Aaron Regunberg joined by his wife Katie, and their son Asa, 2, stands with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on stage at the Columbus Theatre in Providence at a rally Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — With 10 days left before the Sept. 5 primary, a 1st Congressional District Democratic front-runner brought in a progressive heavyweight Sunday to take his campaign across the finish line.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020, headlined a rally in support of former Providence State Rep. Aaron Regunberg at the Columbus Theatre on Broadway.
“Whether they like it or not, the billionaire class needs to start paying their fair share of taxes,” said Sanders, an independent who staked his two presidential bids on a platform of democratic socialism. “These rulers of the universe believe they have a right to have it all and what you believe and I believe and Aaron believes is that we are going to prevent that from happening.”
As an elder statesman for the progressive movement, Sanders brought his star power to the Ocean State to stump for the 33-year-old Regunberg who is leading a field of 11 candidates in the Democratic primary, according to the results of a rival’s internal polling. Pop star and Warwick resident Vanessa Carlton performed at the start of the rally attended by about 650 people.
Others who turned out to support Regunberg included Providence City Councilwoman Sue AnderBois and Pawtucket State Reps. Cherie Cruz and Leonela Felix.
Regunberg has begun to pull away from the pack in recent weeks with endorsements from multiple local politicians, labor organizations, and environmental groups.
“I’m not running for Congress because I am angry,” he said. “I am running for Congress because I have hope. Hope is not confidence or happiness or inner peace. Hope is a commitment to search for possibilities.”
“I have a 2-year old son so how can I not be heartbroken when I think of the security and wonder and beauty that’s being taken from him as the world starts to break,” Regunberg continued. “But at the same time I have a two-year old son! So how can we not be searching for possibilities.”
The rally came three days after Democratic candidate Gabriel Amo released a polling memo showing Regunberg had the support of 28% of 451 potential voters polled with Amo in second place at 19% and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and Sen. Sandra Cano both tied at 11%. The poll had Don Carlson behind at 8%. On Sunday, the Carlson campaign announced he was bowing out of the race.
Regunberg stuck to positions he has reiterated throughout the campaign, including addressing climate change and fighting for universal health care.
“The truth about all of these fights is we only have one option and that is to win,” Regunberg said. “This is a district that can actually support someone who is going to organize up there. Someone who is ready to stand up to Republicans and corporate lobbyists with every tool that they’ve got.”
This is a district that can actually support someone who is going to organize up there. Someone who is ready to stand up to Republicans and corporate lobbyists with every tool that they’ve got.”
– 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate Aaron Regunberg
Sanders said Regunberg would be an invaluable ally in Congress in holding the wealthy accountable and in removing political action committee politics from elections.
“Democracy is not billionaires buying elections: it is one person, one vote,” Sanders said. “We need to overturn Citizens United and we have got to move to public funding of elections.”
That issue is particularly thorny for Regunberg, who has faced criticism of late for a mailer sent out by a progressive super PAC supporting his candidacy financed by his father-in-law and mother. Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos recently filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission alleging collusion between the campaign and Super PAC.
During an Aug. 22 debate at Rhode Island College, Regunberg said he would not contest Super PAC spending as long as it was done legally. Nonetheless, he would advocate for their abolition in Congress.
Supporters line up
“We both believe working people should come first — isn’t that just a radical idea? Like who would believe in something so radical?” Felix asked the audience rhetorically. “Aaron is the only candidate who is running who can actually stand by his track record of supporting families in our state.”
Cruz said Regunberg encouraged her start in politics with his activism around prisons, including attempts to shut down the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls in 2019 — the state’s only publicly-owned but privately run prison.
“I linked arms with Aaron outside the only private prison for it to close down,” she said. “This one’s personal to me because Aaron’s done so much for me and people like me; impacted by the criminal legal system who never belonged or believed we had a chance.”
Sara Nelson, a Boston-based flight attendant and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said Regunberg’s track record of progressive politics in Rhode Island would be welcome in Congress.
“In order to form a more perfect union, the people need unions,” she said. “Aaron Regunberg gets this. The solution here is not just sending people to Congress, not just electing people into position and expecting they’re going to do it all for us.
“We don’t just exist in a democracy. We work in an economy that is all about capital and not about people.”
Supporters of Regunberg who attended the rally gave a variety of reasons why he is their preferred candidate.
“What [Regunberg] says means so much,” said Claire Cheung of Providence. She added that the endorsement of Providence State Sen. Tiara Mack clinched her vote. “The business with the Super PACs doesn’t outweigh the other factors that mean more to me.”
Attending the rally was Kelvis Hernandez, one of the founding students of the Providence Student Union, which was organized by Regunberg and Zach Mezera in 2010. Hernandez said Regunberg’s work in the community shows he is not a white savior, but someone who actually cares about lifting marginalized voices.
“I think that what he has done was truly for the community,” Hernandez said. “There’s no chance for so many to speak up and he’s been out there, trying to raise everyone’s voices.
For Kathy Blessing of East Providence, the rally felt energizing.
“You know what this reminded me of?”Blessing said. “They used to have these religious revivals, and it felt like they used to do in the old days. That’s just my impression of it.”
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