NEWS

Fung: 'Proud of the legacy that I'm leaving'

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 1/6/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE Allan Fung took office as Cranston's mayor at a trying time. The city, already facing dire fiscal straits, was reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis. Then, just a year into his term, the floods of 2010 left homes,

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Fung: 'Proud of the legacy that I'm leaving'

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Allan Fung took office as Cranston’s mayor at a trying time.

The city, already facing dire fiscal straits, was reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis. Then, just a year into his term, the floods of 2010 left homes, roads and businesses across Rhode Island – and parts of Cranston – literally underwater.

“It was a lot of challenges, a lot of pressure, and a lot of fastballs thrown at you, at your head, right off the bat,” Fung said during a recent interview for the Herald’s Radio Beacon podcast. “You felt like you were, you know, standing up in the batter’s box, a rookie in a Major League Baseball game, and you had the veteran pitcher just constantly throwing that 99 mile an hour fastball right at your head, and it was all coming at once.”

He added: “You know, but I was up for it. And that’s what I’ve loved about the job, all the challenges.”

Now, Fung has joined the ranks of Cranston’s former mayors. His successor, Ken Hopkins, was sworn in during a largely virtual inaugural event Monday.

Fung’s departure from the mayor’s office after 12 years, necessitated by term limits adopted in 2010, comes at another moment of crisis for Cranston. Much of the final year of Fung’s term has been consumed by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the rollout of vaccines in Rhode Island offers hope, Hopkins and his administration – along with the new members of the City Council and School Committee – face the reality of more challenging months ahead.

During the recent podcast interview, Fung reflected on a decade-plus that has “gone by pretty quick.” While he cited plans to take some time off as he considers his next endeavor, he did little to extinguish the widespread expectation that he will soon return to the political arena.

“I’m a different type of person,” he said. “I thrive on trying to solve difficult problems.”

Journey to the mayor’s office

Tumultuous circumstances defined Fung’s earliest days on the job, but he spoke with pride of a far more joyful aspect of that time in his life – the history-making nature of his ascension to the mayor’s office. The son of immigrants from Hong Kong, he became the first Asian American to serve as mayor of a Rhode Island community.

“I remember how proud my parents were, how so many people across Rhode Island were watching because we had made history,” he said of the 2009 inauguration, adding: “I remember Cranston East where it was just packed … There was a lot of pride, a lot of hope, a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of hard work, too.”

Entering politics, Fung said, was not his initial choice for a career path. While attending Classical High School in Providence with friend and classmate Angel Taveras – who would go on to serve as mayor of the state’s capital city – he was instead focused on the legal profession.

“Both of us just wanted to be lawyers. Politics was the furthest from my mind,” he said, adding: “I never really envisioned running for office one day, but I always wanted to help people, be an advocate as a lawyer.”

It was Cranston’s financial difficulties in the early 2000s, Fung said, that changed his thinking. His family, longtime owners of a restaurant in the city, had worked hard to move from Providence to Cranston, and he “jumped into politics” – first with a run for City Council – because he “didn’t like the direction” in which Cranston was going.

“I was angry because the city that’s meant so much to myself and my family … that some of the leaders that some of the leaders that I voted for, supported, put the city in that bad situation,” he said.

Serving on the council led Fung to his next political pursuit.

“It dawned on me that … you can effectuate a lot of change if you make the right decisions,” he said. “And that’s what led me to run for mayor.”

Fung’s first run for mayor, in 2006, made history, but not in the way he had hoped. In the closest contest in the city’s history, he fell short to Democrat Michael Napolitano by 72 votes.

Two years, later, Napolitano opted against a reelection bid. Fung ran again, and this time, he captured 63 percent of the vote for a decisive victory over Cynthia Fogarty.

“I wasn’t deterred, because in my heart, I had the passion and drive to want to change the city … In my heart, I knew that I wanted to be in that seat,” he said.

Early days, highs and lows

Fung has often spoken of his relationship with Scott Avedisian, who was then mayor of Warwick, during the early years of his administration – and particularly during the 2010 floods, which devastated both of their communities.

Their relationship, he said, “opened up the opportunity for us to explore other avenues” in terms of cooperation and collaboration. He cited the preparation of meals for Warwick’s senior center at the Cranston Enrichment Center as an example.

“It led to a lot more partnerships, working together,” he said, adding: “Sometimes, it’s those crises that lead you to more productive opportunities … you can learn a lot from it and achieve a lot.”

The outgoing mayor touted a number of accomplishments from his tenure, both during the early days and beyond. He said he takes pride in the fact that under his administration, various roles were filled by women, people of color and people with disabilities for the first time. He also noted that women have joined the ranks of the city’s Fire Department.

“There’s been a lot of progress in so many different departments,” he said.

Fung has frequently pointed to the success of Garden City Center and Chapel View during the last decade-plus when highlighting the city’s economic landscape. During his podcast interview, he also pointed to the expansion of Cadence Science, Dean Warehouse’s new facility, and the renewal of Pawtuxet Village as evidence of his administration’s success in fostering a favorable business climate.

“We made meaningful changes in all different parts of the city,” he said.

The city’s parks and its library system, which was recently honored with a national award, are other areas Fung cites as sources of pride from his time in office.

But he points to his record of fiscal management as his crowning achievement, one that made the success on other fronts possible. He said the reform of the city’s pension system for retired firefighters and police officers – one that survived legal challenges that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the cast late last year – stands as perhaps the most significant single accomplishment.

“[My administration] inherited a budget that was out of control on both the city and the school side,” he said. “But we made those difficult decisions.”

When it comes to low points from Fung’s tenure, the so-called “Ticketgate” scandal and its aftermath – including a Rhode Island State Police takeover of the Cranston Police Department, a State Police report deeply critical of the mayor and his administration, and a City Council “no confidence” vote – looms largest.

