CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – The Republican mayor of Rhode Island’s third-largest city officially launched his campaign for governor Monday, promising to create 20,000 new jobs and freeze college tuition rates for four years beginning in 2015.
Describing himself as “respectful, result-oriented and fiscally responsible,” Cranston Mayor Allan Fung pledged to be a hands-on governor who will spearhead an economic development strategy that will be centered on lowering taxes, improving public schools and fixing the state’s aging infrastructure.
“Some may say that I am setting the bar too high, but my administration will have a laser focus on job creation,” Fung told more than 100 supporters gathered at the corporate headquarters of manufacturing giant Taco Inc. in Cranston. “We have done it in Cranston, we can do it statewide.”
Fung’s announcement came exactly one year before the 2014 general election. The 43-year-old Rhode Island College graduate, now in his third term as mayor, was joined by his parents, who emigrated from Hong Kong to Providence before opening a Chinese restaurant in Cranston.
Fung, a former lobbyist for the insurer MetLife who also worked as a prosecutor for the attorney general’s office, would become the first Asian-American to hold statewide office in Rhode Island if he wins. The city’s next mayoral election isn’t scheduled until 2016, which means Fung could continue to lead Cranston if he does not win the governor’s race.
Fung touted his record of overseeing major business development in Cranston since taking office in 2009, including a $17-million expansion at Taco, the redevelopment of the Garden City shopping center, and jewelry company Alex and Ani’s decision to locate its world headquarters in the Chapel View Shopping Center.
As governor, Fung said he would serve as Rhode Island’s “chief economic development officer” and pledged to put a dent in the state’s 9.1% unemployment rate by supporting existing businesses while waiving the $500 minimum corporate tax and offering a job creation tax credit for startups.
“I don’t want people to keep hearing that our state is one of the worst states for unemployment,” Fung said. “We can do better, and we will do better. It will start on day one of the Fung administration – I will declare that Rhode Island is open for business.” His proposals include creating a $1-million Rhode Island Entrepreneurship Venture Fund and granting $5,000 in seed funding to individuals with startups.
Fung said his goal is to create 20,000 new jobs by the end of his first term in office, a figure that would still leave the state with fewer jobs than it had before the Great Recession. Rhode Island’s nonfarm payroll employment peaked in December 2006 at 496,400, but the state had just 468,100 jobs in August, according to a WPRI.com review of data from the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.
Fung’s proposals also include freezing tuition rates at the state’s three public colleges – the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island – for four years upon taking office, and requiring the state’s education commissioner to report directly to the governor. The mayor has long been a supporter of current Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who signed a two-year contract earlier this year.
Fung promised to add robotics and the arts to Rhode Island’s core curriculum, while placing a focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in addition to critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. He said Rhode Island schools need to become “innovative and accountable” in order to improve public education.
“We also know that the one-size-fits-all model does not work with the diverse student population we have in Rhode Island,” Fung said. “It is time to address the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their fellow classmates.”
Fung also came out strongly against the proposal to add tolls to the Sakonnet River Bridge, suggesting the state should explore alternative ways of financing transportation maintenance, possibly by setting up a state infrastructure bank.
Fung is seeking to become the youngest Rhode Island governor since Philip Noel, who was 41 when he took office in 1972 – but Fung’s four years on the Cranston City Council and five years as mayor gives him more political experience than all of the candidates expected to compete to succeed incumbent Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Chafee, a former Republican U.S. Senator who joined the Democratic Party earlier this year, won office as an independent in 2010. In September, he announced he would not seek re-election next year.
Businessman Ken Block, who founded the Moderate Party and finished fourth in the 2010 governor’s race, announced last week he plans to challenge Fung in the Republican primary. Block, who has never held elected office, loaned himself $500,000 and now has more cash on hand – $547,685 – than Fung, who finished the third fundraising quarter with $336,553, according to a WPRI.com review of filings with the R.I. Board of Elections.
But Fung, who has been mulling a run for governor for more than a year, remains popular among Rhode Rhode Island voters. A January survey by Public Policy Polling showed 55% of Rhode Island voters have a favorable view of the Cranston mayor. Voters picked him first or second in every potential matchup for governor the poll tested, taking 23% to 36% of the vote depending on which competitors he faced.
For his primary, Fung has already secured the support of the majority of the Republican Party’s heavyweights, including former Govs. Don Carcieri and Lincoln Almond – the latter of whom was on hand for Monday’s kickoff – as well as Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, House Minority Leader Brian Newberry and Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere, all of whom joined his exploratory committee.
Republicans have won seven of Rhode Island’s 10 gubernatorial contests since 1984.
On the Democratic side, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo – who were both elected for the first time in 2010 – are expected to compete in a primary. Clay Pell, the 31-year-old grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, confirmed last week he is considering entering the Democratic primary. Pell has never held elected office.
Taveras and Fung have been close friends since they attended Classical High School together in the 1980s. The two have made several political contributions to one another over the last decade, and Fung hired Taveras to represent him during a recount in the 2006 Cranston mayoral election, which Fung lost by 72 votes.
After he formally launched his campaign for governor last week, Taveras told WPRI.com he hopes he and Fung will set “a new level of civility for our state.”
“You all know how I feel about Mayor Fung,” Taveras said. “I’ve known him for a long time. I look forward to hopefully having that historic race come Sept. 10.” The party primaries will take place on Sept. 9, 2014.
Fung was slated to hold a rally Monday evening at the Chapel Grille Restaurant in Cranston. Later this month, he will travel to Scottsdale, Ariz., for a candidate information and training session held by the Republican Governors Association.
“Our goal is to share the best campaign practices directly with candidates and their campaign managers as we move into an important 2014 election cycle,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Brown University graduate who serves as chairman of the RGA, wrote in an invitation obtained by WPRI.com.
Fung told his supporters that he’ll spend the next year “working nonstop” to let Rhode Island voters know who he is. “I am a Rhode Islander,” he said. “I was born and raised here. I love Rhode Island. I love all that it is and what it can be.”
After graduating from RIC, Fung earned a law degree at Suffolk University in Boston. He worked for the law firm Mandell, Schwartz & Boisclair from 1996 to 1999, then spent two years as a special assistant attorney general under then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat. He was MetLife’s lobbyist from 2001 to 2009.