By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
The composition of the Cranston City Council will change significantly in January – and whether Republicans can maintain their majority remains very much in question.
All three of the council’s citywide seats are open their year, and contests are also set for two of the six ward seats. Four council members – two Democrats, two Republicans – are seeking reelection without opposition.
Who wins the citywide seats in the Nov. 3 election may prove pivotal in deciding which party controls the council in the next term.
On the Democratic side, Jessica Marino, Larry Warner and Dylan Zelazo emerged from a four-way September primary contest to represent their party on the fall ballot.
The city’s GOP, by contrast, has had its citywide field finalized since the summer. Robert Ferri, Nicole Renzulli and Don Roach will represent Republicans in the general election, which saw the start of early voting this week.
The following profiles of Ferri, Renzulli and Roach are based on interviews of the candidates for the Herald’s Radio Beacon podcast, all of which can be found in full at anchor.fm/radio-beacon. Interviews with the Democratic candidates, conducted ahead of the primary, are available there as well.
Robert Ferri grew up in Providence and lived in the capital city until 37 years ago, when he and his wife chose Cranston as their new home.
They picked the city, he said, because of its schools. The couple’s two children, both grown, are both graduate of the Cranston school system.
Ferri, 65, has varied professional experience. After owning Town Hall Lanes in Johnston for 20 years, he pursued his master’s degree in teaching. He went on to serve as director of religious education at three Catholic parishes for more than a decade.
Now semi-retired with a small property management company of his own, Ferri – who describes himself as a longtime observer of local government – said he felt the time was right to run for office.
“I finally realized that I had the time to do something about all the things I was saying that need to be done,” he said. “The timing is right and I’m really looking forward to helping the city. I think I have a lot of business experience, life experience, and a lot of common sense, and I think those three things are pretty much needed in city government.”
Ferri said his experience as a business owner will inform his approach if elected, especially as Cranston navigates a challenging financial situation. He noted that for the past two years, he has served on the city’s Board of Contracts and Purchasing, getting an up-close look at contracts and invoices.
“My philosophy has always been, and I got this from my mother, is you can’t spend money you don’t have. So you need to take a good look at the revenue you’re taking in … If there have to be cuts, everyone should share in those cuts,” he said.
Ferri said holding the line on taxes is an important consideration, but “sometimes you need to have a tax increase” in order to preserve key services given that many costs are essentially fixed. He said he would have been supportive of Mayor Allan Fung seeking a slight tax increase in the current fiscal year’s city budget.
“We can’t underfund things that need to be funded. So if a tax increase is going to be necessary, it’s going to be necessary. I’d hate to see it, but I’m a realist and the bottom line is, we can’t underfund social services and we can’t underfund the schools, and we can’t cut back on essential services,” he said.
Ferri said he supports the school district’s $147 million facilities bond and believes the district has done a “very good job” of handling the reopening process.
In terms of economic development, Ferri said he took a “sensible approach” to the Costco-anchored Cranston Crossing proposal – reviewing plans and hearing from residents – before concluding the project is not suited for the Mulligan’s Island property.
“I would take that approach with any economic development … If you have to change too many rules to get something in, isn’t that a red light to say hey, you know, this is why we have ordinances and permitting processes?” he said.
Ferri also said if elected, he will work to enhance support for small businesses. The office of Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, he said, does an “excellent job” on this front and could serve as a model.
He summed up his vision as follows: “Not only get [businesses] open, but help them stay open. It’s pretty simple. Because a lot of people sink their life savings into going into business, and then they go out of business, and that doesn’t help the city, the landlord or the community.”
In terms of in-person public meetings, Ferri said: “I’d like to see it phased back in, but only if it’s safe.”
Ferri said he has become close with Republican mayoral candidate Ken Hopkins during the councilman’s 2018 campaign. When Hopkins initially said he did not plan for mayor in 2020, Ferri said he became a supporter of Council President Michael Farina for the GOP nomination. Now, he said, he is back aboard Hopkins’s team.
“I’ve been friends with Ken Hopkins for a long time, and I’ve been friends with Mike Farina, and they’re both great candidates,” he said.
In terms of the next council, Ferri said he thinks he can help “fill a void” being left by the departure of several long-tenured members.
“We’re losing a lot of good talent,” he said, adding that be believes his “learning curve” would be less than some other candidates.
Nicole Renzulli, 36, has worked a number of different jobs over the course of her career.
“I’m kind of a Jill of all trades … I do a little bit of everything,” she said.
The daughter of a father from Cranston and a mother from Portugal, she attended Florida State University after graduating from Cranston High School West in hopes of becoming a news reporter. She spent time with a television station but ultimately decided to return to Rhode Island.
“I liked it, but I wanted to come home,” she said. “I missed my family and they missed me.”
In the years since, Renzulli’s professional experience has been varied – everything from waitressing to working under Kathleen Hittner in the state’s Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner. Now, her “main job” is as a track and cross country coach at Cranston West and Western Hills Middle School. She also assists with marketing for her husband’s family business, a design and display company that has pivoted to creating plexiglass dividers for businesses during the pandemic.
“I enjoy that because it’s really helped me to build a network and have a lot of different perspectives,” she said of her diverse professional experience.
Renzulli said the COVID-19 crisis influenced her decision to run for City Council this year.
“I have been approached about it in the past, but it never seemed like the right time,” she said. “And then this year, it was kind of during COVID that I decided, there’s never going to be a right time and there’s a lot to do.”
She added: “I love Cranston … I have roots and I’m really invested here.”
