CD1 campaign funding at center of TV debate

By: - September 1, 2023 6:27 pm

Five 1st Congressional District candidates participate in the WJAR TV debate recorded Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, at Rhode Island College in Providence. From left to right: Sabina Mattes, Spencer Dickinson, Gabe Amy, John Gonçalves, and Walter Berbrick. (Screenshot/WJAR 10)

PROVIDENCE — Five of the 11 Democratic candidates running for Rhode Island’s open 1st Congressional District seat took aim at each others’ donors during the second of a two-part WJAR TV debate airing Friday afternoon.

The debate filmed at Rhode Island College was moderated by WJAR Political Reporter Brian Crandall. Participants included former White House aide Gabriel Amo; former U.S. Naval War College professor Walter Berbrick;  former South Kingstown State Rep. Spencer Dickinson; Providence City Councilman John Gonçalves, and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos.

The other six candidates participated in the first half of the debate Thursday, including: tech entrepreneur Stephanie Beauté, Pawtucket State Sen. Sandra Cano, Woonsocket State Rep. Stephen Casey, former Providence State Rep. J. Aaron Regunberg, Providence State Sen. Ana Quezada, and former Republican Allen Waters.

Walter Berbrick answers a question during the WJAR 10 debate. (Screenshot/WJAR 10)

Candidates went after one another’s funding sources shortly after Crandall asked Berbrick a question about whether Regunberg’s entry into the race as a progressive white man stole momentum from progressive female candidates of color.

“Race and gender have kind of played a role in this campaign already,” Crandall said. “Do you think that a person who is not of color can effectively serve this district as well?”

Berbrick, a white man, answered in the affirmative, but chose to bring up campaign finances in his answer.

“I think that’s a big flaw in our system,” Berbrick said. “That our system is built for the wealthy and for the politically connected.”

“In the case of Gabe, Sabina, and Aaron, their independent expenditures and dark money coming from DC.”

Recent reporting showed Matos receiving $48,000 in PAC funding, bringing her campaign war chest to over $240,000, in addition to $800,000 from outside sources supporting her campaign.

Former White House Aide Gabe Amo gives a response during the WJAR 10 debate. (Screenshot/WJAR 10)

“I have been supported by groups representing millions of people,” she said, citing Emily’s List — an abortion rights organization — and labor unions. “They’re fighting for the workers, the everyday people of America.”

Amo had a war chest of $155,242.31 — including $10,000 in PAC donations — after spending close to $300,000 in his campaign.

“As the son of someone who owns a liquor store, that I was at last night ,and a nurse who has been working at nursing homes for years, I’m beholden to the values of Rhode Island and the people who invested in me,” Amo said.

Regunberg, whose position against PAC money in politics became a bone of contention after a PAC funded by his father-in-law and mother sent out a mailer in support, participated in the first part of the debate that aired Thursday. His campaign received $20,000 in PAC funding and over $139,000 in individual donations remaining after spending almost $365,000.

Gonçalves said individual donors accounted for nearly all of the $200,000 his campaign raised.

“I think that it comes down to the money that you’re willing to accept,” Gonçalves said, adding that his campaign pledged at the outset to decline money from fossil fuel interests, corporate PACs, and super PACs. “The reason why we made that pledge is because we want to be beholden to the people we represent and no one else. This is about putting people first.”

Providence City Councilman John Gonçalves. (Screenshot/WJAR 10)

It’s the economy

The majority of questions focused on bread and butter issues. Crandall asked candidates how they would help Rhode Islanders make ends meet with high inflation and the rapidly rising cost of living.

“Housing is the number one thing,” Matos said. “It’s making it harder fort hem to pay for rent, and food and medication.”

Matos, and several other candidates, said strengthening Social Security and Medicare — even expanding the programs — would go a long way toward making Rhode Islanders’ ends meet.

Spencer Dickinson participates in the CD1 debate taped at Rhode Island College on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. (Screenshot/WJAR 10)

“We need to do our best to protect our seniors and invest in Social Security and Medicare,” Amo said. “That, based on how this district looks, is really important to our economy.”

The one outlier was Dickinson.

“The four other candidates here have all talked about spending money,” Dickinson said. “What I’m talking about is you can spend all you want. If you’re spending money and you’re not taxing the people for it, you’re lying to the people because you’re going to tax them later with inflation.”

Several candidates called for increasing taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans to pay for spending.

“We need to be making sure the Amazons of the world are not paying zero dollars in taxes,” Amo said. “Rhode Island is a land of small businesses and a lot of those small businesses are struggling and it’s because we have an uneven playing field for them in the economy.”

‘Signaturegate’ returns

Things got tense on stage when Crandall asked Matos about the impact of Signaturegate on her campaign, referring to the investigation that ensued after names — some from dead people — were found to have been collected on Matos’ nomination forms by people working on her campaign. 

“A congressman who came to town to support you claimed you were a victim of discrimination here and that this was unfair,” Crandall told Matos, an Afro-Latina woman originally from the Dominican Republic. “Do you believe that this situation is unfair and you are the victim of discrimination?”

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos answers a question during the WJAR 10 debate. (Screenshot/WJAR 10)

Matos skirted the question, instead saying the process of confronting the accusations made her stronger as a candidate.

“What I believe is that I am the most vetted candidate on this stage,” she said. “This is the way it has been for me in public service since I ran for public office for the first time.”

“I have way more than enough signatures to qualify to be on the ballot.”

Other candidates on stage also attempted to move away from the signatures.

“This undermines our democracy,” Gonçalves said. “But let’s be frank, candidates of color, like myself, have a significantly harder chance in running for office because of the big money in politics.” 

Amo said he is sure the conversation had an impact on Matos’ candidacy but expressed confidence Democratic voters in the 1st Congressional District will focus on the substance of their policy positions come Sept. 5.

“Ultimately, people are voting right now,” he said. “People are voting on Election Day. And I think it’s time we refocused on the priorities of people in the 1st District.”


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.