The two candidates meeting voters in the middle in RI-02

State Treasurer Seth Magaziner and former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung are vying for a rare open congressional seat in one of the state's two districts

In the campaign for a rare open congressional seat in Rhode Island, Democratic candidate Seth Magaziner frequently attacks his opponent, Allan Fung, as a hard-line Republican who is out of touch with moderate New England voters. But Magaziner’s charges were challenged in recent weeks, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) complimenting Fung, calling the Republican a “quality opponent” and citing his ideological differences with the more extreme elements of the GOP.

“That’s what shows that sometimes those cookie-cutter national hits don’t always hold true, and in this case, it doesn’t,” Fung, the former mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island’s second-largest city, told Jewish Insider in a recent phone interview. “The other members all recognize that I’m a nice guy, and I’ve done things working across the aisle.”

But to win in Rhode Island’s 2nd District, which voted for Joe Biden by a 12-point margin in 2020, Fung has to do more than just convince Democrats he’s a nice guy. 

“My opponent can call himself whatever he wants. But he has also made clear that he is prepared to enable some of the most extreme elements in American politics. That’s not just wrong, it’s dangerous,” Magaziner, who is serving his second term as the state’s general treasurer, told JI. 

Magaziner was referring to the delicate balancing act that Fung is walking in trying to appeal to a broad swath of voters while also earning the support of national Republican figures like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who hosted a fundraiser for Fung in the state in August. 

Democrats have represented the 2nd District, which encompasses western Rhode Island and parts of Providence, for more than 30 years. Republicans view it as a key pick-up opportunity due to redistricting, which made the district more conservative, and the retirement of longtime Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), who was first elected to the seat in 2000. 

So far, Fung’s strategy appears to be working. A poll conducted in early October showed him leading Magaziner 45% to 37% among likely voters. Another poll, released a week earlier, showed Fung with a six-point lead. 

Fung’s overarching message — that Democrats are spending too much money, leading to inflation, and that new leadership is needed to rejuvenate the economy — echoes the talking points of Republican candidates across the country. “We have to tackle the economy and become energy independent once again, and most importantly, get people back to work,” he said. He hopes to do that by offering a veto to Biden’s spending ambitions, and by working to produce more energy in the U.S. He pointed to the CHIPS Act, a bill signed by Biden over the summer that sought to increase semiconductor production in the U.S., as an example of legislation he would support.  

On the campaign trail, Magaziner and Fung both tout a commitment to bipartisanship.

“I do think that it’s possible and necessary for our democracy to function, for us to disagree when we have to but find common ground whenever we can,” said Magaziner, who noted that much of the work he has done as state treasurer had Republican backing, such as creating tax-free savings accounts for children with disabilities and constructing new schools around the state. 

“That’s an approach I look to bring to Washington as well. I’m very proud of the fact that a number of Republican and former Republican elected officials in the state have decided to endorse our campaign,” Magaziner added. Among those backing Magaziner are former R.I. state Reps. Dawson Hodgson and Robert Nardolillo.

Fung pointed out that when he first got involved in Cranston politics as a city council member, the majority of his colleagues were Democrats, and he worked with them on economic issues and pension reform. “That same type of leadership where I’m working across the aisle, common-sense solutions, working off facts and data is what I hope to bring to the table down in Washington, D.C., because I’m not an extremist on one end or the other,” Fung explained. He added that he hopes to join the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of House lawmakers who work to pass bipartisan legislation.

Fung diverges from other Republicans on a number of policies. He said he would have supported the infrastructure bill Biden signed into law last year, which passed the House with the support of 13 Republicans. He also pledged to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a position that is increasingly losing support among some Republicans.

“I’m always supportive of a two-state solution,” Fung said. “It’s been elusive, because until you get a lot of those terrorist groups like Hamas and the more militant extreme parts of the Palestinian Authority to treat it seriously, it’s difficult to achieve. But I believe in a two-state solution.”

Magaziner agreed. “There needs to be a reinvigorated peace process. I believe that that peace process will be most successful if it leads to a two-state solution,” he explained, but added that the U.S. must be active in helping the Israelis and Palestinians reach that agreement. “As a moral leader for democracy around the world, the United States has a role in encouraging all parties to pursue that path of peace.”

Foreign policy has not been a major issue on the campaign trail, but in interviews with JI, both Magaziner and Fung expressed American support for democracies worldwide — in some ways, for Fung, a deviation from the America First worldview of Trump-aligned Republicans.

Both candidates pledged to support U.S. security assistance for Israel without conditions, although Magaziner, who called Israel “a vital ally for the United States,” added that Washington “should, in a friendly way, continue to encourage Israel to double down on the peace process.”

