PROVIDENCE - As Cormick Lynch criticized U.S. Rep. David Cicilline during a debate Tuesday for what he described as a lack of congressional progress, Cicilline maintained that many problems facing Rhode Islanders have already been solved but Republican leadership in Washington, D.C., has stymied improvements and refused to cooperate.
Cicilline counted bills on immigration, emergency unemployment benefits and transportation among those that have been passed with bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate but have not been taken up by the House under the current leadership.
"We've got the answers to the challenges facing us," Cicilline said during the debate at the Laurelmead retirement community.
Lynch, a political newcomer seeking to unseat the two-term congressman in the 1st Congressional District, responded by saying that residents should demand tangible progress.
"Under Congressman Cicilline's reign, there's no middle class," Lynch said.
Laurelmead executive director Craig Evans, who served as the moderator, began the debate with a pair of questions aimed at the candidates' weaknesses. He asked Cicilline, a Democrat, if the state would be better served by having one member of its congressional delegation in the Republican Party, which is likely to hold on to the majority in the House.
"The answer to that is unequivocally no," Cicilline said. "What we don't want is to give one more vote to a set of policies that aren't good for Rhode Island. I think the question for Rhode Island is who is going to go to Washington and keep fighting for things that matter for success for Rhode Island families?"
Evans then asked Lynch, a Republican, to address why the state should give up the four years it has invested with Cicilline and instead put its faith in the 29-year-old Newport resident.
"Because it's about results, not rhetoric," Lynch said. "I'm not going to let [House Speaker] John Boehner or anyone else force me to rubber-stamp a policy that I don't think is good for Rhode Island... One of the benefits is my hand is not in anyone's pocket."
The debate Tuesday is the only one scheduled between Cicilline, the former Providence mayor, and Lynch, a former Marine who served in Iraq. It touched on issues of the economy, national security, the national debt and immigration.
One difference between the candidates became clear as they discussed foreign policy. Cicilline stressed his support for ending the war in Afghanistan, staying that the United States should not be focused on building governments for other countries.
Lynch agreed the United States needs to end its involvement in Afghanistan but stressed that he and Cicilline disagree on how to accomplish that goal. Lynch said it's unrealistic to expect to create democracy there, but "some sort of law and order" needs to be seen before U.S. forces leave.
Given a chance to question one another, Cicilline pressed Lynch on why he opposes raising the minimum wage yet thinks income inequality is a serious concern.
Lynch responded that he doesn't think it's the government's job to set such benchmarks. He added that people who earn the minimum wage can further their education and eventually increase their wages.
"You can make yourself more valuable, and you can become something of yourself," Lynch said.
Cicilline said Lynch's answer showcased a fundamental disagreement between them.
"There are lots and lots of people who made something of themselves who earn the minimum wage," Cicilline said.
Cicilline went on to question Lynch on comments he's previously made about people who earn the minimum wage while having children.
"They chose to have children and undertaking care for a family, raising kids, without having the means to do so," Lynch said. "There's an element of personal responsibility here, congressman."
Lynch asked Cicilline how he would handle the threat posed by the Islamic State terrorist group.
Cicilline said the United States needs to build a meaningful coalition of partners, but said he would strongly resist a U.S. presence on the ground.