CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s largest Republican-led city is set to elect a new leader this fall, as Mayor Allan Fung’s 12 years running Cranston come to an end due to term limits.
On the Republican side of the race, two sitting city councilmen are aiming to earn the party nomination on Tuesday: Council President Michael Farina and city-wide Councilman Kenneth Hopkins.
Farina, 42, is a CVS Health executive who used to be a Democrat, describing himself to 12 News this week as a “fiscal conservative but socially liberal,” arguing his business background makes him the best fit to be the chief executive of a city with a $300 million budget.
Hopkins, 66, is a retired educator backed by Fung whose website proclaims he would be “continuing the sound, economic policies of the Fung administration” if elected.
“They need stability,” Hopkins said of the voters of Cranston. “They need to continue what Allan Fung has done. They need somebody who’s willing to cross over the aisle.”
While Fung — a popular mayor who made two unsuccessful bids for governor during his time leading Cranston — has endorsed Hopkins, Farina has earned the endorsement of the Cranston Republican Party and the city’s police and firefighter unions.
“My whole elected life I’ve been someone who lives in the middle,” Farina said of his political beliefs. He said he left the Democratic Party because he felt the party’s causes weren’t fiscally responsible. “We can’t continue to spend money like it’s an endless pool of funds,” he said.
Among the back-and-forth attacks between the candidates during the primary season was a criticism by Hopkins that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello — a conservative Democrat from Cranston — signed Farina’s nomination papers when he filed to run for office.
Mattiello is waiting until after the primary to weigh in on the mayoral race, according to his campaign spokesperson. The Republican nominee will face the winner of a Democratic primary between Maria Bucci, Steve Stycos and Adam Carbone, the latter of whom is most recently known for wearing a hot dog costume to a mayoral debate.
Farina said he is not backing a candidate in the House District 15 race between Mattiello and Republican Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, who is married to Mayor Fung. (Fenton-Fung says she is supporting Hopkins.)
“I’m still the same Mike Farina I was,” Farina said. “Nothing has really changed about me except for that little letter next to my name.”
Both Farina and Hopkins said they support the re-election of President Donald Trump.
And while Hopkins has campaigned on his close relationship with Fung, Farina has clashed with the mayor, and said he prefers a checks-and-balances relationship between the legislative branch, which he leads, and Fung’s executive branch.
“During crisis, during the pandemic I’ve talked to him via email every day,” Farina said. “We’re both professionals … but we’re not having coffee any time soon.”
Asked about their proudest accomplishments on the council, Hopkins cited his lobbying for a zoning change to allow a Top Golf facility to come to Cranston, and his opposition to a controversial Cumberland Farms gas station proposed near a residential neighborhood.
Farina said he’s proudest of collaborating with members of all parties, along with his role in leading the council though the pandemic and utilizing technology to continue holding public meetings.
Both candidates cited the reopening of schools as the top issue currently facing Cranston.
“The ideal is to reopen the schools,” Hopkins said. He said he is concerned about whether the facilities will be ready in time — a top concern of teachers unions – but said if he was still a teacher he would be willing to go to school in person on Sept. 14.
“If that’s what our superintendent recommended then I would do that,” Hopkins said.
Farina also said he was concerned about the school building conditions, including air circulation, and said he was “torn” on whether students should go back in person.
“Some of our school buildings are really old,” Farina said. “I went to Oak Lawn School. When I walk into that school, it looks the same as it did when I went there in the ’80s.”
City revenue has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, and Farina said he expects he would need to fill a roughly $10 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year if elected, before crafting the next year’s budget.
“I will collaborate with all the departments … we’re going to literally sit in a room and we’re going to write negative $10 million up on the chalkboard,” Farina said. “We’re going to look at ways to trim wasteful expenses,” he said, citing legal fees as one example. He also said the city may need to tap the rainy day fund or eliminate jobs via attrition in order to avoid raising taxes.
Hopkins said he’d prefer to find new revenue sources rather than make cuts to city departments.
“I’d rather not talk about cuts, I’d rather talk about bringing new businesses and attracting new revenue to come into our city,” Hopkins said, mentioning the proposed Costco as an example of new tax revenue.
Asked to grade the job Fung has done running the city since 2009, Farina said he’d give him a B-, in part because he says more work should have been done to improve the school buildings.
Hopkins’ grade for the current mayor: “A+++++.”