CRANSTON — One Republican mayoral hopeful compares walking door to door with outgoing GOP Mayor Allan Fung to touring with the Beatles. A Democratic contender for the city’s top job says she knows plenty of her supporters have voted for Fung in the past.
Fung is leaving office after 12 years because of term limits, so residents in Rhode Island’s second-largest city have no choice but to vote for change this year. But with less than a week before the Sept. 8 primary, the four leading candidates in the race are pitching themselves as fresh faces while reminding voters that they’ll maintain the same fiscal discipline that Fung has been known for.
Indeed, Fung’s popularity has cast a long shadow over both the Republican and Democratic primaries, so much so that even the candidates who have clashed with Fung from time to time aren’t going out of their way to attack him.
“They’re kind of afraid of him because they saw what he did to me four years ago,” joked Michael Sepe, the longtime chair of the Cranston Democratic City Committee, who was trounced by Fung in the 2016 mayoral race.
Sepe said the candidates are smart to focus on themselves and their opponents rather than making the race a referendum on Fung. He’s specifically urged the Democrats to “hold their fire” when it comes to the mayor.
On the Democratic side, voters will choose between former councilor Maria Bucci and Councilor Steven Stycos, the top vote-getter citywide in the at-large council race in 2018. A third Democrat, comedian Adam Carbone, is also running, but is not considered a contender in the race.
The Republican primary is between Council President Michael J. Farina, an executive at CVS Health, and Councilor Kenneth Hopkins, a retired educator and former baseball coach at the Community College of Rhode Island.
Fung, a former two-time Republican nominee for governor, has endorsed Hopkins, although Farina was the first candidate to enter the race and has earned the endorsements of the city’s police union and firefighters union.
Hopkins said he’ll rely on the expertise of Fung and another former mayor, Michael Traficante, if he’s elected to lead the city. He said COVID-19 has created fiscal uncertainty for all cities and towns, and he’ll advocate for state leaders to release some of the $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding that was approved earlier this year.
On the doors, Hopkins touts his relationship with Fung, and occasionally the mayor has been willing to accompany him.
“When I go walking with him it’s like being with the Beatles, but I’m Ringo,” Hopkins quipped. “Everyone wants a picture with the mayor.”
Farina hasn’t taken many selfies with Fung lately, as the two have allowed their relationship to deteriorate in recent years. Elected to the City Council as a Democrat in 2012, Farina switched parties in 2016, a move that tipped the balance of the council to the Republicans and secured him council presidency.
Still, Farina credits Fung with helping improve the city’s finances following the Great Recession, and argues that Cranston will need to show the same fiscal discipline as the city comes out of the pandemic. He said the city faces a structural deficit of between $8 million and $10 million, and cutting wasteful spending — like outside legal fees — will be his top priority.
“If you compare my skills to most mayors that have been elected in the city of Cranston, I am more prepared than they were at the time,” Farina said.
Farina and Hopkins share many views on the city’s key issues, opposing a plan to build a Costco on the land currently occupied by the Mulligan’s Island golf and entertainment complex. They both support a proposed $134 million bond to invest in school infrastructure.
Farina said Fung could have done more during his 12-years to improve the school buildings, adding, “When I walk into Oak Lawn Elementary School, it looks the same as it did in 1987.”
Of Cranston’s 59,000 registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly three-to-one, although nearly half of the city’s voters are unaffiliated. But for Fung to be as popular as he is, he has needed the support of Democrats.
In 2016, Fung’s final time on the ballot for mayor, he grabbed 68 percent of the vote in the race against Sepe, even as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won Cranston with 51 percent of the vote.
Which is why Bucci or Stycos aren’t actively criticizing the current mayor.
“You say Cranston and they say Allan Fung,” said Maria Bucci, who sat next to Fung and developed a friendship with him while the two were on the City Council. “But they’re ready for change.”
Bucci, who works as the director of patient services at the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center, praised Fung for developing the Chapel View outdoor shopping center, but said she believes he could have done more to invest in infrastructure.
Bucci and Stycos also oppose the Costco proposal, although Bucci said she’d like to see it built in another section of the city.
Stycos, a progressive candidate who runs the Westbay Farm in Warwick, has been a Fung antagonist on the council and argues that Fung mishandled a police department scandal that involved officers writing parking tickets in neighborhoods represented by councilors who voted against a police union contract.
But even Stycos can’t help but offer kind words for Fung too.
“I think he’s been fairly conservative with spending,” Stycos said. “He’s been really careful.”
The winners of the Sept. 8 primaries will square off in the Nov. 3 general election, and the praise for Fung is likely to continue once both parties have selected their nominees.
Dylan Zelazo, a Democrat who is running for City Council, said taking Fung to task won’t be the winning recipe.
“The real question in the 2020 election is, who is best suited to build on the stable foundation that Mayor Fung has laid?” Zelazo said.