if you think they're going to run healthcare efficiently, I have another thing to tell you."
Hinckley, who has called for the repeal of President Obama's healthcare plan, was asked if he would keep any part of the plan.
"This is a great example of government goes wild. [The senator's] party admitted they didn't know what was in it before they voted for it," said Hinckley, who proposed fixing problems with the system individually, instead of with a massive bureaucracy.
When asked when Rhode Islanders would see reduced healthcare costs under Obama's plan, Whitehouse said he wasn't sure. However, he pointed to affordable health care centers opening and businesses getting tax breaks for insuring employees.
Nesi asked Whitehouse a question on behalf of a woman who wrote him a letter. She wanted to know why he didn't fight on behalf of retirees against Rhode Island's pension reforms, but still promises to fight for Social Security.
While Whitehouse said Rhode Island leaders came up with a solution that was necessary, he said, unlike pension reform, Social Security is in his authority.
"It is my commitment that I am going to protect Social Security. Life without it would be unimaginably worse for seniors and young people," Whitehouse said.
Hinckley countered, saying Democrats have no plan to save Social Security.
"Ask yourself, is that fair, to pay into a pension system managed by the government and then get nothing," said Hinckley, who proposed hiring actuaries to bring the system in line. "The problem with Social Security, it's managed by career politicians and not professionals."
Both men had different views on how to tackle the country's crippling debt, which is over $16 trillion.
Whitehouse slammed the debt reduction plan proposed in the House by Vice Presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan.
"The Ryan budget is disastrous," said Whitehouse, who maintained it balanced the budget on the backs of middle-class Americans, while shielding the rich.
When asked what measures he would support, Whitehouse said eliminating $4 trillion over the next 10 years; with $2 trillion in cuts and $2 trillion in revenues, or tax increases.
"Republicans have not identified one single loophole in the tax code they would get rid of," Whitehouse said.
Hinckley then criticized Whitehouse for being partisan.
"How do you come to the middle when you vote with your leadership 96 percent of the time. A husband and wife don't get along that well," Hinckley quipped. "Extreme partisanship is killing this country. The Senate has been closed for business. If you don't like it, mark it up and send it back. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation."
Hinckley then criticized the Bush and Obama administrations, calling them both "train wrecks."
"My children are going to have to pay this back," he said.
Libya & Foreign Affairs
Hinckley was questioned about his plan to end foreign aid to Egypt, Libya and Pakistan.
"We're talking about tolls for the
Sakonnet River Bridge. We can't even get a free bridge in Rhode Island, and we continue to pump money into countries that don't like us," Hinckley said. "It is time for the rest of the world to step up."
Whitehouse countered, "Israel is a vital ally in that area and Israel wants us to continue to engage with Egypt."
White asked Whitehouse why he hadn't called for hearings into the deadly Benghazi terrorist attack, in which
U.S . Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed; and the White House's assertion for 14 days that it was related to a YouTube video, rather than an organized assault.
"The killing of Ambassador Stevens is very personal to me," said Whitehouse, whose father was a foreign service officer. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened. But, more importantly, we need to find out who did this and take them out."
While he said he did not want to criticize the administration's handling of the attack, Hinckley called the White House's response disturbing.
"We went in there, kicked the hornet's nest and left the ambassador, who asked for more protection, totally unprotected," Hinckley said.
Providence Journal Political Columnist Edward Fitzgerald turned the debate to education, asking both candidates why they chose to send their children to private school.
"I want the best education that I could get for them," said Whitehouse, who then touted efforts, like Race to the Top, which aim to improve public education.
He said the next step should be extending those programs to middle school.
Hinckley, who sends his children to Parochial school, said it was important to him that his children be raised in faith.
He then pointed out that many families can't afford to send their children to private school and are stuck with failing schools.
He proposed giving a grant to every family in Rhode Island, so parents can choose which schools they send their children.
During closing statements, Hinckley stressed that he was his own man.
"I'm a businessman and a father. Please wipe away the D and the R," he said. "I have signed over 15,000 paychecks. I know what goes into a paycheck. Sheldon Whitehouse only knows what comes out of a paycheck. We need to get Rhode Island back to work and we need to send a job creator to Washington, DC."
Whitehouse asked voters for another term.
"I would like to go back to Washington and I would like to ask for your vote to go back and continue the fights I have fought so hard for. To protect Medicare and Medicaid benefits in particular. To protect the middle class when people get together for tax schemes that hurt the middle class and send benefits to the top. I will keep the faith with you on those issues."
According to the
latest Eyewitness News poll, Hinckley is currently down by 26 points to Whitehouse. The Rhode Island Senate race will be decided when voters head to the polls Nov. 6.
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