PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Democratic U.S. Rep. David Cicilline and Republican challenger Brendan Doherty clashed over Cicilline’s time as Providence mayor and their different approaches to governing in a televised debate Tuesday as the race for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District enters its final weeks.
The two contenders also argued over the best ways to boost the economy, improve health care and protect seniors in the wide-ranging and fast-paced exchange held at the Providence Performing Arts Center and broadcast on WPRI-TV.
Doherty continued his attack on Cicilline’s character, accusing him of lying when he said in 2010 that he was leaving Providence in ‘‘excellent’’ financial condition. After Cicilline left City Hall, it was revealed the city faced a $110 million deficit.
‘‘He still hasn’t apologized for being intellectually dishonest, didn’t admit that he lied to get to Washington,’’ Doherty said.
Cicilline noted that he has repeatedly apologized for his word choice and said Doherty is using the issue as a distraction. Cicilline has said he was overly optimistic in his assessment of the city’s finances.
‘‘There’s been a lot of conversation about Providence in this campaign,’’ he said. ‘‘What people are really worried about is we have 60,000 Rhode Islanders who are out of work.... If he (Doherty) talks about what he would actually do if he got to Washington, Rhode Islanders wouldn’t vote for him.’’
Doherty, the former head of the state police, also questioned Cicilline’s past as a criminal defense attorney, saying he had represented ‘‘the very worst of Rhode Island.’’ He said Cicilline’s work on behalf of clients accused of hurting women was ‘‘hypocritical.’’
Cicilline defended his work as an attorney, saying he had a ‘‘responsibility’’ to serve his clients. He said Doherty’s comments about his support for women’s issues were an attempt to distract voters.
The freshman Democrat sought to link Doherty to national Republicans and said he would support ‘‘an extreme’’ agenda, one that calls for the repeal of the federal Affordable Care Act, and cut taxes for the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor.
Doherty insisted that he'd take a bipartisan approach in Congress.
‘‘I would go to Washington to reach across the table,’’ he said. ‘‘Congressman Cicilline has not worked closely with Republicans. Republicans come up with good ideas. So do Democrats.’’
On the federal health care law, Doherty said he wants to see some provisions kept in place — including a requirement that individuals under 26 be allowed to stay on their parents’ health insurance and a requirement that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. But he said he opposes other parts of the law because they are ‘‘job killers’’ — such as one requiring employers with 50 or more workers to provide insurance.
The two clashed over energy policy, too, with Doherty arguing that increased drilling and gas exploration on federal lands could generate revenue and energy. Cicilline, however, called Doherty’s idea a ‘‘big giveaway to big oil’’ and called for the elimination of tax loopholes benefiting oil companies.
Most of the few hundred voters who attended Tuesday’s debate appeared to have already made up their minds about the race.
Dozens of union members stood outside the event holding signs supporting Cicilline. Pete Gingras, who works for the National Education Association Rhode Island, said Cicilline is the best candidate to help reduce the state’s unemployment rate, which at 10.7 percent is the second worst in the nation.
‘‘David is in touch with what will help middle-class taxpayers,’’ said Gingras, of Warwick. Doherty, he said, ‘‘is a great guy, but his values aren’t aligned with mine.’’
But Rosanne Marandola said she supports Doherty because of his experience leading the state police and because she doesn’t trust Cicilline.
‘‘I'm not looking for someone who is the smooth talker,’’ the North Providence resident said. ‘‘I'm looking for someone who can get the job done.’’
The election is Nov. 6.