Fung finds that perseverance pays in politics
01:00 AM EDT on Monday November 10, 2008
CRANSTON — Allan W. Fung is known to be the analytical type, a thinker who studies the ins and outs of a situation before sharing his views. But as the Republican greeted more than 300 screaming supporters Tuesday night, his eyes welled with tears.
Standing on the podium, distinct among the election party throng, were his parents — Chinese immigrants who barely spoke a word of English when they came to the United States in 1969. Their faces were filled with pride. Fung, 38, had just won the Cranston mayor’s race, laying claim to a position he had missed two years earlier by just 79 votes. And on a night when the country elected its first African-American president, Fung also made history, becoming the first Asian-American in Rhode Island to be elected mayor.
“He did it,” said Fung’s mother, Tan Ping Fung, 65, who was still beaming the next day. “My family is so happy, really excited.” Running for elective office is not something the Fungs had envisioned for their son, the oldest of three children, when he was born in 1970. As his mother tells it, they just wanted him to be happy, and they wanted him to pursue his education beyond the high school equivalent that they had received in China.
Kwong Wen Fung and Tan Ping Fung had followed similar paths, growing up in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and later moving with relatives to Hong Kong. There, the two would meet and marry and, in 1969, plan their move to the United States.
They came to Rhode Island to be near Kwong Wen’s sister, settling in South Providence, on Stanwood Street. To earn money they started a family business — Kong Wen Restaurant, in Cranston, which opened in 1970 and closed 35 years later, when the couple retired.
Allan, their only son, graduated from Classical High School in Providence in 1988 and enrolled at Rhode Island College. He graduated with a degree in political science and enrolled at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
The same year, the family moved to Cranston, buying a house in Garden City, where his parents live to this day.
FUNG RECALLS THAT he was interested in politics during his college years, which included two internships in Washington, D.C., for then-Sen. Claiborne Pell. But legal work beckoned. After earning his law degree he worked at the law firm of Mandell, Schwartz & Boisclaire in Providence, and later, for the attorney general’s office, as a prosecutor. Most recently, he has worked as a lobbyist for Metropolitan Life.
He made his first run for elected office in 2002. That was the year Cranston, Rhode Island’s third-largest city, saw its tax rate jump 11.5 percent to offset mounting budget deficits. There was talk of a state takeover of the city’s finances.
Fung approached local Democrats about running for the City Council, but when they suggested he run for the School Committee instead, he approached the GOP.
Running as a Republican, Fung won an at-large council seat, which he retained two years later when he ran for reelection. Both of his council terms coincided with those of Republican Mayor Stephen P. Laffey, whose flamboyant style made headlines as the city struggled to right its finances.
When Laffey decided against seeking a third term in 2006, Fung jumped.
He went on to lose to the current mayor, Democrat Michael T. Napolitano, by 79 votes — but not before a tense recount in which Fung fought for access to ballots that could not be read by voting machines. The close finish in 2006 makes Fung’s victory last week look all the more impressive. Running against Democrat Cynthia M. Fogarty, he collected 63 percent of the vote — even as Republicans, both locally and nationally, were largely trounced with Democrats claiming all nine seats on the Cranston City Council.
Local observers say the outcome has something to do with Fung’s mild-mannered persona and his pragmatic focus on issues.
“He’s been viewed by some as not being a traditional Republican,” said council Vice President Paula B. McFarland, a Democrat who ran this year for the School Committee. “He’s somebody who’s seen as just being a resident of the city, who cares about the city as a whole.”
Fung says he was cautiously optimistic as he went door to door across what he estimates was three-quarters of the city. Many people knew him from his run two years ago, if not from his days of helping in his parents’ restaurant. And when people asked for his plan, he was ready with a simple answer: Conservative budgeting.
Fung says Cranston has fallen back from that premise in the two years since Laffey left, pursuing costly settlements of lawsuits rather than fighting them, approving employee contracts with unnecessary perks and freezing allocations to the School Department, which faces a deficit this year of some $6 million.
In his view, the city needs a long-term plan, one that bucks the two-year cycle of mayoral elections and focuses on two things that will make Cranston an affordable place to live and work: fiscal restraint and an expanded business tax base.
“In order to do that you have to make some decisions that may not see benefits for some period of time,” he said. “But unless we do that, we’re just going to be spinning our wheels.”
SINCE WINNING last week, Fung has received dozens of calls and e-mails from well-wishers including Republican Governor Carcieri and Congressman James R. Langevin and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats. Last Thursday, people were still walking into his campaign headquarters on Reservoir Avenue. The most meaningful visit, he says, was from a girl, about 10, who had seen him at the annual St. Mary’s feast in the Knightsville neighborhood. Hoping to meet the new mayor in person, she came in last Wednesday afternoon with her mother and gave him a hug.
That he is about to become Rhode Island’s first Asian-American mayor is not lost on him, or on members of Cranston’s Chinese-American community.
“Most of us have careers in business or science,” said Charles Chin, owner of the Asia Grille Restaurant, in Lincoln and, like Fung, a member of the Rhode Island Association of Chinese Americans. “Allan took a different path — public service. He represents the younger generation, actually moving into nontraditional areas and careers.”
“We in the community don’t look upon this as something for us on a personal basis, we just wish him well. We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing and just watch from a distance and say ‘Allan, if there’s any help you need, fine, otherwise we’re going to just stay out of the way and you have all the room in the world.’”
Fung, while happy to be making history, says his focus on election night was his parents and their sacrifice — leaving one country to start anew in another. He teared up in an interview when asked about his emotional reaction at the election party.
“I’m so proud of everything my parents have done,” he said, his usual steady tone choked by emotion. Minutes later, he played down similarities between his accomplishment and that of Barack Obama. His reasoning: Race was never an issue in his campaign. “It was just about stabilizing the city’s finances,” he said. “And making sure it has the same opportunities for families that my family had.”