Will inflation woes convince Rhode Islanders to send a Republican to Congress in CD2?

·10 min read

PROVIDENCE — On a rainy Tuesday night with two weeks to go until the November election, several dozen residents of Aaron Briggs Manor sit down to a free chicken-and-rice dinner as Seth Magaziner, the Democratic nominee to succeed U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin in Congress, launches into his stump speech.

Groceries, health care and gas are too expensive, he tells his attentive audience of senior citizens, and the problem is that too many politicians are beholden to corporate interests.

“They take money from the oil companies and they let the oil companies keep the prices high,” he says, pausing so that his wife, Julia McDowell, can repeat the message in Spanish. “They take money from the drug companies, and they let the drug companies keep the costs of medicine too high.”

This populist, anti-corporate message is new for Magaziner, the two-term state treasurer. Until recently, he'd primarily focused on arguing that his Republican rival, Allan Fung, would vote in lockstep with a party led by anti-abortion extremists and election deniers — even though Fung says he’s largely pro-choice and considers Joe Biden to be the legitimate president.

Meanwhile, Fung, the former mayor of Cranston, has focused almost single-mindedly on inflation. Ever since launching his campaign, he’s seized on voters’ frustrations with the rising cost of home heating oil or the price of milk and sought to pin the blame on Democrats.

Congressional District 2: Magaziner in attack mode in congressional debate; Fung pushes back

Recent polls have suggested that Fung's emphasis on economic concerns is working: He's either held a slight lead or been neck-in-neck with Magaziner in a district that Biden won by almost 14 points in 2020 and that hasn’t been represented by a Republican in almost 30 years. And he's drawing support from independent voters and some Democrats who consider the economy to be their main concern. 

Now, in the final stretch of the campaign, Magaziner is shifting his focus.

“The drug companies, the oil companies, they think they’re going to get their way in this election,” he tells the Aaron Briggs residents. “But what they don’t know is that there’s a lot of power in this room … so on Election Day, we’re going to teach them a lesson.”

Congressional District 2: Fung, Magaziner, Gilbert reveal where they stand on key issues

Son of Chinese immigrants could make RI history

If elected, Fung, 52, would be the first member of a minority group to represent Rhode Island in Congress — something he generally doesn’t mention on the campaign trail.

He'd be proud to claim that distinction, he says, but he’s primarily "focused on the people’s priorities, and this cost-of-living crisis.”

Republican Allan Fung kept a laser focus on inflation at an Oct. 17 debate sponsored by The Providence Journal and The Public's Radio.
Republican Allan Fung kept a laser focus on inflation at an Oct. 17 debate sponsored by The Providence Journal and The Public's Radio.

Fung’s parents immigrated to the United States in 1969, following an aunt who already lived in Rhode Island. He was born in Providence less than a year later and grew up working at the Chinese restaurant in Cranston that his parents ran for 35 years.

After Classical High School, Fung attended Rhode Island College, interned with Democratic U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, and earned a law degree from Suffolk University.

He worked in the attorney general's office, then became an insurance lobbyist, and won his first election to the Cranston City Council in 2002.

More:With Magaziner behind in the polls, we asked strategists: How would you run his campaign?

Fung had approached Democrats about running for a council seat, the Providence Journal reported years later. But they suggested he run for the school committee instead.

Not content to wait his turn, he joined the GOP — and, before long, he was a rising star within the Republican Party.

In 2008, he was elected mayor of Cranston, a position that he held for more than a decade, until term limits prevented him from seeking reelection in 2020. He ran for governor in 2014 and 2018 — losing to Gina Raimondo both times, but gaining a statewide profile.

“I don’t think that my parents, when they first came to this country, ever thought that their son would be knocking on the door of Congress one day," he said.

Magaziner says he’s devoted to ‘fighting for working people’

Like Fung, Magaziner describes himself as a product of the American dream.

He often talks about his two grandfathers — one a Worcester steelworker, one a bookkeeper at a canning company in New York — and the government policies that allowed them to buy houses and send their children to college.

"I don’t know if my grandparents’ story would have been possible today," he said.

Opinion/Ng:Providence Journal gives independent candidates their turn to be heard

Anyone who's paid the slightest attention to local politics knows the rest of that story: Magaziner’s father, Ira, described in a 1987 magazine article as “probably the only 1960s student activist to have blossomed into a $1-million-a-year management consultant,” became a top adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

Magaziner himself grew up in Bristol’s Poppasquash Neck, went to boarding school at Milton Academy, and then Brown University. After graduation, he joined Teach For America and spent two years at an impoverished public school in Louisiana before returning north to earn his MBA at Yale.

He worked at Trillium Asset Management, which describes itself as a “socially responsible” investment firm, before being elected state treasurer in an upset in 2014.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, seizing on his privileged upbringing, has labeled him “Silver Spoon Seth.”

