Topics covered during the debate included the economy, the state response to flash flooding this week, plans for a new soccer stadium in Pawtucket, and a federal probe of a controversial contract awarded by Gov. Dan McKee’s administration.

The event, staged by WPRI-TV, Channel 12 at Rhode Island College, began with a question on the flooding that swamped part of the state and stranded drivers for a few hours Monday on Interstate 95 in Providence.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea criticized McKee, saying that some of these problems should have been anticipated.

“The governor has been in place for 18 months,” she said. “The places that flooded in Cranston and Johnson, we’ve known that they flood. There has been no action to use the federal dollars to take care of storm waters, when they’re going to happen. And so that is a failure of leadership and that’s what we saw come to a head.”

McKee defended the state’s response. He said there was no way to anticipate the sheer volume of rainfall, and he pointed out that no one was injured despite the temporary inconvenience.

The governor was less forthcoming when asked whether Rhode Islanders have the right to know whether his administration has been subpoenaed. That’s in connection with an ongoing FBI probe into an educational consulting contract awarded by the McKee administration to the ILO Group.

McKee said he has not been personally subpoenaed, but he declined to answer the broader question about his administration.

That sparked this comment from former CVS Health executive Helena Buonanno Foulkes, who said she doesn’t want to prejudge the outcome of the ILO Group investigation: “But I do think it’s very fair that the governor answer the question on whether his administration received a subpoena. Because this is something the people of Rhode Island deserve to know. Even Donald Trump has released his subpoena.”

McKee responded by saying his actions have been in the best interest of the state.

Despite flak from his rivals, the governor also stood behind his tie-breaking vote for a new soccer stadium that includes $60 million in public investment, even with a finding that the project will not make enough to pay for itself. McKee says the deal includes taxpayer protections and will prove to be a winner, with the eventual completion of phases for housing and other attractions.

“There’s already revenue that can be shared into this project,” McKee said. “That’s not ideal, but it’s going to give us time to do [more] across the river and we will complete that project. We will build that bridge over troubled waters that everybody’s so concerned about and we will connect that in. And this is going to be a real focal point, not only for Pawtucket but the state of Rhode Island. I happen to know how to get this done. My opponents are going to walk away from Pawtucket.”

Questions were asked during the debate by WPRI's Tim White and Ted Nesi.

During a pop quiz segment, Foulkes scored best. The four questions included the median cost of a Rhode Island house last month, the amount of state general revenue in the budget, the percentage of young Rhode Islanders demonstrating proficiency in reading or math, and the rate at which the state pension must be funded before recipients get a new cost of living adjustment.

Asked what is holding back the state’s economy, McKee said things have improved since he inherited the governor’s office during the height of the pandemic.

Foulkes said small businesses face too much red tape. Gorbea pointed to the need for more affordable housing. And Matt Brown rejected suggestions that his plan for a $19 an hour minimum wage would be a burden for small employers.

“I’ll raise taxes on the richest one percent and fund our schools,” Brown said. “We will enact a green New Deal and Medicare for All and raise the minimum wage to $19 an hour. We can do all these things. We can bring real change to our state.”

Another Democrat running for governor, Luis Daniel Muñoz, cried foul about not being included in the WPRI debate. The station says Muñoz did not meet the criteria established by its parent company, calling for candidates to hit a threshold of fundraising and polling support.

The winner of the Democratic primary for governor will run against Republican Ashley Kalus in the November general election. Those also on the ballot will include independent Paul Rianna and Libertarian Elijah Gizzarelli.

Ian Donnis can be reached at