CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – It’s safe to say 2015 hasn’t been the easiest year for Allan Fung.
Little more than a year ago, the Republican and three-term Cranston mayor came within 15,000 votes of defeating Gina Raimondo to become Rhode Island’s governor – with many blaming his loss in part on the late and unexpected candidacy of Moderate Party candidate Bob Healey, who received nearly 70,000 votes.
Then last summer, the Rhode Island State Police released an extraordinarily critical report that lambasted Fung for his oversight of the city’s troubled police department. The mayor issued a public apology but dismissed speculation that he might resign.
At the time, some observers wondered whether the police report might lead Fung to step aside rather than seek re-election as mayor in 2016. But as the new year draws near, Fung is now widely expected to throw his hat into the ring and try to hold onto the office he first won in 2008.
While Fung has yet to confirm his decision, he has strongly hinted that he plans to run in his public comments.
“I will have an announcement early next year about the position that I will be running for,” Fung, 45, told WPRI.com this week.
“All I will say right now is I love what I’m doing as mayor, I have and will always do so, and there are a lot more projects that I’m looking forward to putting in place to help build the city of Cranston back up for the future,” he said.
Another sign Fung will run: on Wednesday, the Rhode Island Republican Party blasted out an email invitation to a Patriots-themed “Football for Fung” fundraiser to be held Sunday at Cranston’s Thirsty Beaver bar. Fung usually holds a campaign fundraiser to mark his birthday on Feb. 25, which could give him a reason to announce a re-election bid before that.
The race for Cranston mayor could draw extra attention statewide in 2016, which otherwise looks like a relatively quiet season in Rhode Island politics after three busy cycles in a row. With no statewide offices or U.S. Senate races on the ballot and the state’s two incumbent congressmen appearing entrenched, mayoral and General Assembly campaigns may be the most interesting fights for local political junkies.
If Fung does run, though, it won’t be the same cakewalk for him that it was in 2012, when his political standing in the city was so strong that Democrats didn’t even bother running a candidate against him.
Michael Sepe, chairman of the Cranston Democratic City Committee and a well-known veteran of city politics, already announced his own campaign for mayor earlier this fall. Sepe previously ran in 1994, losing to Republican Michael Traficante, and his father was a longtime state representative.
Despite the police scandal, Sepe has said he thinks Fung would be a formidable candidate in 2016. “I think it’s going to be a very, very serious and very, very difficult election for myself,” Sepe, 68, said on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers in October.
“I know it’s an uphill battle. I know he’s the incumbent. And he’s probably going to be able to raise more money than I can,” Sepe said. “But I’m going to be out there, and if we don’t have the money aspect of it, we’re going to be out there campaigning very, very, very hard against him.”
The pair were evenly matched financially as of Sept. 30, according to R.I. Board of Elections filings, with Fung having $26,221 in his campaign account and Sepe having $25,455 in his. One potential advantage for Fung: he cultivated a broader fundraising network during his run for governor, which could help him raise money for mayor.
There are still, of course, a host of unanswered questions about the race. Will Fung and Sepe be the only two candidates for mayor, or will others jump in to contest the party nominations? Will Cranston voters who’ve historically backed Fung accept his apology on the police issues and move on? Will voters who want a new face see Sepe as a change agent?
Fung’s supporters point to the fact that he’s been a reliable vote-winner in Cranston over the last decade as evidence that he can win again in 2016.
He lost his first race for mayor, in 2006, to Democrat Michael Napolitano by just 72 votes; two years later he won an easy victory over Democrat Cynthia Fogarty in a year when Republicans were otherwise suffering losses coast to coast amid the Obama wave.
Fung hasn’t had a close election since, winning with 76% of the vote in 2010 and facing no opposition in 2012, when Cranston switched to four-year mayoral terms. He also topped Raimondo by almost 6,700 votes in Cranston when they faced off for governor.
Partisan history is against Sepe, as well. Republicans have dominated Cranston mayoral elections throughout the past half-century: the city has had a GOP mayor for all but six years since 1963, when John F. Kennedy was president.
The Rhode Island GOP has reason to hope Fung holds on. Not only was he the party’s standard-bearer in 2014, but he remains one of its most prominent elected officials in Rhode Island – seen as more of a party stalwart than his fellow mayor Scott Avedisian of Warwick, a protégé of ex-Republican Lincoln Chafee.
“It is critical to the Rhode Island Republican Party and the residents of Cranston that Mayor Fung run and win re-election after over seven years of effective leadership that has seen our third-largest city thrive in a state not doing as well,” Brandon Bell, chairman of the state GOP and a Fung ally, told WPRI.com in an email.
In Bell’s view, electing and re-electing Republicans like Fung to key municipal offices is crucial to the GOP’s party-building efforts. “Remember Tip O’Neill – ‘all politics is local’ and locally elected officials give the party an important leadership bench and an opportunity to demonstrate what good government can accomplish,” he said.
Bell argued that the stability of Rhode Island’s Republican-led communities contrasts positively with the ongoing financial turmoil in Providence that he blamed on former mayor David Cicilline and incumbent Jorge Elorza.
“GOP local leaders are an example of what effective leadership can accomplish at a cost taxpayers can afford,” he said. “Mayor Fung, Warwick Mayor Avedesian and Lincoln Town Administrator [T. Joseph] Almond have all been extremely successful as chief executives in their cities and towns. We expect all three to be successful in their re-elections.”Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi