EAST PROVIDENCE — Informative and provocative, high school-aged students from host Providence Country Day and three others, including East Providence, peppered incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and his Republican challenger Barry Hinckley with wide-ranging questions during a candidate forum Friday morning, Oct. 26, in the Corkery Auditorium.
The event was an initiative of The Chafee Leadership Forum, an annual program conducted in honor of PCD alumnus, the late Senator John H. Chafee, Class of 1940. Besides welcoming their counterparts from East Providence, students from The Greene School in West Greenwich and the Paul Cuffee Charter School in Providence participated in the forum.
Each of the candidates gave a brief opening statement then answered a number of thought-provoking queries from the students for a little over a half hour. Sen. Whitehouse and Mr. Hinckley did not debate, taking the stage separately.
Credit to the youngsters, their questions were incisive and elicited likewise cogent responses from the two officer seekers.
Mr. Hinckley, the software entrepreneur and first-time candidate, went first. He repeated a core Republican complaint, the need to tackle the nation’s $16-plus trillion debt.
Mr. Hinckley said Sen. Whitehouse’s support of the “Buffett Rule,” which is intended to make upper-income earners pay a greater percentage in taxes, was nothing more than election year rhetoric and that it would only pay for one day’s-worth of our borrowing, nothing more.
When asked of his perspective on the Presidential election, Mr. Hinckley, as expected, said he supported Mitt Romney, saying the latter’s time in the private sector as a job creator is what is needed at this point and time.
Mr. Hinckley railed against the Affordable Healthcare Act or “Obamacare,” repeating the assertion its strips Medicare of $716 billion. He said he would support keeping the better aspects of the law, like allowing children to stay on their parent’s insurance until age 26, but would repeal most of it.
Mr. Hinckley cited instances where doctors in the state are “firing” their patients due to the supposed Medicare cuts.
Mr. Hinckley hammered away at Sen. Whitehouse’s partisan voting record, claiming the latter had voted the Democratic line some “96 percent” of the time. Mr. Hinckley said Rhode Island was better off when John Chafee, a Republican, and Claiborne Pell, a Democrat, represented the state in the U.S. Senate.
When asked what would spur job creation, Mr. Hinckley said tax reform, making the system fairer and simpler, was an important component to bringing jobs back to the state and the nation.
Sounding more populist tones when asked about some social and education issues, Mr. Hinckley said he was for same-sex marriage and also would like to expand the Pell Grant program to include students from Kindergarten through 12th Grade, basically creating a different form of vouchers that would allow parents to send their children to a school of choice.
While Mr. Hinckley maintained his position behind a podium in the center of the stage throughout his question-and-answer session, Sen. Whitehouse was more interactive with the audience, moving about the stage while giving his responses.
Sen. Whitehouse touted his support of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which gives women equal pay for work done by similar male counterparts. He also emphasized his backing of environmental issues and his belief in climate change.
Sen. Whitehouse touted the upcoming construction of five wind turbines in Block Island Sound as an example of environmentally-friendly energy policy. He also stressed his desire to the see the United States become “the global leader” in emerging energy technology.
Also as expected, Sen. Whitehouse proclaimed his support of Barack Obama in the upcoming election, saying the President has done well despite inheriting a financial system in near collapse.
“It’s been an ugly comeback,” Sen. Whitehouse conceded, “but (the economy) is coming back.” The Senator, the former State Attorney General who is seeking a second term in the Upper Chamber, also credited President Obama’s work on fighting terrorism, while questioning Mr. Romney’s fluctuated positions.
When asked about Second Amendment rights, Sen. Whitehouse noted he is a gun owner, but believes there should be “reasonable limits” on purchasing firearms at gun shows. He also believes there should be a ban on large magazine clips, which “no hunter uses to hunt.”
In response to questions on immigration, the Senator supports President Obama’s “DREAM Act,” which allows young people in good standings to be fast-tracked towards citizenship. For other illegals, he said a clear path to becoming a citizen must be put into place.
On employment, Sen. Whitehouse said his work in overhauling the Workers’ Compensation System has helped the state save over $100 annually and has removed an important impediment to job creation.
The Senator concluded by emphasizing the differences between he and Mr. Hinckley, noting his opponent has “extreme” ideas and beliefs like his support of ultra-conservative budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan, Mr. Romney’s running mate.