Eight Democratic 1st Congressional District candidates gather around the interview table at podcaster Bill Bartholomew’s studio in Providence Thursday morning, Aug. 10, 2023. (Kevin G. Andrade)
PROVIDENCE — Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and former Providence state Rep. Aaron Regunberg launched spirited defenses of controversies dogging their campaigns during a 1st Congressional District Democratic debate moderated by a local podcaster Thursday.
They were among eight candidates who participated in a debate for “The Bartholomewtown” Podcast recorded at Bill Bartholomew’s home studio. Ten of the 12 Democratic candidates running for the open seat were invited, although two were unable to attend.
In addition to Matos and Regunberg, participants included former White House aide Gabriel Amo, former candidate for Secretary of State Stephanie Beauté; Pawtucket State Sen. Sandra Cano; Yale Law Professor Donald Carlson; Providence City Councilman John Gonçalves; and Providence Sen. Ana Quezada.
Neither former South Kingstown state Rep. Spencer Dickinson nor former Republican Allen Waters were invited. Bartholomew said Dickinson did not meet his criteria for an invite, including having received endorsements, buying media advertising, and actively raising money. Waters was not invited due to disparaging remarks targeting the LGBTQ+ community.
“This is a safe space,” Bartholomew said.
Bartholomew said former U.S. Naval War College professor Walter Berbrick mistakenly thought the event was online and could not make it to the debate and Woonsocket state Rep. Stephen Casey had a conflict.
The 80-minute debate touched on many topics but heated up in the last 20 minutes when Bartholomew steered candidates to the topic of the signature scandal embroiling Matos’ campaign and a family-supported super PAC that funded a mailer for Regunberg.
“You hear about this stuff a lot,” Carlson said. “We give the Republicans ammunition to say: ‘Look at what’s going on among the Democrats,’ and it makes it hard to be a politician in that context.”
Carlson called attention to the recent decision by the Rhode Island Board of Elections to conduct a full investigation into a number of fraudulent signatures collected by Matos campaign workers in multiple municipalities.
“I’m really glad the Board of Elections decided to reverse their prior action and have a thorough investigation,” Carlson said.
Matos countered, saying she has received an outpouring of support on the campaign trail in the wake of the controversy.
“Every time that I’m speaking with voters, they say they cannot believe the way I’ve been treated,” Matos said. “It’s already certified that I have more than enough signatures to be on the ballot.”
The lieutenant governor has said repeatedly that a vendor working with her campaign claimed to verify those signatures collected by herself and those contracted through her company. Matos’ campaign has said it fired the vendor.
“Someone on my campaign lied to me and deceived me,” she continued. “I did not need anyone to do anything like this for me.”
“So you believe you’re the victim under this scenario?” Carlson asked Matos.
“If you want to call me a victim, then do it,” Matos retorted. “No one more than me wants clarification because it’s my name being thrown under the mud.”
Are you going to portray yourself as a victim?
– Don Carlson to Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos
Matos then went after Carlson, noting that his campaign submitted 210 signatures that were thrown out by the Board of Elections.
“None of them were disqualified because they were forged,” he replied.
Debate turns to money
In July, campaign finance records revealed that Carlson — an alternative energy investor — provided $600,000 of $913,405 in receipts generated during the second quarter of 2023.
Regunberg recently landed in hot water after a mailer supporting his candidacy was sent out by a super PAC funded by his father-in-law and mother. Regunberg has gone on the record against super PA’s and favors an appeal of the Citizens United decision — the 2005 Supreme Court case which created super PACs.
“We’re talking a lot about signatures,” Matos said in a statement directed at Regunberg and Carlson, “what about the signatures on your checks?”
“I earned every nickel of that money, Carlson said. “I’m not embarrassed about it.”
Regunberg said that though privileged, his upbringing informed the progressive activism he has built his name on.
“There’s been a lot of attacks on my background and character in this race, and that’s fine, that’s politics,” said Regunberg, whose grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. “I know where I come from. I know that those are the experiences and values that have shaped me and inspired me.”
All for Ukraine, but not boots on the ground
Most of the discussion focused on policy. Bartholomew opened with a question on whether candidates would support sending troops into Ukraine. All candidates were opposed but all voiced support for continued logistical support to the country to defend itself against Russia.
“What we’re providing to Ukraine is the right thing to do,” said Quezada.
There’s been a lot of attacks on my background and character in this race, and that’s fine, that’s politics.
– Former Providence state Rep. Aaron Regunberg
“I think we need to be supporting the folks in Ukraine to the hilt,” Regunberg said. “If we don’t support them here, we know that this fight is not going to end here. We should support them in all the ways we can, but I would not support by any means putting troops on the ground.”
Bartholomew also asked candidates to detail the policies they would pursue to address questions of income inequality. Amo said he would address tax policy and tax corporations to contribute their fair share in tax dollars.
He also called for the restoration of the American Rescue Plan Act expansion of the child tax credit which ended in 2022. Amo said the program reduced poverty in low-income communities by half.
“This is something that worked ,and yet it went away,” he said. Amo also called for an increase in social security payments and Medicare for all.
“We need to focus on housing, anti-gentrification policies, and Medicare for all,” said Gonçalves, noting the significant changes that affected the Fox Point neighborhood where he grew up and now represents on the City Council.
A fourth-grade teacher, Gonçalves also called for policies supporting universal pre-k and post-secondary education, in addition to forgiving student debt.
Beauté called for addressing the gender pay-gap between women and men and greater investment in small businesses.
“We need to demand more of our elected officials and make sure that they deliver on their word,” she said. “When you invest in small businesses you see those dollars really last longer in the community, and we lift every family out of poverty.”
Cano, who has served as the chair of the Senate Education Committee since 2021, said that her investments in education allowed her to rise up the social ladder from poverty.
“I took education as an equalizer in my life,” she said. “While I am not a lawyer, I do know how to work with policy that affects people’s lives every single day.”
After the debate though, Bartholomew said the high level of energy exhibited by the candidates made moderation as much a challenge as voting in the Sept. 5 primary may be for voters.
“This is difficult,” he said. “There’s my closing statement.”
The debate episode of “The Bartholomewtown” Podcast is available for download at www.ripodcast.com.
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