Renzulli and her husband have three children – 4-year-old twin girls and an 11-year-old son. She said the school reopening process has been a top issue on the minds of voters as she campaigns, and she expressed confidence in the leadership of Cranston Public Schools.
“Everybody’s talking about it. Everyone’s concerned. But I have to say that I trust the School Committee members and the superintendent to make the right choice for the students,” she said.
In terms of the financial uncertainty facing the city, Renzulli acknowledged that more clarity is needed from the state level before local leaders can determine what course of action will be necessary. If elected, she said, she will advocate for the council to “go line by line and see where we can cut spending without cutting services.”
“I don’t want to raise taxes … We have to figure out other things to do,” she said.
In terms of education funding from the state, she added: “The state is holding on to CARES [Act] money. Other states have released the CARES money to the districts … We have to get the money for the schools. That’s non-negotiable.” She also said she supports the district’s $147 million bond question for school facilities improvements.
Renzulli said she, like Republican mayoral candidate Ken Hopkins, favors a continued “recreational” use – such as an indoor youth recreation facility – for the Mulligan’s Island property that has been eyed as the home of a new Costco-centered development. In terms of city’s broader approach to economic development, she said wants to be more “proactive than reactive” – working with residents and developers to find solutions that grow the city’s commercial tax base while protecting neighborhoods.
Renzulli said she also wants to see city government eliminate “red tape” and provide more guidance and support for small business owners. Providing access to information and resources in Spanish as well as English, she said, is a key part of that approach.
“Entrepreneurship is so wonderful for the community … I think it would be cost effective, and the return on investment would be high,” she said.
She additionally wants to see livestreaming of public meetings become permanent, even when in-person proceedings resume.
Renzulli is among the GOP candidates this year with close ties to Hopkins, who she said she has known since she was 10 years old. She expressed confidence that Republicans are unified after what was a contentious mayoral primary.
“We’re working together. We call ourselves Team Cranston … We are trying to move forward together,” she said.
She added: “I plan to work across party lines. I’m trying to do whatever is best for the city of Cranston.” But she does want GOP majority. “That’s how I envision, things, people over politics.”
Originally from New Jersey, Don Roach and his family lived in Edgewood for a decade before moving to the Garden City neighborhood three years ago.
During his time as a resident of Ward 1, Roach made his first bid for public office – an unsuccessful challenge to Democrat Steve Stycos in 2010.
He’s thought about another bid since, and initially planned to run this year before deciding to wait until 2022. But when the Cranston Republican City Committee asked him to step forward as the third member of the party’s citywide ticket – and after receiving his wife’s encouragement – he decided to enter the fray.
“I really love Cranston,” he said. “which is why we’ve stayed here as long as we have.”
Roach 43, and his wife have three boys between the ages of 12 and 17. A graduate of Brown University, where he earned a bachelor’s in political science, and Bentley University, where he received a master’s in accounting, he spent much of his career in finance before transitioning to human resources with his current employer, Liberty Mutual.
“It’s one of the main reasons why I hope I get elected, because I’ve done budgets, billion dollar budgets, budgets where we’ve got to cut expenses, and it’s always a trade-off of like, what’s most important?” he said.
As the city faces an uncertain financial situation moving forward, Roach said preserving “essential services” would be his top priority as a member of the City Council.
“We’ve got to be able to maintain the safety and security of the city as well as provide funding for our schools,” he said, adding: “Having said that, and that sounds good as like a great sound byte, but how do you do that practically? … That is going to be a very difficult challenge.”
In terms of whether a tax increase may be part of the equation, he noted that Mayor Allan Fung needed to seek tax increases early in his tenure as the city faced the ramifications of the global financial crisis.
“As a Republican, I do not want to raise taxes … Many people have lost their jobs, lost their businesses, and if next year we come to them with a property tax increase, are they going to be able to afford it?” he said. “So I’m going to do everything in my power, if elected, to ensure that the burden of what is going on hits the regular taxpayer as minimally as possible. I can’t sit here and tell you I can guarantee that will happen in terms of us not having a property tax increase, but I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that.”
Roach said he hopes Cranston teams with other communities throughout the state to pressure the General Assembly to fully fund educational aid.
“What I think to do is, we need to go to the other cities and towns, and we need to band together and go to the state and say, ‘You have got to give us this funding,’” he said.
In terms of the school reopening process, Roach said the hybrid approach adopted by Cranston Public Schools is “sensible.” He said he supports the $147 million school facilities bond question “110 percent.”
Like Hopkins and Renzulli, he said his preferred outcome at the Mulligan’s Island property is a new recreational facility for youth sports. He proposed the creation of a “quasi-government” entity comprised of residents and officials to proactively monitor and help guide economic development in Cranston.
“I think we need smart development, and we need to empower our residents to be proactive and owning their neighborhoods and the kind of development that comes into their neighborhoods,” he said.
Roach supported Council President Michael Farina in the GOP mayoral primary, but said he feels confident about the party’s unity and chances as Nov. 3 nears.
“For me, Councilman Farina was my first choice,” he said. ”But I feel like Councilman Hopkins is definitely the best choice by far that we have for the city right now … I see why so many people have supported him and are supporting him. He’s a genuine guy. What you see is what you get.”
In terms of the next council, Roach said he feels confident that returning members such as Ward 4’s Ed Brady and Ward 5’s Chris Paplauskas will provide stability moving forward.
“I’m for real,” he said. “Cranston’s my home … I just want to serve the community.”