Allan Fung has used an early-career snub from the Democratic Party as bulletin board material throughout his rise up the ranks in Rhode Island politics as a Republican. If he has his way, he’ll be making national headlines come November.
As the story goes, Fung was a 32-year-old attorney in 2002 when he approached Cranston’s Democratic machine about running for a seat on the City Council. The party leaders told him to wait his turn, so he joined the GOP and ran anyway.
He won, beginning a two-decade run in Rhode Island that saw him become a wildly popular mayor and a two-time Republican nominee for governor (losing to Gina Raimondo both times). Now he has the opportunity to give his party its first congressional victory in Rhode Island since Lincoln Chafee won the US Senate seat he was appointed to after his father’s death in 2000.
So is the story true? Basically, yes.
“I had no place for him to run,” recalls Michael Sepe, the former longtime chairman of the Cranston Democrats whom Fung trounced in the 2016 mayor’s race. “Who was I going to knock out? I had nine Democrats on the council.”
In an alternative universe, Fung could be in the final year of his second term as the Democratic governor of Rhode Island, and the clear-cut favorite to succeed the retiring US Representative James Langevin in Congress. Nancy Pelosi’s “Fung-tastic” fund-raising e-mails would write themselves.
Turns out Fung still might be the favorite to replace Langevin in Congress, only now it’s as a Republican, and the state’s top Democrats are freaking out at the idea that Fung might be the candidate who ousts Pelosi from power.
Just take a look at what state Treasurer Seth Magaziner, the self-appointed savior of Democrats in the 2nd District, said last week after Fung announced that he was entering the race.
“The very first vote Allan Fung would cast in Washington would be to turn control of Congress over to the Republican leadership who care more about doing Donald Trump’s bidding than they do about delivering results for working families,” Magaziner exclaimed. “I am in this race because Rhode Island needs a representative who will fight for the middle class, and we cannot allow Allan Fung and the Republicans in Washington to undermine protections for workers, repeal Obamacare, roll back voting rights, and turn back the clock on women’s rights.”
There’s no evidence that Fung married Trump’s policies when he was mayor – although his decision to wear a Trump hat at the inauguration in 2017 was at least as dumb as the Cranston Democrats’ decision to brush him to the side all those years ago – but Magaziner’s point isn’t wrong.
Congressman Fung would be far more likely to vote with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy than any Democrat, and McCarthy definitely worships at the altar of Trump. Even if Fung refused to vote for McCarthy to be speaker, he would likely vote with McCarthy more often than with the Democrats.
Fung’s best chance to overcome the Democratic onslaught will be to localize the race, focusing on inflation and public safety while trying to present himself as the reasonable, pragmatic former mayor who left office in 2020 more popular than ever.
First, he has to win a Republican primary that could be filled with candidates to his right and activists who think his flirtation with the Democratic Party 20 years ago means he’s a Republican-in-name-only. Those critics are shortsighted, but it is true that Fung is more popular among Democrats and members of the media than he is with the right wing of his party.
So far, Fung has three potential GOP primary opponents: Former state representative Bob Lancia and state Senator Jessica de la Cruz have opened federal campaign accounts, and state Representative Patricia Morgan, a longtime Fung nemesis, is considering entering the race.
The 2nd District is considered more conservative than the 1st District, but the math favors Fung because the vast majority of the votes in a Republican primary – which will have a smaller turnout than the Democratic primary for Providence mayor – come from Cranston, Warwick, and part of the capital city.
While Fung should have the money and ground game to get through the primary, he’ll need to stay disciplined to avoid giving the Democrats any fodder to use against him in the general election. He’s made those kinds of mistakes in the past, like in his 2014 race for governor when he supported a “right to work” law in a union-dominated state like Rhode Island. And then there was the Trump hat three years later.
If Fung advances, he’ll face the winner of a Democratic primary that is still taking shape.
Magaziner, a two-term statewide elected official and the best fund-raiser of the bunch, appears to be the early favorite in a field that already includes former state representative Ed Pacheco, former Langevin staffer Joy Fox, and a handful of folks most people have never really heard of (Omar Bah, Cameron Michael Moquin, and Michael Neary).
One thing to watch: Sarah Morgenthau, whose late mother Ruth was the Democratic nominee for the same district in 1988 (she lost), appears to be taking steps to enter the race. (She even registered to vote in Rhode Island recently.) She’s been in Washington, D.C. for several years, and currently works for the US Department of Commerce (yes, the department run by Raimondo).
If Fung can pull off the victory, you can expect national reporters from all over the country to swoop in to write, “Even Rhode Island went red” stories in November. And if they really want to know how it happened, they should start by talking to Cranston’s Democrats.
Dan McGowan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.