PROVIDENCE – Though sitting stage left, former Providence Rep. Aaron Regunberg was the center of his political rivals’ attention Tuesday night, as his Democratic rivals for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District took any and all opportunities to attack him during a live televised debate at Rhode Island College.
The debate, hosted by WPRI Target 12 Chief Investigative Reporter Tim White and 12 News Politics Editor Ted Nesi, featured eight of the now 11 candidates in the race as they tackled issues from defense spending, daylight saving time, campaign contributions, and term limits.
Participants were former White House aide Gabe Amo, Walter Berbrick, Sandra Cano, Woonsocket Rep. Stephen Casey, Providence City Councilman John Gonçalves, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, Providence Sen. Ana Quezada, and Regunberg.
Stephanie Beauté, Spencer Dickinson, and Allen Waters did not meet nationwide debate-qualification criteria set by WPRI’s parent company Nexstar Media Group. Don Carlson initially planned on attending the debate but suspended his campaign Sunday in light of a WPRI report that he allegedly sent inappropriate text messages to a student while teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts.
His absence was front and center as Cano was singled out for her initial acceptance of Carlson’s endorsement after he dropped out, only to walk back the embrace hours later.
“I wanted to be thoughtful about what I wanted to say,” Cano said. “I don’t take any of the accusations or implications lightly — those are very concerning.”
For the first half of the debate, nearly all candidates focused their attention on attacking Regunberg, who is leading a field of 11 candidates in the Democratic primary, according to Amo’s internal polling.
Skirmishes began during the fourth question, in which candidates were asked to raise their hand if they would have supported the debt ceiling deal passed by Congress in June. All but Regunberg raised their hands.
“Kevin McCarthy took our economy hostage in order to push through dangerous Republican cuts to critical programs,” Regunberg said, adding that he would have supported the deal if he were the deciding vote.
Matos called a vote against raising the debt ceiling “risky” and that a stance like that would only hurt the nation’s economy. She added that the last-minute agreement was the reason Fitch Ratings downgraded its U.S. debt rating from the highest AAA rating to AA+.
‘We’re playing with people’s lives and incomes,” she said.
Candidates also attacked Regunberg over a mailer sent out by a progressive super PAC supporting his candidacy financed by his father-in-law and mother. The topic arose after Amo was asked about a memo issued by the Working Families Party Monday criticizing him for taking contributions from lobbyists for big corporations.
“I’m not going to take the lecturing from folks who are supporting a candidate that has a $125,000 contribution from his father-in-law to a Super PAC,” Amo said. ‘That is a clear red flag.”
Regunberg defended his family, saying his in-laws made, in their personal capacity, “a contribution to support someone they believe in.”
“That’s very different from contributions from corporate lobbyists,” he said. “Those folks are not giving my campaign any money and they know I’m running for Congress to take on corporate power in Washington. They know that I’ve been fighting for years to stand up to big pharma.”
“He never fought for anything in his life,” Quezada said. “He hardly had a job in his life.”
Regunberg called Quezada’s comment “very offensive” and then highlighted his work experience as founding director of the Providence Student Union, a senior policy advisor to the City of Providence, clerking in federal court, and helping pass paid sick time for state employees while he was in the General Assembly.
“That passed because of Maryellen Goodwin,” Quezada said off-mic, referring to the late senator who represented Providence’s District 1.
Despite the contentious start, candidates for the most part agreed on many of the issues asked during lighting round sessions.
All eight agreed for the need to implement term limits in Congress, though the number of terms differed among candidates. Most candidates also agreed on the need to impose term limits on the U.S. Supreme Court, with Berbrick and Casey opposing the idea.
All also agreed to codify abortion protections, along with voicing support for continued military aid to Ukraine. Where candidates differed regarding military spending was on whether they support a proposal to cut the Pentagon’s budget by 10% at the cost of losing defense industry jobs in Rhode Island.
Berbrick, a former Navy intelligence officer, also said he’d support cuts.
“We need to reduce,” he said. “We could invest in the critical things like housing, education, and health care — the things that are really going to define whether or not we remain an economic superpower.”
Casey and Amo also spoke out against Medicare for All, while the rest of the candidates spoke in favor of abolishing private health insurance.
After closing statements, the candidates were left with one final show of hands question: are they a Del’s Lemonade person or a Mr. Lemon person? All candidates, aside from Amo, raised their hands in support of Del’s.
“I really like Mr. Lemon!” Amo said after the debate.
The primary election is Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Christopher Shea is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.