How much do endorsements matter? In crowded CD1 race, more than you think.

Candidates clamor for asterisk on ballot that could give them edge in competitive primary

By: - June 5, 2023 4:02 pm

It’s too early to say which candidate Democratic party officials will designate to represent their party in the Sept. 5 primary. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Pressure is mounting and time is ticking down in the race to replace former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline in Congress. 

A month ahead of the declaration deadline, 1st Congressional District Democratic candidates are already vying for endorsements from elected officials and political organizations – and making a fuss when they get passed over.

Last week, Nick Autiello, a former aide to then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, publicly criticized Climate Action RI for backing rival candidate Aaron Regunberg.

A month ago, Regunberg, a former state representative, also got the backing of the progressive Rhode Island Working Families Party, a choice which drew swift criticism from fellow Democratic candidate Sen. Sandra Cano, of Pawtucket.

Former Rhode Island Rep. Aaron Regunberg has collected endorsements from the progressive Rhode Island Working Families Party and Climate Action RI. (Contributed photo)

The dustup over perceived slights, while not typically played out in public, came as no surprise to Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. In a crowded and fast-paced race where a few thousand votes could decide the primary victor, endorsements are critical, Schiller said.

“Because of the crowded field, any boost you can get is important,” she said. “That 2-3% increase you get from a climate change group or the Working Families Party could help put you over the top.”

Especially because politically active groups like Climate Action RI and Working Families Party will get their followers out to the polls on primary day. The same holds true for unions, which continue to play a powerful role in state politics and elections, though local chapters have yet to make their picks in this race.

“That 2-3% increase you get from a climate change group or the Working Families Party could help put you over the top.”

– Wendy Schiller, professor of political science, Brown University

Also undecided is who, if anyone, the Rhode Island State Democratic Party will throw its weight behind. Party Chairman Joseph McNamara, a state representative, did not return multiple calls for comment.

But Schiller stressed the value of getting the asterisk next to your name on a ballot symbolizing the party’s endorsement. Voters overwhelmed by the sheer list of names and faces in the race can look to endorsements as a kind of cheat sheet, signaling what that candidate represents based on who supports them.

“Instead of reading all the candidate positions, I can just say, ‘this group is liberal, or cares about jobs, or cares about education, and they like so-and-so,’” Schiller said.

A battle for progressive label

Indeed, in endorsing Regunberg in May, the Rhode Island Working Families Party wanted to make it clear to voters that the former state representative was “the” progressive candidate, said Georgia Hollister Isman, the party’s New England regional director.

“It was definitely a difficult choice but even more important in the sense that voters in this race will be looking at a bunch of different candidates and wondering about the differences between them,” Hollister Isman said. “Aaron stands out as someone who has gone to bat on the issues we care about…rolled up his sleeves and really done the work.”

Sen. Sandra Cano contends she is the true progressive choice among Democrats seeking Rhode Island’s open congressional seat. (Courtesy of Rhode Island Senate)

Hollister Isman was surprised by the criticism the party’s choice drew from Cano’s campaign, which issued a press release contending that Cano was the “true” progressive choice because of her record and identity as a Latina. Regunberg is white.

“They continuously claim credit for the electoral victories of many women of color and working class people, often while lifting up the lived experiences of those same candidates – so why then, with an historic slate of diverse candidates, would RI WFP choose to support a person who enjoys extreme life privilege over an actual working person?” a spokesperson for Cano’s campaign said in a statement. 

Regunberg is a Chicago transplant who attended Brown University who got his start in community organizing before becoming a state representative. He went to attend Harvard Law School and stepped down from a federal court clerkship to run for Congress.

Cano is a Colombian immigrant who graduated from Bryant University and works as commerce director for the city of Pawtucket. 

Regunberg was taken aback by Cano’s reaction, saying that to criticize an organization for backing someone else was “acting a bit like a sore loser.”

                Who’s who among CD1 candidates

As of Monday, June 5, there are 14 Democratic candidates in the race.

