McKee, Kalus spar over abortion, experience in WPRI debate

PROVIDENCE – It didn’t take long for Rhode Island’s gubernatorial candidates to devolve into personal attacks during a televised debate Tuesday night.

Mere seconds into the WPRI-TV CBS 12 event, Republican Ashley Kalus dealt the first blow, accusing Democratic Gov. Daniel J. McKee of being “incompetent” while simultaneously bringing up the FBI investigation of an education contract awarded when he became governor.

McKee responded by touting his experience fighting to minimize rate hikes. Kalus’ idea, to use emergency powers to “roll back” the recently approved winter electric rates, suggested that she did not understand how the process worked, he said.

The same dynamic continued to play out over the next hour, with Kalus repeatedly describing McKee’s track record as one of “incompetence” and little action, while McKee tried to frame Kalus as an out-of-towner whose decision to run for office was little more than “retaliation.”

Indeed, Kalus moved to Rhode Island from Illinois last year, announcing her candidacy on the heels of a canceled contract between the state and her COVID-19 testing company.

“This might be her first home, but not for long,” McKee warned, alluding to Kalus’ Newport house which, until recently, was not listed as her primary residence.

Another sign of Kalus’ inexperience, to McKee, was her promise to add 10,000 new units of housing each year she is in office, a goal he called “impossible.”

Kalus sought to weaponize McKee’s long history in the state, pointing to controversies from his time in office. Among them, an education contract his administration awarded to a firm started by McKee’s longtime personal advisor which is now the subject of an FBI investigation. Kalus also accused McKee of being the reason why the R.I. Department of Education will not release standardized testing scores until after the November election, rather than the typical October publication date.

“There’s no reason the scores cannot be ready now,” Kalus said, adding that McKee was holding the results “hostage” from teachers and parents.

After McKee revealed he will appeal the recent federal ruling striking down the state’s truck toll, Kalus again attacked, saying an appeal would only “delay the inevitable” that the state will eventually charge the unpopular tolls to truck and car drivers alike.

National politics also came into play on multiple occasions, with questions about state insurance coverage for abortions and assault-style weapon bans. McKee repeatedly tried to lump Kalus in with conservative Supreme Court justices and Republican congressional leaders who have already taken strides to diminish abortion rights. He warned that marriage equality, voting rights and other social issues popular in Rhode Island would be next on the chopping block, and that having a “Republican, MAGA-style leader” like Kalus running the state would make matters worse.

Kalus maintained that her personal stance on abortion – she is against it – does not affect her ability to serve the people of the state and its laws, which include abortion protections. However, she did not answer when asked whether she would vote for Donald Trump if he ran in the next presidential election.

The series of spats come amid results of two recent polls showing that McKee has a sizable lead over Kalus – 13 or 10 percentage points ahead, according to the WPRI-Roger Williams University and Boston Globe-Suffolk University polls, respectively. Still, both suggested Kalus was still within striking distance, especially if she is able to pick up support from independent and undecided voters. And with three independent candidates also in the race, neither McKee nor Kalus needs to reach 50% of the vote to win.

The election is Nov. 8. Early voting starts Oct. 19.