Fireworks at CD1 debate as Democrats argue over money in politics

By: - August 17, 2023 9:42 pm

Sabina Matos, smiles during the 1st Congressional District debate for Democratic candidates at Roger Williams University’s Campus Recreation Center Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. At left is John Goncalves. Ana Quezada is at right. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)


That’s the magic word that turned a debate among 10 Rhode Island Democratic congressional contenders from civil conversation into chaos.

At the center of the storm: former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, whose family-funded Super PAC recently dropped $119,000 on mailers for him. Regunberg, who has vocally denounced corporate influence in politics, continued to deny he knew his father-in-law was going to fund his campaign when questioned by debate moderators during the event at Roger Williams University Thursday night. 

That didn’t stop his rivals from piling on, with several pointing to perceived hypocrisy between Regunberg’s prior pledge not to take corporate money in his campaign and the recent spending by the Progress Rhode Island political action committee from his father-in-law, Jim Cielinski, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

“Your father-in-law is trying to buy influence in Washington,” said Stephanie Beauté, a senior program manager in the tech industry. 

Others accused Regunberg of trying to “control the rules” for the race by asking fellow candidates to also not accept corporate money in their campaigns. Regunberg is far from the only candidate to benefit from outside funding. 

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ campaign has received more than $800,000 in outside help, including triple-figure TV ads from Congressional Hispanic Caucus BOLD PAC, Emily’s List and Elect Democratic Women, according to FEC data.

The Democrats Serve PAC has also spent $37,000 on former White House staffer Gabe Amo, with plans to spend another $100,000 on Amo by the end of the primary. 

Matos said she was proud of the funds from organizations based on her stance on key issues. Amo, meanwhile, sought to differentiate between PAC funds he received compared with Regunberg.

Amo’s money reflects “recognition of my career in public service, not just because of my familial relations,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jamestown renewable energy investor Don Carlson was also questioned about the $600,000 he has poured into his own campaign. Carlson explained that as a political newcomer, he didn’t have “favors to cash in” or big money to support him. Putting his own money into the race, along with contributions from people he knew personally, allowed him to get his name and message across to voters, he said. 

The fiery attacks came nearly an hour into the 90-minute debate, which was sponsored by the Rhode Island Association of Democratic City & Town Chairs and moderated by Boston Globe Rhode Island reporters Ed Fitzpatrick and Steph Machado.

Prior to questions over money in politics, conversation remained civil, even congenial, as candidates were asked to offer short responses to questions about education, defense spending and other policy issues. More often than not, a majority of the 10 contenders saw eye-to-eye, with their differences on details such as whether they would forgive $10,000 or $20,000 on student loan debt.

Another example of consensus: the love for former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, whose decision to step down in June prompted the special election. Asked what policy disagreements they had with the 12-year congressmen, only one of the 10 – Rep. Stephen Casey of Woonsocket – could name any concrete policy areas where the two disagreed.

Casey, a moderate Democrat whose stance on issues such as gun rights and abortion, was originally not invited to participate in the event based on criteria developed by the event organizers. He was later added to the list after clarifying his position on certain issues and receiving endorsements from local Democratic town committees and the state firefighters union, according to Tom Kane, president of the Rhode Island  Association of Democratic City & Town Chairs. 

Two other Democrats, Allen Waters and Spencer Dicksinson, were not invited to participate because they did not meet the criteria.

Casey sought to distance himself from the group in his opposition to an assault weapons ban and abortion rights, though he acknowledged his vote against the Rhode Island’s Reproductive Privacy Act in 2022 was a mistake. But he aligned with other, more progressive Democrats elsewhere, including naming former President John F. Kenney Jr. as his political role model. The same answer was given by former U.S. Naval War College professor Walter Berbrick.

All but one candidate – Beauté – backed proposed legislation that, if passed, would prevent reporters from having to reveal their sources (though Carlson added the caveat that his support was subject to subpoena power still being available).

And when pressed for who, other than themselves, they would vote for in the upcoming Democratic primary, answers ended with a three-way tie between Sens. Ana Quezada and Sandra Cano and Berbrick. Three of the candidates – Quezada, Matos and Providence City Councilman John Goncalves – did not answer with a specific person’s name, instead voicing support for one of the women of color on the stage.

Matos also came under fire for the ongoing investigation into signature fraud on her campaign nomination papers. Though she again sought to separate herself from the worker who collected signatures in question, she also acknowledged her role as the name on the campaign that was involved.

“Of course, I take responsibility,” she said. “That’s my name and my campaign was involved in this.” 

Matos blasted Carlson for questioning her campaign and seconds later, saying he did not question her integrity.

“What happened to me could happen to any of us here,” she said. “No one is thinking that someone could have signed papers intentionally to damage my campaign.”

Later in the debate, Matos and Amo exchanged heated words over Amo’s former lobbying work for The Home Depot because the company’s cofounder has donated to prominent Republican candidates including Donald Trump. Their exchange did not mention the signature scandal, but Amo has been among the most vocal critics of Matos in the weeks since alleged signature fraud was first uncovered. 

Early voting for the Sept. 5 primary is already underway. The general election is slated for Nov. 7.


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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.