CRANSTON – If they were taking their cues from the national standard bearers of their political parties, the mayoral candidates in Rhode Island’s second-largest city wouldn’t be stopping to chat with each other outside City Hall each day when they greet residents who are lining up in record numbers to vote early.
Republican Ken Hopkins and Democrat Maria Bucci would be yelling about what corrupt action their opponent took today, doing whatever it takes to scare voters just enough into believing that only Republicans know how to balance budgets and only Democrats have the secret sauce for improving trash pickup.
But vicious character attacks haven’t been part of the playbook in the seven weeks since Hopkins and Bucci won their respective primaries, and with less than a week until Election Day, supporters of each candidate say they’re pleased the city’s first competitive mayoral race in 14 years stands in stark contrast to the vitriolic campaigns playing out between President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
“It’s a breath of fresh air to see them make it about the issues,” said City Councilman Edward Brady, a Republican. “I think it’s a testament to who Ken Hopkins and Maria Bucci are.”
To be sure, Hopkins and Bucci have had their disagreements.
Hopkins, a city councilman, retired school administrator, and longtime baseball coach at the Community College of Rhode Island, is running as the heir apparent to the city’s uber popular, but term-limited mayor, Republican Allan Fung. He routinely reminds voters that Fung has endorsed his candidacy, and he’s not afraid to say he wants to build on Fung’s accomplishments rather than change course for the city.
His chief criticism of Bucci: “I want to continue the good work of Mayor Allan Fung, who has led the city through great financial challenges, and has protected our tax dollars,” Hopkins said during a recent debate. “My opponent wants change for the sake of change, and that poses a risk to all of the success we have right now.”
Bucci, a former councilwoman who works as the director of patient services at the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center, is adamant that she isn’t seeking to radically change the way the city has been run since Fung was elected in 2008.
On the campaign trail, Bucci talks about needing to plan for 2021, and life after a pandemic that has killed 30 residents this year and sickened nearly 2,000.
“I actually have a plan, where my opponent is just going on Allan Fung’s past administration,” Bucci said in another debate.
But the candidates largely offer similar visions for the city, and they agree on the major issues that concern residents: They both support a ballot question to borrow more than $130 million for school repairs, for example, and they both oppose a plan to build a Costco on the land currently occupied by the Mulligan’s Island golf and entertainment complex.
As they try to highlight the narrow differences between the campaigns, Hopkins and Bucci haven’t resorted to sending negative mailers or posting videos online criticizing each other.
Even on the limited occasions when the candidates have tried to go negative, like when Hopkins questioned Bucci’s attendance at council meetings, the punches haven’t landed. And in a city that will likely support Biden for president, Bucci hasn’t sought to link Hopkins to Trump.
“It has definitely been more civil than almost any major race I’ve ever seen,” said Erich Haslehurst, who is running Bucci’s campaign.
However, Cranston is not immune to the political polarization that has divided the country.
While Hopkins and Bucci have largely remained above the fray, a race in the western part of the city between Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung – the mayor’s wife – has the feel of a statewide race, and the attacks have been brutal.
Fenton-Fung has sent mailer after mailer to constituents reminding them of Mattiello’s tough, win-at-all-costs campaign in the district four years ago, which resulted in one top aide being charged with money laundering.
Indeed, negative campaigning can be an effective tool.
Most campaigns conduct opposition research on their opponents, and well-funded attacks can change the course of the race. In 2018, when Allan Fung ran for governor, Democratic incumbent Gina Raimondo spent millions of dollars tying Fung to Trump, and she won the race comfortably.
But Darrell West, a former Brown University professor who now works as the vice president and director of governance studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, has argued that democracy “does not perform well when opponents see one another as enemies.”
“As politics becomes a blood sport, it changes the nature of the combat and the manner in which political and policy differences get resolved,” West wrote in his book, “Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era.”
“Enemies do not negotiate; rather, they fight to an often bitter end, and the winner imposes its will on the loser.”
Those close to Hopkins and Bucci say that largely staying positive has been good for Cranston.
State Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, said voters were taking notice as they stood in line outside City Hall this week.
“The civility was definitely there,” Miller said. “They are both decent people with equally decent campaign managers.”
Patrick Sweeney, an attorney and Republican political operative, said both candidates have taken a page out of Allan Fung’s playbook by making a straightforward case to voters, but he invoked a different politician to highlight why their strategies have been effective.
“Buddy Cianci would always tell me that people don’t care how much you know,” Sweeney said. “They want to know that you care.”