- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 26, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island’s Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls went on the offensive during a debate Tuesday, with newcomer Clay Pell using testy exchanges between his opponents to paint himself as an outsider attacking problems, not individuals.

Pell squared off against Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras in an hour-long debate at the Providence Performing Arts Center. It was sponsored by WPRI-TV and The Providence Journal.

The candidates were asked about their plans on everything from taxes and job creation to the use of standardized tests as a high school graduation requirement. Early on, Taveras and Raimondo became locked in a back-and-forth in part over the mayor’s accusation that Raimondo is aligned with Wall Street. He has criticized her campaign contributions from the industry, among other things.

“I don’t owe Wall Street a thing. I owe you everything,” he said, addressing the audience and at-home viewers.

Raimondo refuted his charge, saying she has never worked on Wall Street and that everything she has done as treasurer - including an overhaul of the pension system in 2011 that is tied up in litigation - was in the best interest of the state.

“He has mischaracterized who I am, what I stand for and what I’ve done,” she said of Taveras.

Pell, meanwhile, tried to use the disagreement to his advantage, calling his opponents “two elected politicians” fighting over what they had and hadn’t done.

“That has been the tenor of this entire campaign,” said Pell, the grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell and husband of former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan. “I want to focus on the problems that we face and address the challenges.”

Pell several times labeled himself the “progressive” Democrat in the race and took direct criticism, mainly from Taveras’ camp, that he doesn’t have the qualifications to be governor. The mayor has said Pell had “nine jobs in eight years” - including a U.S. State Department internship - and questioned the depth of his experience.

But Pell forcefully defended his resume, which includes work as director of strategic planning for the National Security Council, an officer and prosecutor in the U.S. Coast Guard and, briefly, an official at the U.S. Department of Education.

“My experience is different than others in this race, and I’m proud of it,” he said.

Raimondo continued to portray herself as someone who has taken on tough issues and gotten things done, saying she’ll be the “jobs governor.” The state has had a chronically high unemployment rate in recent years, at times the nation’s worst, and she is pushing a plan for a manufacturing resurgence.

Taveras said he too has tackled tough issues in Providence, noting the work he did to close most of a $110 million structural deficit that threatened to sink the capital into municipal bankruptcy.

Pell criticized the influence of special-interest money in politics and highlighted his pledge not to take contributions from political action committees or state lobbyists. But Pell, who has contributed more than $3 million of his own money, fielded a jab for largely self-financing his campaign.

“Not everyone can do that, Mr. Pell,” said Taveras, who trails significantly in the money race.

The winner of the Sept. 9 primary will face either Cranston Mayor Allan Fung or small businessman Ken Block. The two Republicans are scheduled to meet in a televised debate next Tuesday at the same venue.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat, isn’t seeking a second term.

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