They are:

  • State Rep. Marvin Abney, of Newport, who chairs the House Finance Committee
  • Gabe Amo, former White House and then gov-staffer under the Biden and Obama administrations, in addition to working for former Gov. Gina M. Raimondo
  • Nick Autiello, former economic development aide to then-Gov. Gina Raimondo
  • Mikeda Barnes, a former driver for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority
  • Stephanie Beute, a 2022 candidate for Rhode Island Secretary of State
  • Walter Berbrick, former Naval War College professor
  • State Sen. Sandra Cano, of Pawtucket
  • Don Carlson, a law professor and renewable energy investor
  • State Rep. Stephen Casey of Woonsocket
  • Providence City Councilman John Goncalves
  • Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos
  • State Sen. Ana Quezada of Providence
  • Former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg
  • Allen Waters, a perennial candidate and Republican turned Democrat

“If I didn’t have some trust and respect for that organization and their work and the way they make analysis, then I wouldn’t seek the endorsement,” he said.

Cano did not return multiple calls for comment.

Autiello, meanwhile, blasted Regunberg’s record and experience on environmental policies after the Climate Action RI endorsement on May 31.

While Aaron Regunburg was an intern at the Sierra Club, I was in the room with President Biden’s Climate Envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, strategizing together over how to find the trillions of dollars necessary to make the energy transition a reality,” Autiello in a statement. 

“Aaron Regunberg lacked the experience and background to even take notes in the high-level meetings I’ve led domestically and abroad. Our practical experiences leading on this issue are night and day.”

In a later interview, Autiello explained that his criticism was directed more toward the organization than his political opponent.

“It seems like an odd decision when there’s such a substantial gap in substance and experience on the issue,” Autiello said.

He declined to respond to Regunberg’s comments about such criticism suggesting being a “sore loser.” 

And though Autiello said he was proud of the endorsements he’s received, including co-backing of the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, which also endorsed Don Carlson, he didn’t think endorsements carried much weight with voters.

“Everyone makes decisions based on what’s going on in their own lives,” he said. 

Regunberg disagreed.

“It’s one thing for me to say I am the clear progressive candidate in the race,” he said. “To have organizations like Our Revolution and the Working Families Party and Climate Action RI say, ‘Yeah, this is the candidate we trust on the issues,’ means more.”

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos said not getting an endorsement for her CD1 campaign is ‘disappointing to us, but we have to keep on moving.’ (Contributed photo)

Gaining trust

Another congressional hopeful, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, also stressed the value of endorsements in winning trust among community members. Even a town council or school committee member’s backing can hold weight with people who know or respect that person, she said.

Matos wasn’t interested in the dustup over who endorsed whom.

When it doesn’t happen, it’s disappointing to us, but we have to keep on moving, we have to keep on working,” she said. “My approach is, I try to not put too much energy on things that don’t go the way I want it.”

Yet Matos’ campaign also encountered controversy after it was uncovered by the Rhode Island College student newspaper that several of the local elected officials she publicly listed as endorsing her said they had not.

Matos in an interview with Rhode Island Current insisted she did not falsely claim endorsements she had not received, but that some people changed their minds after other candidates with whom they had personal connections entered the race.

Autiello and Regunberg both declined to comment on this topic.

More to come in July

With less than a month to go until the June 30 deadline to officially enter the race, it’s still early. Rep. Nathan Biah of Providence dropped out of the race late Monday, announcing instead that he was running for the District 1 Senate seat that became open after the death of Sen. Maryellen Goodwin in April. Schiller expected more endorsements, both local and national, to come in July once the field was set.

Expect more endorsements, both local and national, to come in July once the field of candidates for the CD1 seat is set, says Wendy Schiller, the Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence in Political Science and director of the Taubman Center for American Politics & Policy at Brown University. (Contributed photo)

Especially because groups and officials want to get a better sense of who has the best chance not only in the upcoming special election, but the general election the next year, she said.

“Once the field is clear and people can look at how much money is being raised, I think you’re going to see more endorsements flying in,” she said.

Among the most influential backings is the endorsement of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, though it’s unclear if or when he will make a pick. Larry Berman, a spokesman for Shekarchi, said in an emailed statement that the speaker is “focused on legislative business at the time.”

Cicilline, meanwhile, will not be endorsing anyone because of his new role as president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, according to a spokesperson for his office.

The primary is scheduled for Sept. 5, with a Nov. 7 general election.

Key dates

June 29-30: Candidate declaration period

Aug. 6: Voter registration deadline for the primary

Aug. 15: Mail ballot application deadline for the primary

Aug. 16-Sept. 5: Early voting for the primary

Sept 5: Primary

Oct. 8: Voter registration deadline for special election

Oct: 17: Mail ballot application deadline for special election

Oct. 18-Nov. 6: Early voting for special election

Nov. 7: Special election



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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.