Scott MacKay Commentary: Raimondo Has The Edge Over Fung At Start Of Governor's Race

Sep 12, 2014

The primaries are over and now it’s time for the main event. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses the Rhode Island campaign for governor.

Gina Raimondo announcing her run for Governor in January.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Rhode Island voters will make history in November by choosing either Republican Allan Fung or Democrat Gina Raimondo as their next governor. Raimondo would be the first woman governor;  Fung would be the first Asian-American.

Both Raimondo and Fung had impressive primary victories, with Fung winning on the Republican side with 55 percent of the vote. Raimondo captured 42 percent of the Democrats who cast ballots in her victory over two strong challengers, Clay Pell and Providence Mayor Angel  Taveras  and token aspirant Todd Giroux of Bristol.

Few political professionals thought Raimondo would harvest more than 40 percent. That she did was tribute to a fine campaign that raised more than $5 million and focused, laser-like, on the message that creating jobs is her top priority. In her first serious statewide contest, the treasurer was a polished television performer who made no mistakes. In the end, she attracted enough independent, suburban voters to give her campaign a runaway victory.

Fung, too, ran a better campaign than his opponent, Barrington businessman Ken Block. Block tried to make Fung’s record as Cranston mayor an issue, but fell flat. A major reason for Fung’s comfortable win was the support he received from his Cranston neighbors, who supported him with 75 percent of their votes.

As we enter the November 4 general election campaign, Raimondo is the favorite. ``Out of the gate, she’s in a stronger position, because nobody thought she could get to 42 percent and she did,’’ says Joseph Fleming, pollster and political analyst for WPRI-Channel 12. ``This could change over the next seven weeks, of course.’’

Raimondo narrowly defeated the sitting Providence mayor in his home city; she did especially well on the East Side. She was probably helped by the lack of  a strong Latino vote in Providence; turnout citywide was lower in 2014 than in 2010. City Council President Michael Solomon, the unsuccessful   Democratic mayoral candidate, actually received more votes in the capital city than Taveras.

Cool Moose perennial candidate Bob Healey is now the candidate of the Moderate Party but it is difficult to see how Healey, a bright,  Jerry Garcia-lookalike who has been around Rhode Island politics since the 1980s, changes the calculus of the campaign at all.

The one iron law of politics from Providence to Pasadena is that campaigns matter. Raimondo understands this. Among her first moves after  winning last Tuesday was to try to unite the factions of the Democratic Party that didn’t support her in the primary.

That includes much of organized labor, particularly the teacher and public employee unions, who split their support between Pell and Taveras. Some of Raimondo’s first calls Wednesday were to labor leaders who did not back her.

``She called me right away,’’ said Jim Riley, a leader of the United Food and Commercial Workers. ``We had an excellent meeting with her.’’ The UFCW has since endorsed Raimondo.

Riley said that Raimondo met with several labor leaders Friday, including those representing teachers, state employees and the building trades. Raimondo,  Riley  said, was forthright. ```She said basically I know some of you have deep differences with me, but now there are two candidates, one who is a Republican who supports Right-to-Work and someone who is a Democrat who doesn’t.’’

Right-to-work legislation is anathema to labor leaders because it bans union shops which require all members of a bargaining unit to pay dues. Fung went on record during a televised debate saying he supported making Rhode Island  a Right-to-Work state, which is a policy adopted mostly by southern states.

The teacher and public employee unions are still smarting over the 2011 state pension overhaul championed by Raimondo. She has indicated that if elected, she would take another stab at forging an agreement with the unions that would put an end to what could become a lawyers’ Lollapalozza and never-ending court challenge by the unions that is pending in Rhode Island Superior Court.

Organized labor has nowhere near as much clout in a general election as in a Democratic primary. As many as 25 percent of Democratic primary voters hail from union households, a figure that drops to less than 15 percent in a general election. Still, Raimondo is wise to reach out to the wide spectrum of Democratic constituencies, because she’ll need them if she wins the governorship.

Fung plans to stay the course over  the next seven weeks, says campaign spokesman Robert Coupe. His message will be one of fiscal responsibility and job creation. Fung will run on his Cranston record of stabilizing property taxes and controlling spending. At the same time he will tout job growth in Cranston and policies he asserts cut business regulations and led to such new development as the renewal in the Chapel Hill and Garden City shopping areas.

Fung won’t have difficulty uniting the small GOP base; he is clearly the conservative candidate. What he needs to do is reach out to independents, who have become the biggest swath of Rhode Island voters. A crucial community for Fung is Warwick, the state’s second largest city and a community clotted with independent voters. Republicans don’t win statewide elections without doing well in Warwick. For this he will need the help of his friend and fellow Republican, Scott Avedisian, Warwick’s popular mayor.

This election may very well come down to this: which candidate do Rhode Islanders believe can best navigate the state out of its current economic  doldrums.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35, and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org