- Associated Press - Friday, November 4, 2016

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Democratic state House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Republican challenger Steven Frias sparred over ethics, taxes and who will be better for the state’s economy in their first and only debate before Tuesday’s election.

WPRI-TV hosted the faceoff between the two Cranston attorneys Friday.

The race for the seat representing the suburban neighborhoods of western Cranston holds outsize importance for Rhode Island politics because of Mattiello’s role leading the House of Representatives.

And while Frias sought to use the powerful speaker’s record against him, Mattiello tried to show his leadership position in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly is something that could better advance a cause they’ve both made a campaign promise: Cutting car taxes.

“If I’m re-elected, the car tax will be phased out within five years,” Mattiello said. “If I am not, other government priorities will take priority, and the car tax won’t get phased out. It’s that simple.”

Challenged by Frias for lack of specifics, Mattiello wouldn’t detail how exactly he would phase out the taxes, except to say it would require finding about $214 million to reimburse the cities and towns that impose the taxes. He pointed to his record of managing budget deliberations and getting other tax cuts passed since assuming the speakership in 2014.

Frias, a national GOP committeeman for Rhode Island, emphasized rooting out scandals and cutting government waste, at one point suggesting Rhode Island’s legislature should be more like New Hampshire’s, which has a smaller budget.

Their race to win over voters in a politically mixed legislative district has had both candidates touting their conservative credentials. Both described themselves as Second Amendment supporters Friday but Frias said he favors stricter controls to block people with domestic violence misdemeanor convictions from having guns. Both said they are opposed to granting driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.

Much of the early part of the debate was spent on Mattiello’s attempts to distance himself from leaked private comments made by the Republican candidate who lost to Frias in September’s GOP primary. Shawna Lawton, an anti-vaccine activist, told political allies last month she was endorsing Mattiello because of a promise, apparently made by his campaign, to consider anti-vaccination legislation. Mattiello said at the debate that he “came to the conclusion that nobody in my campaign has any knowledge of that issue.”

Frias said Mattiello’s failure to get to the bottom of what happened and confront his own campaign staff reflects “the whole problem with Speaker Mattiello’s approach about everything.” Frias tied it to the ethical problems involving former lawmakers in Mattiello’s leadership team who were forced out of office this year because of scandals.

The debate grew tense when Mattiello tried to put Frias, an energy industry lawyer, on the defense on ethics. Frias accused Mattiello of smears for bringing up an attorney job held by Frias‘ wife at the state public utilities commission. Mattiello later backed off from that line of attack, agreeing that family members should be kept out of their political disagreements.

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