Although their campaigns were never short on confidence, the nervous energy was apparent at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick on Tuesday evening as a mid-sized crowd of supporters for Rhode Island Republican candidates awaited polling results to pour in throughout the state.
Neither Allan Fung, taking a second run at governor against Gina Raimondo, nor Steven Frias, who was vying for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s Representative District 15 seat, made appearances until it became readily apparent that both their bids would be falling short. Fung lost handily by about 14 percent to Raimondo, and Frias was narrowly edged by Mattiello by less than 200 votes.
Despite the disappointment, Fung was gracious and strong in his concession speech – thanking his supporters, family and volunteers for the hard work they put in to promote their idea for a better Rhode Island.
“It's not easy to take on a machine, but we had the courage and the vision to bring the right kind of change to Rhode Island and speak our mind for all of you,” Fung said to the crowd. “And I'm damn proud of that fact.”
The crowd of supporters, likewise, took the bad news in stride. While some rushed for the doors, too upset to continue residing in a sullen place that was supposed to become a victory party, and some sat silently with hands covering their faces, most cheered on Fung throughout his concession speech and stuck around to mingle.
For the second time in four years, Fung couldn’t get over the hill to topple Raimondo from her seat. However, what was expected to possibly play a role in that – the candidacy of Joe Trillo, the former Republican Trump state campaign chairman turned independent whom Fung had accused of being in cahoots with Raimondo to steal votes from him – only snatched about 4.5 percent of the vote, not enough to make up the ground for Fung even had Trillo bowed out or not ran at all.
Fung handily won the support of his mayoral home, Cranston, along with smaller communities like Coventry, Johnston and Smithfield. However, Raimondo won by wide margins in all of the larger municipalities in Rhode Island outside Cranston, including a 20,000-vote shellacking in Providence over Fung, which bolstered her numbers.
Fung had campaigned hard since he announced, over a year ago, that he would once again be seeking the seat he lost by about 14,000 votes (4.5 percent) in 2014. There was another so-called spoiler in that race too – the late Robert Healey, the “Cool Moose” candidate who garnered nearly 70,000 votes through a social media campaign that cost fractions of pennies compared to the large amounts of money raised and spent by Raimondo and Fung.
This time around, the incumbent Raimondo once again had a clear advantage in fundraising, spending over $6.5 million as of the last campaign finance reporting period, which ended on Oct. 29, with about $456,000 remaining in her fund balance and no notable liabilities from self-funded loans.
That amounted to three times as much taken from the war chest as Fung, who spent around $2.1 million throughout that same time period. In the last 20-day reporting period, Raimondo spent over $1 million in campaign expenses, while Fung spent close to $800,000. Fung was left with around $137,000 left in his campaign balance as of the final pre-election report.
On the campaign trail, Fung was candid about his disapproval of numerous management decisions made by Raimondo. Primarily, the state’s flawed overhauling of its food stamp database, known as UHIP, drew constant criticism from Fung, as did numerous high-level appointments made by Raimondo for departments such as DOT, DHS and DCYF – all of which he argued resulted in enormous cost to Rhode Islanders and, in the case of DCYF, the loss of the lives of children who weren’t given proper care.
Fung likened Raimondo’s pension reform as though she, “basically took away grandma's COLA and gave it to her friends on Wall Street,” through one of his charged press releases, which were nearly everyday occurrences during the heat of campaign season. Other releases hit Raimondo on perceived incompetence, like abruptly stopping road construction projects and on the economy, which Fung has warned is in much worse condition than Raimondo is letting on.
Campaigning on a small business platform – a platform very much a part of his political foundation, coming from a family who started out running a Chinese restaurant following their emigration to the U.S. – Fung had promised to lessen tax and fee burdens on Rhode Island small business and end the practice of providing tax incentives to conglomerate corporations, a tactic he criticized Raimondo for as “selling out” to corporate interests rather than helping real Rhode Islanders. Fung also vowed to curb waste within state government.
However, despite the consistent attacks against Raimondo throughout the campaign, Fung was gracious in defeat on Tuesday evening.
“She drove out that vote, and it's not easy,” he said after taking a moment to congratulate her on the victory.
Despite the endorsements of many municipal GOP groups, former Governor Lincoln Almond and the Cranston and State Police unions, in addition to a healthy smattering of Republican state representatives and aspiring representatives – including Frias – it wasn’t enough in the end to win a state comprised primarily of Democratic voters.
“We have to make sure that this Rhode Island is a Rhode Island that we all know is possible. One where there is transparency, prudent stewardship of the taxpayer dollars and effective management of the public's resources…Despite tonight's loss – and it hurts...we still have to work together to put our state on the right track.”
“Public service has never been a job for me. It's more to me than that. It has been my calling,” Fung continued. “And it has been a privilege for me to serve as the mayor of Cranston, our state's second largest city, and an even greater privilege to be your Republican nominee for Governor. I'm never going to forget your support.”
Frias falls just short
As rain fell late Tuesday afternoon outside Hope Highlands School in Cranston, both Frias and Mattiello carried umbrellas and asked those rushing in to cast their votes to please consider them. Both had positive reads on how they thought the results would turn out.
“I’m feeling better than last time,” Frias said of his 2016 bid for the House of Representatives seat that has become the most watched of local elections. Last time around, Frias was 85 votes shy of beating Mattiello. In fact, Frias beat Mattiello on the machine count, but even on election night Mattiello insisted he had won considering the absentee ballots. He was right, Mattiello had the absentee votes to erase Frias’ machine lead and then some.
Asked why he was feeling better about this race, Frias said it was his take of the comments and friendliness of voters.
“I’m feeling good about this,” Mattiello said.
His feeling was soon reaffirmed by Mary Lombardi. As Mattiello escorted her to the door of the school, carrying high his umbrella. She thanked him for implementing legislation to phase out the car tax.
That night at the Oaklawn Grange Hall, Mattiello told a crowd of about 200 that he was grateful and humbled by the vote, adding that it is time to put the negative tone of the campaign behind and to move forward.
As of Tuesday night Mattiello had 3,101 votes and Frias 2,960.
One of the first steps Mattiello will make is to solidify his position at House Speaker. He has called for a Democratic caucus on Thursday.