Block touts business acumen in governor’s campaign
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Every tax season, Ken Block says, his accountant tells him to move his businesses to Massachusetts to save on taxes and fees.
Instead of relocating, this year he’s running for Rhode Island governor.
In the run-up to the Sept. 9 Republican primary, Block has tried to position himself as the political outsider with the business acumen necessary to fix the state’s economic climate. The businessman and Moderate Party founder has released a plan that calls for reducing, eliminating or offering exemptions from specific taxes. He has promised to find $1 billion in wasted spending within the state budget and the unemployment insurance and Temporary Disability Insurance systems.
Rhode Island has consistently fared poorly in rankings of business friendliness. The Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy research organization, ranked Rhode Island 46th in the nation for 2014 for high taxes and an inefficient tax structure. Neighboring Massachusetts is 25th.
“I can see what the potential of Rhode Island is. We just have to release ourselves from the economic jail we’re in,” Block told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “It would’ve been far easier to just move. I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised to fight for what you believe in, and I believe Rhode Island doesn’t have to be this way.”
The 48-year-old software engineer was an unaffiliated voter until he founded the state’s Moderate Party in 2008, saying he was dissatisfied with the political establishment. He was the party’s 2010 gubernatorial candidate and came in fourth with 6.5 percent.
He acknowledged building a party was a “pretty futile exercise” because it didn’t effect change.
Many Republicans still resent his 2010 candidacy because they felt he drew votes from their nominee, John Robitaille. Some even speculated that Block cost Robitaille the election.
The state Republican Party has endorsed Block’s opponent, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung. The party’s executive director, Robert Paquin III, said some people are “a little leery” of political newcomers. Fung has sought to portray Block as the more liberal candidate.
In a debate, Block was asked to name a current elected official in Rhode Island he admires. He couldn’t think of one. That answer irked some Republicans.
“I respect people in politics, of course, but admiration to me is a special word,” he told the AP. “I would use admiration when I speak about cancer researchers or philanthropists.”
Block is outspoken about eliminating wasteful government spending. He estimates $10 million to $20 million a year is wasted by state workers filling out paper timesheets instead of electronic ones, for example. Last year, Block did a waste and fraud analysis for the administration of Rhode Island’s Medicaid and food stamp programs. He found widespread inefficiencies in state government, as well as waste and fraud by those receiving benefits, retailers and medical providers.
Block has made the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles a pet issue because of the wait times and a long-delayed computer upgrade project. “There isn’t a better example of failed government,” he said.
Bill McCourt, executive director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, said members of the business community have been receptive to Block’s candidacy. McCourt said he thinks Block has specific ideas on how to improve the economic climate because he has dealt firsthand with the issues as a business owner.
“The more people meet him and talk to him, the more they like him,” McCourt said.
Block was born in Milford, Connecticut, and graduated from Dartmouth College. He worked as a software consultant before starting his own consulting firm in 1997. He is the president of Simpatico Software Systems, a software engineering firm, and Cross Alert Systems, a traffic signal manufacturer, both in Warwick.
He pushed for years to eliminate the straight-ticket voting option on Rhode Island ballots. Legislation abolishing the master lever was recently signed into law.
Block lives in Barrington with his wife, Jennifer, a middle school science teacher, and their two children. He said Jennifer supports his political ambitions — to a point.
“This is it for me politically,” Block said. “I do not have permission to even think about any other office.”
If he loses, Block said, he goes back to his businesses. If he wins, he would govern like he only had one term.
“You can’t be overly concerned about winning the next race,” Block said. “Those who are overly concerned, they can’t be the change agents we need.”