WOONSOCKET – It didn’t take long for sparks to start flying as the mayoral candidates squared off in their first debate-style forum at Chan’s last night.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine took his best shots against his rival, state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), over the controversial issue of a $75 million loan guarantee to 38 Studios, while Baldelli-Hunt scored Fontaine for the collapse of the Diamond Hill Road retail strip and allowing the city to become pockmarked by blighted properties.
Rattling off a list of chain stores that have disappeared from the city’s main retail strip, Baldelli-Hunt said, “They’re all vacant now,” and asked Fontaine what he had done to slow the retail exodus.
Fontaine said the problem all began because neighbors brought a paralyzing lawsuit against Wal-Mart, driving the company into neighboring North Smithfield. After that, retail traffic on Diamond Hill Road dropped off, and other businesses began leaving.
Ultimately, Fontaine said, “There wasn’t much we could do about it.” He also blamed a grassroots “not-in-my-backyard” mentality for hurting the city’s business climate, saying, “That’s what’s killing business...not government.”
Baldelli-Hunt said what the city needs to get out of its doldrums is better leadership.
She called for “rebranding the city’s image.” To many outsiders, she said, Woonsocket is synonymous with the words “poor,” “uneducated,” “high-crime” and “poor school system.”
“We need a strong leader, a decisive leader, and I will be that leader for you,” she pledged.
A third candidate, newcomer Dave Fisher, was also part of the fray, which unfolded before a packed house of some 130 people. The standing-room-only crowd fill filled every seat in the Chan’s performance hall and spilled into the foyer, where guests craned their necks to get a look at the action on stage. The event was co-sponsored by MyWoonsocket.com and radio station WNRI.
The mayoral candidates took turns asking each other questions their opponents had no idea were coming. At one point, Fontaine asked Fisher, a professional chef who has never held office before, what skills he would bring to running government. Fisher said he’d spent most of his adult life in food service, one of the most challenging industries around, and he made running a restaurant sound a lot like running a city.
A restaurant needs a leader who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, jump in the trenches and do whatever needs to be done to get the job done, he said.
“One of those things is you have to attract customers...you have to keep the place clean,” he said. “This is not a simplistic business. There’s a lot of moving parts to it.”
One of the testiest exchanges came when Fontaine grilled Baldelli-Hunt on 38 Studios. He blamed state lawmakers for jumping into the deal involving the failed video game creator, leaving taxpayers on the hook to bondholders for over $100 million. Now, Fontaine said, she’s part of a committee that’s investigating the calamity, but she hasn’t attended any of the meetings.
Why? Fontaine wanted to know.
Baldelli-Hunt turned the tables on Fontaine when she characterized the deal as the invention of Fontaine’s “good friend Don Carcieri.” She said the General Assembly had no idea it was voting on money for 38 Studios when the former governor’s economic development officials asked for an expansion of the loan guarantee program.
“We did not vote on a piece of legislation that was earmarked for 38 Studios,” she said.
The crowd was chastised by the moderator, Jeff Gamache, for booing Fontaine when he began a counteroffensive on the 38 Studios topic, although the mayor had been asked a different question. After Gamache’s admonition, Fontaine was allowed to continue, at which point he blamed the 38 Studios fiasco not on Carcieri, but on House Speaker Gordon Fox. “The governor’s partner with 38 Studios,” he said, lecturing the state lawmaker, was “your good friend, Gordon Fox.”
Fontaine and Baldelli-Hunt both got a chance to brag a bit about their accomplishments. At one point, when asked what he’d done to secure the city’s financial health during a career that includes 16 years on the City Council, many of them as its president, he said he had a good working relationship with the former Mayor Susan D. Menard. He’s said they worked together to cut costs and consolidate programs because ‘we knew we had to hold the line on taxes.”
Fontaine blamed the city’s hobbled financial predicament largely on the state, saying its problems were caused by a loss of some $55 million in aid since 2008, a situation which forced the city to the brink of bankruptcy and left it under the control of a state-appointed budget commission, of which he is a member. Just as the state pushed the city to the brink of collapse, he said, “It’s almost impossible for us to shoulder this alone.”
A state lawmaker since 2007, Baldelli-Hunt said she had succeeded in passing “multiple bills” to bring money into the city. She said a new funding formula for education brought in $1.4 million in education, this year. Another $500,000 was allocated for all-day kindergarten, but the program didn’t take off because it wasn’t supported by the Budget Commission. Similarly, she said, the state earmarked $6 million for improvements to World War II Memorial State Park under her stewardship.
In addition to the mayoral candidates, six incumbents on the City Council and eight challengers had an opportunity to make their pitches for public office. The included incumbents Christopher A. Beauchamp, Albert G. Brien, Marc A. Dubois, Daniel M. Gendron, Roger G. Jalette Sr. and Robert R. Moreau. The challengers were Jeffrey P. Belknap, Eric Cartier, Kathryn M. Dumais, Richard J. Fagnant, Garrett S. Mancieri, Melissa A. Murray, Christopher Roberts and Anita Ann McGuire-Forcier. Incumbent Council President John Ward will also be on the ballot of the Oct. 8 primary, but he had a prior commitment and couldn’t attend the forum.
Two major themes emerged in their remarks – the need to get rid of the state appointed Budget Commission and improve the city’s business climate.
When asked to identify their biggest regret, most of the incumbent councilman said it was voting to bring in the Budget Commission, which has heaped an average tax increase of about 21 percent on single family homeowners in 2014, not including a 2013 supplemental.
“We need to challenge the state, and we need to challenge this budget commission,” said Brien.
But McGuire-Forcier reminded spectators that if the city didn’t bring in the budget commission, schools might have been forced to close. The city didn’t have the power to get an advance on state aid that kept the lights and the heat on, but the commission did, said Forcier, a sitting member of the School Committee.
“The schools had no cash – none,” she said. “I’m not going to lie to you. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Fagnant said too many people focus on what’s wrong with the city instead of what’s right. The city needs to promote itself better to bring in business, he said.
“They don’t know what we have because we don’t tell them,” he said.
“We don’t have cheerleaders. We need to be different than the other cities and towns.”
Editor’s note: See Thursday’s Call for more on the council debate.