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Updated Aug 29, 2023, 6:18pm EDT
politicsNorth America

A Bernie-backed progressive struggles to unite the left in Rhode Island

Savana Dunning/Newport Daily News / USA TODAY NETWORK
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The Scene

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The race for a safe Democratic seat here is heading toward a chaotic finish, after a campaign of old grievances, new scandals, and frank talk about whether the state’s representation is too white and male.

All of that played out on Sunday, when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned to rally progressive voters behind 33-year old ex-legislator Aaron Regunberg — just as Don Carlson, a wealthy novice who’d put at least $600,000 into his own campaign, was quitting the race after a report on inappropriate messages he’d sent to a former student.

That set up the contrast Regunberg wanted, between Democrats who wanted power and people like him – an activist/legislator who’d fought for healthcare and higher wages, when “corporations and corporate lobbyists” said it was impossible.

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“This is the kind of district that can support a lot more than just one more Democratic vote,” said Regunberg. “This is a district that can support someone who’s actually going to organize up there.”

As Sanders spoke to 1000 people at the Columbus Theatre, a truck circled outside with an electronic billboard, paid for by a fringe candidate, attacking him for “NOT supporting a progressive woman” and “NOT supporting a person of color.” Sanders and Regunberg spoke only after female, progressive allies talked about how the candidate helped pass an array of paid leave and wage bills, while convincing them to run for office.

“Why am I, a black Afro-Latina woman, supporting Aaron, over other people of color who are running?” said state Rep. Leonela Felix. “The answer is very simple. More than identity politics, Rhode Island needs a champion who will fight to ensure that families not only survive, but that they thrive.”

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David’s view

The Sep. 5 primary offers progressives their only chance of gaining ground in Congress this year. It’s a tricky moment for their movement, which has struggled to find its footing — and funding — in the Biden era.

Progressives scored a massive victory in Chicago this year, when — with the help of Sanders — Brandon Johnson won a close mayoral race. But national politics have been less rewarding for the left recently.

Justice Democrats, founded to elect anti-corporate candidates in safe blue districts, has shed staff after a disappointing 2022 cycle, when massive spending from Democratic Majority for Israel sunk some of its candidates and drained its resources. It’s yet to endorse a candidate in this cycle, and has stayed out of the Sep. 5 special election, which seems to fit their usual criteria for blue-to-bluer targets — Biden won the Providence-based 1st District by 29 points and the GOP is not seriously contesting the seat.

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In Rhode Island, progressives who took power from the state’s old guard have often been distracted by infighting, with multiple former legislators denouncing Regunberg in bitter, personal terms as an entitled tryhard. One former state senator called him a product of a “greedy, power hungry, patriarchal extractor and colonizer-designed system” that raised up “problematic progressive men.”

“Everybody has the right to their own opinion,” said state Sen. Linda Ujifusa, who’s supporting Regunberg. “But my feeling is that it’s much more important to stick to the issues, and agree or disagree with someone on that basis.”

Regunberg’s comeback bid — he lost an insurgent 2018 primary for lieutenant governor by a few thousand votes — gained traction as an early favorite stumbled. Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, a 49-year old immigrant from the Dominican Republic, picked up endorsements from EMILYs List, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and labor unions that had backed her 2022 campaign.

Then Matos spent weeks dealing with questions about signature gatherers who appeared to have forged names to get her on the ballot. A poll for former White House intergovernmental affairs liaison Gabe Amo, released to media outlets last week, showed Regunberg ahead, Amo gaining behind him, and Matos in a dead heat with state Sen. Sandra Cano, an immigrant from Colombia and competitor for the Latino vote.

“The worst is over,” Matos told a supporter at a Sunday afternoon folk music festival in the district. She told another supporter that it was important to “vote for women’s rights,” implying that there would not be another good chance to change the make-up of the state’s delegation. “We have an opportunity now that we won’t have again for 10 to 20 years,” Matos said.

Amo’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from west Africa, a story told in speeches and TV ads that emphasize how a “kid from Pawtucket” came to work for two presidents. Cano has run to the left of Matos and Amo; like Rugenberg, she supports Medicare-for-All and says she’d join the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But she’s also highlighted her story and her potential to make history if elected, to distinguish herself from the field.

“I understand firsthand how our teachers, our nurses, and our care professionals really need support,” said Cano. “I work with them. I pass legislation with them. I’ve been at pickets with them.”

In an interview, Matos emphasized that the state had never sent a Democratic woman to Congress. Supporting her, she said, could empower someone “that has the experience of so many Rhode Islanders, of working in a factory, or of an immigrant coming to the country and struggling to learn the language.”

Regunberg had faced setbacks, too; his father was killed in a plane crash before he was born. But his family ties have helped him in a crowded race, and in multiple ways. His uncle, Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider, is a stalwart defender of Israel, and in an interview with Jewish Insider, Regunberg called the suburban congressman “someone that I am often leaning on for expertise and thoughts.”

That relationship helped prevent an intervention from the groups that have pummeled other progressive candidates; one Democratic strategist working on the race joked that the movement needed “more candidates whose uncle is Brad Schneider.”

But Regunberg’s family also became an issue after his father-in-law and mother gave a combined $130,000 to Progress Rhode Island, a super PAC supporting him — and after he claimed, incorrectly, that his campaign did not have a “red box” of suggested messages, designed to help independent groups by avoiding official, illegal coordination.

Matos filed an ethics complaint, and the super PAC distraction has given Regunberg’s rivals a closing message, especially given the critical importance his corner of the left has placed on campaign finance reform.

Asked about campaigning for a candidate with a super PAC, Sanders pivoted to talk about his long-term goal of clean elections.

“I think we should eliminate all super PACs for everybody,” he said. “I think we should overturn Citizens United, and move to public funding of elections.”

Regunberg’s rivals, who haven’t turned down PAC money, have another idea. Reform would start with beating this guy.

“I don’t have wealth, or a family that’s going to do a super PAC for me,” said Cano.

“Rhode Islanders just want someone to be honest with them,” said Amo. “If you’re going to say, ‘I want to play by certain rules, I want everybody to play by them,’ then you should play by them, too. That’s what’s really important. And that’s ultimately what’s missing from Aaron’s response.”

Onstage with Sanders, Regunberg did talk about his family — about his young son, and the combination of hope and anger he felt when he thought about saving the planet from corporate greed.

“If everyone in this theater talked to three of their friends — man, there’s not enough corporate lobbyists and corporate PAC money out there to stop us.”

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The View From Voters

Matteo Marano, 56, said that he got behind Regunberg early on, seeing the competition as “a lot of corporate Democratic candidates.” And as a member of Democratic Socialists of America, he wondered if some progressives were making a mistake by brawling among themselves instead of backing someone they largely agreed with.

“There’s a vision within the DSA, in Providence for sure, that it needs to be oppositional,” he said. “I feel like if you find a good candidate who’s aligned with what you want, with 80% or 90% of what you believe, that’s the candidate you should go for.”

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Notable

  • In Roll Call, Daniela Altimari looked at how the primary was testing “which version of the Democratic Party” could triumph in deep blue territory.
  • And in The Messenger, Matt Holt investigated just how “bizarre” some of the infighting had become.
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