This story was amended Wednesday 7:40 a.m.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Anthony Giarrusso and Justine Caldwell staked their positions on issues ranging from state aid for education and affordable housing to the Burrillville power plant and gun control at Monday night’s candidates forum at New England Tech. But in a contest already marked by acrimony, even the U.S. Senate’s vote on Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court became a topic. 

In lamenting the negativity on social media, Giarrusso brought up that someone Monday said he’d written a letter endorsing Kavanaugh, and that it wasn’t true.

“Don’t spread lies,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”

Caldwell, however, said Giarrusso’s name was on such a letter, dated Aug. 24.

The letter (ALEC Kavanaugh Letter), sent by the conservative organization ALEC, included a list of state legislators from across the country who urged “the swift confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Giarrusso and state Sen. Elaine Morgan were listed as the two signatories from Rhode Island. On Tuesday, Giarrusso said he had signed the letter back in August but had not written it, as was characterized in the Facebook post. He said he was withholding his opinion on the Kavanaugh appointment pending the FBI investigation and that he would not have signed the letter if the request came after the allegations arose.

The two did outline their legislative priorities.

Giarrusso said his top three were better workforce training, lower taxes, and limiting government. Caldwell listed gun violence protection, jobs and education, and women’s issues and health care as her top priorities.

After Caldwell noted Giarrusso’s vote against same sex marriage in her opening statement, he responded he was not anti-gay.

Rep. Anthony Giarrusso.

“And just like I’m a homophobe?” said Giarrusso. “Some of my best friends are gay! It doesn’t mean I’m a homophobe because I think marriage should be between one man and one woman.”

He also said he had no hand in a letter that went out “about a spouse that has an issue with the law in Ohio,” a reference to a letter sent to some East Greenwich residents in August that referred to Caldwell’s husband, David Caldwell, as having a warrant out for his arrest in Ohio for failing to respond to a housing complaint in 2012 (that case has since been dismissed).

The two candidates agreed on some issues. They both said the General Assembly should pass a law giving the governor line-item veto power and that the state should have an inspector general – an official to look into waste and abuse as well as ethical lapses within state government – with Giarrusso saying his name has been on such a bill for six years.

Justine Caldwell

Both candidates also said the legislative grant program should be abolished but Caldwell said she would seek grants for the district as long as the program remains. Giarrusso said while he did seek legislative grants for the district initially, he no longer supports them.

The Burrillville power plant is not an issue that comes before the General Assembly and Giarrusso said he was glad not to have to take such a tough vote, but added that the state needed energy. Caldwell said she was against the plant.

With regard to schools statewide, Giarrusso said he advocated vouchers, so that children at lower-performing schools could attend private schools, and charter schools. Caldwell said she supported the $250 million bond referendum for school building repairs on the November ballot.

The two differed on the need for additional gun control laws.

“Gun violence is a public health crisis in America,” Caldwell said. “More guns means more gun violence.” She noted Giarrusso voted against the “red flag” bill signed into law in the last session that is meant to allow authorities to take guns away from individuals deemed a threat to themselves and others. Caldwell said the NRA supported the bill. The NRA did not support the Rhode Island bill, according to the Providence Journal, although it has said it supports red flag bills in theory. 

Giarrusso called for school resource officers in every school and said he had introduced legislation that would allow schools to hire retired military and police to fill that role instead of full-time police officers.

“I’m not an NRA member. I don’t own a gun,” he said. “But I am a constitutional person,” with a nod to the Second Amendment.

On criminal justice reform, Caldwell said too many people were being sent to prison. Giarrusso said he had supported legislation to “ban the box” – making it illegal to ask about a person’s criminal history on a job application.  

“These people need a shot,” he said.

On pay equity for women, Caldwell said she would support such a bill. Giarrusso said he also would “if they were doing exactly the same job.”

Around 100 people attended the forum, which was presented by East Greenwich News and the EG Chamber of Commerce. The forum was moderated by RIPR’s Chuck Hinman, an EG resident.

You can watch the entire exchange on the EG News Facebook page livestream. We will be sharing a higher quality video of the event later this week.

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