By DANIEL KITTREDGE Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of the candidates for mayor, based on recent interviews conducted for our Radio Beacon podcast. Ken Hopkins, a citywide member of the Cranston City Council, has long considered
Ken Hopkins, a citywide member of the Cranston City Council, has long considered a run for mayor.
Initially, the second-term Republican did not plan to seek the city’s highest elected office in 2020. His wife, Mary, a longtime educator, was battling cancer last year, and he was accompanying her on frequent trips to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
He announced publicly that he would pass on a run for mayor and instead seek reelection to his council seat, focusing on building the Republican slate of candidates with an eye toward serving as the body’s president in the next term.
“I originally said I was going to come out and support [City Council President] Mike Farina … At the time, my wife was sick, and I didn’t feel like I would have that opportunity to run for mayor,” he said.
When Mary passed away before Christmas last year, Hopkins said, it was “devastating.” He took time to regroup, making trips to Florida in January, February and March “just to clear my head, figure out what my life was going to be without her.”
“It was a kick in the gut to me,” he said. “And that’s really what changed things. [Mary] and I had always talked about me [running for mayor], and she was my biggest supporter.”
Hopkins said after he returned from his March trip to the Sunshine State, he met with Mayor Allan Fung, former mayor Michael Traficante and retired police chief Kenneth Mancuso. That trio, he said, “really wanted” him to enter the field to succeed Fung, who is barring from seeking reelection due to term limits.
Hopkins, who turns 66 this month, said he considered the fact that if he were to wait out two potential mayoral terms for Farina – who announced his GOP bid in January – he would “never have the same opportunity again.” He said he also began to have conversations with others in the community to gauge the appetite for a Hopkins campaign.
“I wanted to hear what people were looking for,” he said, “and the sense that I got was, they weren’t comfortable with the choices they had.”
He added: “I’m not bragging about it, but I felt a sense of excitement that I wasn’t sensing – they were very skeptical about the council president because of some of the things he had done and the fact that he had been a Democrat and switched over the Republican side, it wasn’t really this true passion for working for him or getting behind him. And I felt that people were willing to do that for me.”
In the end, Hopkins entered the race, setting up a Sept. 8 primary with Farina for the Republican nomination.
“When people have asked me pretty bluntly, you know, why did you change your mind, I say because my wife died,” he said during a recent appearance on the Radio Beacon podcast, a production of the Cranston Herald and its sister publications. “And you don’t know what that’s like until you go through it, and you don’t have to make an excuse for it. And I’m not using that to get sympathy … I now had the opportunity where I didn’t have to take care of her.”
He added: “This was the opportunity. The door opened, so to speak.”
Hopkins touched on a wide range of topics during his Radio Beacon appearance, including his views on the race, his vision for the city and his stances on a number of key issues facing Cranston. To hear the full interview, visit cranstononline.com or subscribe to Radio Beacon on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other platforms.
Focus on education
Now retired, Hopkins is familiar to many Cranstonians from his time as an athletic director, teacher and coach. He has branded himself as the “education candidate” and said one of his top priorities is to “modernize our approach to teaching.”
“It centers around open classrooms, student learning, student-centered teaching, which is completely opposite of the cell block approach … That’s my expertise, that’s my strength coming in as a new mayor,” he said.
Hopkins, who has served as a City Council liaison to the School Buildings Committee, said he is an enthusiastic supporter of the $147 million bond question being proposed by Cranston Public Schools to finance an ambitious five-year facilities improvement project. He pointed to the Eden Park Pathfinder Project, which transformed a wing of the elementary school into an open, 21st-century learning space, as an example of what is needed – and possible – elsewhere in the city.
“I’m going to be their biggest booster on this bond referendum, because we need it. There’s a direct correlation between great schools, great communities and a business community that wants to move into Cranston … If you look at East Greenwich, Barrington, North Kingstown, Smithfield, that’s what they’ve done. And Cranston has been behind the curve for a long time.”
City’s budget picture and Fung’s record
Hopkins received Fung’s endorsement immediately upon the announcement of his candidacy in April, and he has presented himself as the right choice to preserve the mayor’s record of fiscal management.
Fung’s roughly $300 million budget plan for the fiscal year that began July 1 has drawn criticism from Farina and others who suggest it includes unrealistic revenue projections and does not adequately account for the lingering uncertainty at the state level.
Hopkins, however, defended Fung’s plan and touted the mayor’s record on taxes and city spending.
“He’s been pretty right on with keeping taxes stable, attracting new businesses to come in and keeping the budget on an even keel … I look at the mayor’s track record, and I want to continue that. I mean, there’s no sense in changing the wheel after you’ve had success under this mayor,” he said.
Hopkins said he has already asked Finance Director Robert Strom to remain on the job if he wins the mayor’s race, adding: “He’s done a great job managing the budget.”
And while Hopkins does not have the corporate finance experience of Farina, he said he plans to rely on a strong fiscal management team.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that, studying Machiavelli, you don’t know everything. I’m going to go into this job with an open mind. I’m going to surround myself with the best people I can find, know that my strengths are on the educational side. I’m going to hire people that are financial experts, and I’m going to continue with the process of what Allan Fung has done,” he said.
Regarding his relationship with Fung, Hopkins said: “He really cares about Cranston, and I think that’s where we’re very similar … We’re actively involved because we really care about the city, and I think that’s his greatest attribute.”
He added: “I’ve made light of it that when I go knocking door to door with him, I feel like I’m with The Beatles, because people get excited when they see him. But right now, I feel like I’m Ringo. He’s the head of the band, but I’m in the band, but I’m getting there.”
