- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 29, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island’s gubernatorial hopefuls offered their views on immigrant children, racial disparities in employment and the state’s new voter identification law at a forum Tuesday night sponsored by an association of minority-owned businesses.

The Rhode Island Black Business Association hosted the two-hour event at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Providence.

Many of the questions posed by moderator Marion Orr, a public policy and urban studies professor at Brown University, centered on issues of particular interest to minorities.

In answering one on how to address racial disparities in everything from joblessness to education, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said the city’s newest police academy class is the most diverse ever, and noted his administration has taken steps to combat discriminatory lending practices. The city in May filed suit against Santander Bank, alleging it deliberately limited its lending in minority neighborhoods while expanding it in white areas.

The mayor also said he wanted to repeal the new voter ID law.

“I think it has a disproportionate impact on low income and people of color, and that’s wrong,” he said.

Democratic rivals Gina Raimondo, the state treasurer, and Clay Pell, a former Obama administration official, also said they oppose the voter ID law. The Republicans, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and businessman Ken Block, favor it.

The candidates were asked if they would offer help housing any unaccompanied minors who have come to the U.S. illegally, if asked to do so by President Obama. The Democrats split on the issue.

Raimondo said the state’s social service system is already filled to capacity. Taveras and Pell said they would work with the federal government to ensure it provided resources, if Rhode Island was asked to help.

“We are America, we don’t turn our backs on helpless children,” the mayor said.

The Republicans opposed offering shelter, with Block saying “we need to get our act together before we can help assist the rest of the world.”

On education, Block said the state is ill-preparing too many students, particularly in its cities.

“We have to radically and fundamentally change the way we educate - particularly in our urban districts - because we are failing too many of our children in our urban districts,” he said.

Fung said he supports charter schools, including the so-called mayoral academies, and dismissed the criticism that charters simply divert public resources from school districts. He said that hasn’t been the case in Cranston because state funding “follows the child.”

Pell criticized the mayoral academy model.

“We are not providing a world class education to all of our people,” he said. “We need to make sure everyone gets that access, not just some.”

Pell also said he wants to increase by 5 percent or more the number of contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses, and that women and minorities would make up 50 percent of his cabinet if he were elected.

Raimondo called diversity one of Rhode Island’s greatest strengths and said the state has to improve its economy without leaving anyone behind.

“The reality is, and it is a reality, not everyone has the same chances, even though it should be that way and we need to worker harder to make sure we level the playing field,” she said.

The forum also included Democratic long-shot candidate Todd Giroux. The Bristol contractor was the only candidate to speak in favor of legalizing marijuana.

“I think we should be the Amsterdam of the East Coast. If we’re not first, we’re going to be last,” he said.

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