With a little more than four months until the September 13 primary, the one Republican and five Democratic candidates met at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick, in a forum sponsored by the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Community activist Matt Brown, a former secretary of state, was the most aggressive. Brown is backed by the progressive Rhode Island Political Cooperative and he said the state spends too much on helping the well-to-do.

“Instead of that money going to corporate giveaways and the richest one percent in tax cuts, we should be investing in affordable housing, we should be investing in healthcare, not cutting Medicaid a quarter-billion dollars like the people running things have done,” Brown said. “These decisions have made it harder for people to get by.”

In contrast, Gov. Dan McKee, who inherited his office last year, painted an upbeat picture of the state. He said Rhode Island is making a strong recovery from the depths of the pandemic, with an opportunity for better things in the future.

“Fidelity’s looking for 800 people,” McKee said. “I just met with FM Global -- I know they’re hiring. We know down at Electric Boat, they’re hiring. The idea right now is to get people employed, and the highest paying jobs and get their skill sets up.”

On top priorities, the candidates cited education and housing. Former CVS executive Helena Buonanno Foulkes said Rhode Island is 20,000 units short of what it needs for housing.

“And that is because in the last decade Rhode Island has produced the least growth in housing per capita of any state in this country,” Foulkes said. “So everything I would do in this particular area to drive affordability is to increase supply, which is ultimately going to help people and then get the federal money we got last year out the door immediately to help the people who are urgently in need.”

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said resolving Rhode Island’s housing crisis requires more than money. She said the state needs to be more flexible in overcoming obstacles.

“And so what you need is leadership in the governor’s office that will work with the cities and towns and will leverage some of the existing dollars that we have right now and deal with the concerns -- well, we’d love to build this housing, but we have infrastructure issues,” Gorbea said. “Okay, as governor I’ll say let’s move that money into infrastructure in this community, but you’ve got to build me this housing.”

Community activist Luis Daniel Munoz was a little underwhelmed by the talk about affordable housing.

“I know it’s the political thing to say, but what about low-income housing?” he asked. “What about public housing? What are we doing to change a culture in Rhode Island which silos out all of these different classes of individuals, physically? So when we talk about affordable housing, I don’t want it lost from the conversation that we need to do more for low-income housing. We need to work with municipalities and to incentivize them locally to provide more on their end for development, even if it’s changing the zoning laws.”

The five Democrats spoke in support of bolstering state support for abortion rights. Only Republican Ashley Kalus, a businesswoman and recent transplant to the state, expressed a different stance.

She said she opposes abortion rights, but also said things will not change in Rhode Island since the state has its own law ensuring abortion rights. Kalus said Rhode Island needs to be more competitive economically.

“We need to invest in education, competitiveness and housing,” Kalus said. “In order to choose programs, we need to look at metrics, we need to look at benchmarks, key performance indicators and standards in order to decide what will give us the best return on our money.”

The hour-long discussion was moderated by Steph Machado from WPRI, Channel 12.