Fung said he opposes Biden’s efforts to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, arguing instead that the U.S. should continue to adopt stricter sanctions on Tehran. “I think the Iran nuclear deal was bad for Israel and bad for us as well,” he said. “I think some of the small steps that we as a country can do is enhance sanctions, until they kind of abandon their pursuit of any type of nuclear materials or stop with their threats against Israel.”

Magaziner said he supports the negotiations, but hopes the outcome will be a deal that is stronger than the one signed in 2015. “I think that, ideally, we would want an outcome that was a stronger version than the original Iran deal, including one that has a long or binding period with strong oversight and transparency,” he noted. “But the answer is not to walk away and have no deal. The answer is to work for a deal that is strong and effective.”

Magaziner has been endorsed by J Street’s political action committee, while AIPAC’s PAC has not gotten involved in the race.

Fung, whose parents emigrated from China, feels a strong connection to the undoing of democratic reforms in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, where his parents married before coming to the U.S. He visited the region while mayor of Cranston, and said he told then-Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou that the U.S. must continue to be a partner for Taiwan.

“I think it’s critically important that we support our allies. I am an individual that believes we are a world superpower, and we must be great friends with many of the world’s democracies and assist one another,” Fung explained. 

Growing up, politics didn’t interest Fung, who spent much of his childhood at his parents’ Chinese restaurant. His interest in advocacy began while in law school at Suffolk University. He served as a prosecutor with the Rhode Island attorney general, and began to consider running for office after local financial issues threatened his parents’ business. 

“As the next generation comes to this country. I want to make sure they have the same opportunities that my parents had,” he said. “But most importantly, for me, it was also breaking barriers being the first Asian American mayor in our state’s history, which hopefully opens the door for the next generation of Asian American elected officials.” 

As a child and even since he entered politics, Fung said he’s faced anti-Asian discrimination. “This is something that’s personal, and as a community, we have to stand together, stand strong and combat hate crimes,” said Fung. In 2016, when he was mayor, swastikas and antisemitic graffiti were found spray-painted on a municipal sports facility. 

“I made sure we worked with a local rabbi and spoke with him as well as some members at the temple about healing a lot of that emotional pain that comes up with it,” Fung recalled.

Magaziner said he too faced discrimination growing up. “I have firsthand experience with being called anti-Jewish slurs from a very young age,” the Democrat, who noted that he has a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, told JI. (“Certainly, ethnically, I identify as Jewish. Religiously, I tend to keep that private,” he added.) 

“I think that all people in public positions need to model behavior that is kind and respectful, and unafraid to call out bias in all of its forms,” said Magaziner. “To be blunt about it, I think this is one of the reasons that Trumpism has been so toxic to our country, is that for four years, we had a leader of this country who spewed insults, who engaged in mocking people in racial and gender and other terms, and who cozied up to far-right elements, including elements that are unabashedly antisemitic.”

One of the best ways to “combat extremism, including antisemitism in this country,” Magaziner explained, “is turn the page on Trumpism, once and for all, and that is a fight that I’m very proud to be a part of.”

The son of Ira Magaziner, a prominent advisor to former President Bill Clinton, Magaziner had an up-close political education as a child. But he didn’t immediately follow in his father’s footsteps. 

First he worked as a public school teacher in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and saw his students’ families struggle after the storm — struggles that were compounded a few years later during the 2008 financial crisis. “It was that experience that made me think that I might want to run for office someday, to try to create some structural change that could make life easier for families like those of my students,” said Magaziner. 

After a stint in investment banking, he was elected general treasurer in 2014, at age 30. “I thought, ‘Hmm, you know, this could be a chance to use my financial background, and also my experience working in an economically disadvantaged community to try to make things better,’” he recalled.

One of his key priorities as a member of Congress would be to “fight for democracy” at a time of global democratic backsliding. “I think that this is a global struggle of democracies against anti-democratic forces, and there are a lot of people who are counting on the United States of America to be the global champion for democracy again,” Magaziner explained. 

He attempted to tie Fung to Republican leadership, whom Magaziner sees as pushing extremist positions. 

“[Fung] has made it clear that his first vote would be for Kevin McCarthy [as speaker of the House], an election denier with extreme views, who has promised that he will advance, if he becomes speaker, an anti-abortion ban, repeal the Affordable Care Act, cuts to Social Security and Medicare, among many other extreme policies,” said Magaziner. (Fung said in August that McCarthy promised to put him on “the most important committees.”)

Those national Republicans “recognize that I want to lead that rebirth of the New England moderate Republicans this year in the Northeast that’s been missing, because right now we don’t have a single Republican in the House in all of New England,” said Fung. 

In neighboring Massachusetts, moderate two-term Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is not running for reelection, and the Republican nominee to replace him is the Trump-endorsed Geoff Diehl, who faces a steep uphill battle against a well-known Democrat. Next door, Fung hopes he can convince independents — and even some Democrats — to support a Republican.

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