“Listen, all of us are born into different situations,” Magaziner, 39, told The Journal back in August. “The question is not what situation you’re born in, the question is, ‘What do you devote your life to, and fight for?’ ... I have always been on the side of fighting for working people and trying to create a more level playing field.”

Third-party candidate could be wild card in close race

Also in the race is William Gilbert, 55, who says he "can't stand the hyperpartisanship" and is “trying to drive a wedge between the two parties."

A Narragansett resident who works at Electric Boat in Groton, Gilbert, who goes by Bill, left the Republican Party in 2010 and is now the chair of Rhode Island’s Moderate Party.

In his view, the problem with a two-party system is that candidates feel compelled to be “the opposite of what the other person stands for.”

Many voters’ views don’t fit that binary, he argues, and there are plenty of Democrats who support Second Amendment rights, or believe that the United States “can’t have open borders because it’s crushing our school system.”

Gilbert himself is pro-choice, believes that the internet should be a free public good, and is critical of the Green New Deal. He finds it “ridiculous” that the country doesn’t have universal health care, and questions why one of his Section 8 tenants got a “free sex change” while his girlfriend, who is self-employed, “can’t get a free mammogram.”

New Democratic pollMagaziner, Fung neck-and-neck. Here's the breakdown.

He and his girlfriend raised three foster children, one of whom later died from a drug overdose, he said. He wants more police accountability, and says that his foster kids, who dressed in an urban style, were routinely pulled over because they looked out of place in South County.

Gilbert has run for office six times, and he earned less than 3% of the vote in the 2018 gubernatorial election. In recent polls, he's been receiving 4% or 5% support, and it's not clear whether his candidacy is more likely to hurt Fung or Magaziner. Either way, he's happy to be a “spoiler.”

“We believe if we can affect an election, we’re an effective party,” Gilbert said.

Fung sees himself as a centrist; Democrats say he would advance GOP agenda

Fung says that he envisions himself inhabiting the role of a “practical centrist” in Congress, and he sees former U.S. Sen. John Chafee and current Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker as role models.

“His record is the record of somebody who is out of touch with Rhode Islanders, and not a moderate,” argues Magaziner.

There are noticeable differences between Fung and the hard-right faction that dominates today’s GOP. He acknowledges that climate change is real and that Joe Biden is the legitimate president, and you won’t find him railing against critical race theory or drag queen story hour.

But his views on key policy questions can be hard to pin down. For instance, during WPRI’s debate, Fung was pressed on whether he would support a ban on assault weapons. He repeatedly declined to give a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer, ultimately saying that he would “take a look at it.”

Magaziner has emphasized the fact that Fung’s first vote would be to install new right-wing leadership in the House. And he’s seized on reports that some GOP leaders hope to cut Social Security and institute a national abortion ban.

Fung says that he opposes both proposals. He says he supports the right to an abortion but believes that late-term abortions should be reserved for rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother — which is fairly consistent with what he said when he first ran for governor in 2014. (Magaziner likes to point out that Fung opposed the 2019 Reproductive Privacy Act, which codified Roe v. Wade into Rhode Island law, and said it went too far.)

Is he prepared to be unpopular with his colleagues in the GOP, which seems inevitable if he consistently breaks with them on key policy issues?

“You can’t make 100% of the people happy,” Fung said. “You do the best that you can for everyone.”

Inflation woes could boost GOP in midterms

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer, Democrats hoped that the widespread anger would put Republicans at a disadvantage in this year's midterm elections.

Now, several months later, the temperature has dropped, the leaves have turned, and fuel trucks have started rumbling up driveways. By the time voters head to the polls in November, many will likely have come home in the early dusk to find a heating bill that’s significantly higher than last year's, or a notice about electric rate increases.

Republicans, who are expected to regain control of the House of Representatives this year, were quick to recognize that inflation was a potent issue that they could leverage in the midterms. Fung is one of a number of candidates nationwide who have made it a central focus and relentlessly hammered Democrats over the rise in costs.

Rising mortgage rates, inflation: Everything you need to know about Rhode Island's changing housing market right now

"Overspending" is to blame, Fung argues. He's correctly pointed out that top economists concluded that the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan Act increased inflation.

However, experts say that the federal stimulus wasn’t the sole cause of the problem: Inflation is being driven by a number of factors, most significantly the war in Ukraine.

The GOP also claims that Biden’s climate policies are to blame for high gas prices, which fact-checkers have determined to be untrue: The increased cost of filling up your tank is a ripple effect of the pandemic and its disruption of global oil markets, and is exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. 

Even if Republicans are oversimplifying the problem, they've consistently demonstrated that they’re listening to voters’ economic concerns. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has faced internal criticism for being slow to acknowledge that inflation is a serious issue, and some worry that it's already too late to reframe the debate.

“I think it’s the number-one factor that’s on people’s minds right now,” Fung said.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI's 2nd District could turn Republican due to inflation issues