Fung said he “tackled that challenge head on,” addressing both the council and members of the media and “answering every single question.”

He also said he deserves credit for seeking a “hard review” of the Police Department in the wake of “Ticketgate” and for bringing in Col. Michael Winquist, the first chief to come from outside the department’s ranks.

“The biggest lesson for me, out of that? I should have went outside with the police chief earlier on than I did,” he said. The Police Department, he said, is now a “model.”

“You’ve got a department that’s filled with pride now,” he said.

He added: “As long as you’re transparent, upfront about it, you can put your head on the pillow at night … It’s how you deal with it that matters, and the lessons that you learn from it.”

Political future

As he enters his post-mayoral life, Fung will be closely watched by political observers ahead of the 2022 election cycle.

The outgoing mayor has twice been the Republican nominee for governor, first in 2014 and then in 2018. Both times, he fell short to Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Will Fung make a third bid? The outgoing mayor says only that he is mulling a range of options for the future. His description of why he ran for the state’s top office previously, however, suggests another gubernatorial run is very much on his mind.

“I think one of the things that I really enjoy about the job as mayor, as the chief executive, you have the opportunity to leave your footprint on, in this case, Cranston … [It] fits the same dynamics as governor. I saw that as a great opportunity to help the state,” he said.

He added: “I still see the state as struggling … It’s frustrating as a native Rhode Islander, born and raised here, to see we’re always the first one into a situation and the last one to come out. I’m tired of that mantra, and I’ve shown in Cranston that it doesn’t have to be that way … I know I can help a state that’s been so good to my family.”

It also appears Fung has not ruled out a return to the mayor’s office at some point.

He said based on his understanding, the charter changes that created term limits for the mayor’s office only limit occupants to two consecutive four years terms – not two terms overall. Members of the City Council, for example, can serve up to five consecutive terms, but are eligible for new election to the body after a two-year absence.

“Like I said, I’m always looking for different challenges,” he said, adding: “I’m proud of the legacy that I’m leaving in Cranston. And I’m not going anywhere … I’ll still stay involved.”

The results of November’s election certainly suggest the mayor remains popular among Cranston residents. Hopkins, his endorsed successor, won the mayor’s office, and his wife, Barbara-Ann Fenton Fung, toppled House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in District 15. Republicans held the council majority, and charter amendments the mayor supported passed by wide margins.

“This last election cycle, I loved being out there with my wife … I loved being at the door with my wife,” he said. “And for me, it was an opportunity to also say farewell to some of the residents of Cranston. So, who knows what could happen. But 12 years is definitely a good footprint that I’ve left on the city.”

Elsewhere during Fung’s interview:

Asked what he will miss most about serving as mayor, Fung said: “I saw a whole generation of kids start school and finish up and graduate this past year. And just like everyone else, I wasn’t able to share that last moment as they were crossing that stage. I really have enjoyed being part of their lives, their families’ lives for all these years.”

What will he miss least?

“Being out on the plows at like 2 or 3 in the morning with a lot of those hard-working people … When you hit those small lips in a plow and it jolts through your body like you’re in an accident, it wakes you up,” he said.

With a laugh, he added: “I’ll get a chance to sleep at night, and if my street’s not plowed, I’m calling Kenny Hopkins and saying, ‘Get a plow out here!’”

More seriously, Fung again said he will miss the “challenges” of the job.

“It’s something for me that I pride myself on,” he said. “I relish trying to come up with creative ways to do what we can to help people … It’s been fun for me in a sense that I’ve connected with people in Cranston, not just in Cranston but across the globe.”

Does Fung see any significant pieces of unfinished business?

“What I’m proud of is leaving the city in good financial shape, leaving the city with a diversified workforce … The biggest challenge I think Ken’s going to have to face is this COVID crisis and the economy that’s going to flow from it,” he said.

He added: “I saw that with the recession, and it took time. It took time to get out of it. We’re still going to see a lot of people hurting … until the vaccine fully takes effect and our economy can fully reopen.”

Fung was also asked, as one of the state’s most prominent Republicans, about events in the nation’s capital and President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the results of November’s election. Some local GOP candidates and officials have adopted similar rhetoric, suggesting Democrats rigged or stole the election even in local races.

“I think the best person that spoke on this was [former attorney general William Barr], when he said that, look, there was no widespread fraud that impacted the election … I didn’t see any kind of fraud here locally, whether it was in Cranston or Rhode Island,” Fung said.

While Trump is “certainly entitled” to pursue legal options, Fung said, the nation has “to prepare for an orderly transition of power.”

He added: “Our Board of Canvassers, our [Elections Director Nicholas Lima] … did an excellent job with ensuring that people had the opportunity to vote. It wasn’t easy. So I’m proud of the work that they put in … different people from different departments all came together to make that work.”

Will Fung be an active resource for Hopkins going forward?

“I’m here to help. I’m not certainly going to force my opinion on anyone, and that includes with Ken,” he said. “I’m here as a resource, because he has his own ideas. My style, skill sets aren’t necessarily his … He’s going to have to set forth his own agenda, his own vision for the city. But I’m here to help, even if it is a simple call or text where he picks my brain on something.”

What does the immediate future hold for the now former mayor?

“I’m going to take some nice time for myself,” he said. “No matter what decision I make, it’s going to be with Barbara Ann in mind, with my family in mind … All I’ll say right now is, as you can hear from this interview, I have thoroughly enjoyed public service, helping people, knowing that a lot of what I’ve done, the skill sets that I carry, can be productive to help in Rhode Island in whatever endeavor I decide for the future.”

Fung, mayor

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