Hopkins also said, however, that he has taken opposing stands to Fung in the past. He specifically cited plans for a Cumberland Farms in Edgewood and a proposed licensing agreement with a soccer team for use of the Doric Park field, both of which were ultimately pulled from consideration.
“I didn’t think that Cumberland Farms fit. I didn’t think the neighbors wanted it … I opposed the mayor on that issue, just like I did on the Doric Avenue issue,” he said.
Economic development and Costco
Those episodes, Hopkins said, are instructive regarding how he would approach development projects as mayor.
“I’m a big believer that you need to vet the process openly. There’s nothing hidden, no hidden agenda,” he said. “Everything needs to be out on the table. Even if you have to have an auditorium filled with a thousand neighbors, let them voice their opinion.”
Hopkins pointed to the approval of zoning changes to allow for a Topgolf facility on Sockanosset Cross Road as an example of a successful process in which neighborhood concerns were heard and addressed. In recent weeks, he has been an outspoken critic of another proposed project that would bring a Cosco-anchored commercial and residential development to the New London Avenue property that currently houses Mulligan’s Island Golf & Entertainment.
“Who wouldn’t want to have a Costco in their city? Because of the revenue that you’re going to get, it controls the tax base. But at what expense, how do you balance that?” he said, adding: “I want to make sure that the process is open and honest, that it’s not shoved down their throat.”
Hopkins said part of his economic development vision includes a revitalization of Rolfe Square – one modeled after the Main Street areas in East Greenwich and Warwick’s Apponaug section. He envisions lanterns, flowerpots and outdoor cafés, as well as the incorporation of solar energy.
“People get excited when they hear my proposals about that,” he said.
Contentious primary and COVID politics
The contest between Hopkins and Farina has become charged, with the candidates trading charges over temperament, experience, financial support from local attorneys and other issues. The resignation of former Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley, a Democrat who has since endorsed Hopkins, also became a flashpoint.
During his Radio Beacon appearance, Hopkins reprised his criticism of Farina’s “lack of maturity.” He also said he had raised the likelihood of a future primary contest with Farina several years ago: “I had a conversation with Councilman Farina maybe about five years ago that sooner or later, one of these days, we both had the same ambitions and we were going to come to a head.”
Asked if he would support Farina if the council president wins the GOP primary, Hopkins said: “He’s not going to win. I’m going to win … I can feel that.”
He added: “Whoever the Republican candidate is, I will support … But I’m pretty confident it’s going to be me.”
Hopkins said he helped recruit a number of the City Council candidates for this year’s GOP slate, including Zac Sailer in Ward 2, Matthew Reilly in Ward 6 and citywide hopefuls Robert Ferri and Nicole Renzulli.
“I was out there on my own really putting together this real nice, young team of Republicans, with the focus that if I was going to be the mayor, I would really like to have a good team of people behind me and supporting me,” he said.
Hopkins said more than 300 people are volunteering for his campaign “in one way or another,” from stuffing envelopes to going door-to-door. In the final weeks leading up the primary, he said, his campaign is relying on a “targeted” approach to voter outreach.
Hopkins spoke highly of how Fung and Gov. Gina Raimondo have handled the COVID-19 crisis, saying the mayor has “communicated a thousand percent with us” while the governor has “done a fantastic job.”
He did, however, question whether data regarding the crisis has been fully representative of its scope. He said he has “some concerns about the politics of COVID.”
“Now, am I convinced that the numbers are accurate? No, because I’ve talked with people that work at the hospitals as well … To use the scare tactic to make the economy fail, to make the president look bad, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. And I don’t know if that’s their intent, but being a skeptic, it kind of looks that way,” he said.
Asked whether he is supporting President Donald Trump for reelection, Hopkins said: “I support the Republican candidate and the office of the presidency … Who I’m going to vote for? I’m leaning toward Trump because he’s a Republican and I believe in a lot of the Republican platform. But at the same time, I have a very difficult time when he comes out with certain comments. I don’t like the bully tactics. I don’t like the ridicule of people. That’s not my style. But I do believe in the Republican agenda and I believe in the office of the presidency, and it should be one of respect. And I think sometimes coming from where he came from, he didn’t show the respect that the office deserves. But right now, we’ve still got a few more months to see how everything goes.”
Hopkins said he believes the president has done a “good job” handling the pandemic. Describing his political views more broadly, he said: “I would be more of a John McCain moderate, maybe a Reagan moderate, maybe a Kennedy moderate.”
Diversity and plans for administration
Making the city’s workforce more reflective of its increasingly diverse population has been the subject of discussion and debate at City Hall for a number of years. Hopkins, who serves on the Diversity Commission, said he believes he brings “a lot to the table” in terms of fostering diversity.
“I’ve surrounded myself historically with minorities as friends, as workers, co-workers, as recruited athletes that I’ve brought in that have stayed with me, and you’ll see that as part of my administration,” he said.
He added: “I’ve already started to recruit qualified candidates who are minorities to work in my administration.”
In terms of his administrative team, Hopkins said it remains a “work in progress.” While pledging to take a bipartisan and inclusive approach, he suggested those who are supportive of other campaigns might find themselves on the outside looking in under the Hopkins administration.
“There are a lot of people that are sitting on the fence waiting to see who’s going to come out of the primary,” he said. “I would suggest very strongly that they pick a team if they want to see. Pick a team and roll the dice with your chances. Because if they don’t pick a team, that tells me that they’re not 100 percent with us, and that means that we’d probably replace them with our team. And my whole life, that’s all I’ve done, is build teams. I’m a consensus builder, both sides of the aisle. You’re going to see Democrats working in my administration, as well as a diverse administration of women and minorities. As long as they get the job done.”
He added: “My plan is to save Cranston and move it forward from what Allan Fung has done so successfully the last 10 years. I want to continue that.”