The two candidates are a study in contrasts. Incumbent Dan McKee is 71 and a lifelong Rhode Islander who became governor last year when Gina Raimondo left for a job in the Biden administration. Ashley Kalus, 40, is a businesswoman making her first run for office. She registered to vote in the Ocean State earlier this year.
Each candidate stuck to their own message during an hour-long debate at WPRI-TV, Channel 12.
Kalus said Rhode Island needs change, and that she can bring that more effectively than the incumbent. McKee said the state has gained momentum on his watch, and that Kalus doesn’t really know Rhode Island.
McKee defended his efforts to help Rhode Islanders cope with soaring home heating costs, in part by highlighting the availability of financial assistance for low-income families.
“What we’ve done already is, we’ve put in $5.3 million to help 39,000 families,” he said. “Actually, the cost is going to be the same as last year or equal to that.”
Kalus said high energy costs demand a more urgent response.
“You have the authority to enact your emergency powers and roll back the rate hikes now, and also suspend the tax on electricity,” she said.
Kalus faulted McKee for recently supporting raises for top state officials during a time of high inflation. The governor responded by calling the raises appropriate, saying they’re part of an effort to be competitive with nearby states.
It was McKee’s turn to go on the offense when the issue was abortion. While Kalus has repeatedly said she would not seek to change Rhode Island’s 2019 law protecting abortion rights, McKee said Republicans have a credibility problem on abortion – and he called Kalus a MAGA Republican.
“This is very reminiscent, right, of Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony, Amy Coney Barrett’s testimony, when they assured us, right?” said McKee. “They assured us that they were not going to touch Roe v. Wade. They did touch Roe v. Wade. This is people that Miss Kalus supports. And also, now what’s in jeopardy? Marriage equality? What’s next? Voting rights? Those are all on the table right now.”
Kalus said she’s against abortion because she had difficult pregnancies – experiences that gave her a heightened appreciation for life. She accused McKee of playing the gender card.
“The idea that I can’t have a personal opinion as a woman and do my job as governor, which is to uphold the law of the state, is quite frankly not okay,” she said. “I can be a woman and have a personal opinion and still do my job. Quite frankly, that smacks of sexism.”
McKee said he did not have any regrets about his controversial handling of the educational consulting contract for the ILO Group. State and federal investigators are currently probing the awarding of the contract. Kalus has called the issue an indictment of McKee and his administration.
McKee made news during the debate by saying Rhode Island will appeal a recent decision by a federal judge that shut down the state’s truck tolling program. Kalus says she would not appeal the decision because the truck tolls are based on what she calls bad law.
McKee said he will support Joe Biden if he seeks the presidency in 2024. Kalus declined to say whether she was open to supporting Donald Trump if he runs in 2024.
Two recent polls show Kalus trailing McKee by at least 10 points, although she has more support among independents, the biggest bloc of voters in Rhode Island.
Voters will choose between McKee, Kalus and three independent candidates polling in the single digits in an election ending Nov. 8.
Read more at thepublicsradio.com.