PROVIDENCE – Jousting between two Democratic front runners over campaign financing dominated the start of a two-part forum at Rhode Island College Tuesday for the 1st Congressional District.
The forum, sponsored by The Providence Journal, The Public’s Radio, Rhode Island PBS, and Rhode Island College, was split into two hourlong segments featuring five candidates each, and was moderated by political reporters Patrick Anderson of the Providence Journal and Ian Donnis of Public’s Radio. Luis Hernandez of Public’s Radio “Morning Edition” hosted.
Two candidates — former South Kingstown State Rep. Spencer Dickinson and former Republican Allen Waters — were not invited to participate because they failed to meet the sponsors’ criteria, which included financial disclosures, fundraising, and endorsements.
The first half featured Woonsocket State Rep. Stephen Casey, Providence City Councilman John Gonçalves, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, former Providence State Rep. J. Aaron Regunberg, and Providence State Sen. Ana Quezada.
Anderson’s opening question focused on recent skirmishing between Matos and Regunberg over Super PAC support. Matos has filed a complaint with the FEC over Regunberg accepting support from a Super PAC funded by his father-in-law and mother despite publicly calling for an end to Super PACs; a position he reiterated.
“I’ve always been clear, I think we need to get money out of politics completely,” Regunberg told the audience of about 100. “Until that happens, I don’t want Joe Biden to swear off Super PACs. I’m sure the lieutenant governor won’t swear off the almost $1 million in Super PAC money she has received.”
Matos’ complaint accuses Regunberg’s campaign of coordination with the Super PAC. She filed the complaint a day after she confronted Regunberg during a debate at Roger Williams University where he denied having a Redbox on his campaign page.
Matos’ campaign produced evidence Monday of redboxing — the practice of having a secret signal for Super PAC supporters on a campaign site — which had since been deleted, according to Matos. Regunberg defended the statement on his site, saying it was transparent and publicly available.
“We had a publicly available page on that website for our supporters and clearly for our opponents,” Regunberg said, waving to the other candidates at the table.
“You lied about it,” Matos responded. ”You thought you had deleted every record of it from the internet. You lied to the voters.”
The back and forth lasted several minutes before moderators asked the other candidates their thoughts on the matter. Gonçalves reframed the question rapidly when it came his turn.
“No one cares about the damn signatures or the red boxes,” he said, an applause line for the audience. “Let’s focus on the things Rhode Islanders care about.
“I was speaking with a woman in East Providence who spent six hours in the emergency room and came out with a $16,000 bill,” he continued. “This is pitiful.”
The event took on a more civil tone as candidates spared over issues for the remaining 50 minutes of the segment.
Donnis asked candidates what would be the biggest challenges facing voters during the 2024 general election, and how they would legislatively address issues such as election denialism and polarization.
“I think really the problem with elections and politics right now is the division,” Casey said. “People can’t agree to disagree with certain things.
“You have extreme left and right personalities,” he continued. “We’ve been holding up the country for years now because of these ideologies.”
Regunberg was the only candidate to respond from a policy angle, calling for the U.S. Supreme Court to be reformed with term limits and court expansion. Yet the start of his response let people know where he felt the blame truly fell.
“We always need to be working for opportunities to work with people who we don’t necessarily agree with,” he said. “We also need to be very very clear, the threat the Republicans pose in the 2024 election is a very real threat to our Democracy.”
Moderators also included a question about immigration for the candidates.
“I really believe the U.S. needs to increase the working permits available for people to work in this country,” said Quezada, an immigrant herself whose husband first arrived in the U.S. without documentation.
She emphasized the challenges facing migrants — including political crisis, economic situations, and climate change — as motivation for her response.
“People don’t want to come to this country undocumented,” Quezada said.
The second segment stayed focused on policy with former White House Aide Gabriel Amo, former candidate for Secretary of State Stephanie Beauté, former U.S. Naval War College Professor Walter Berbrick, Yale Law Professor Donald Carlson, and Pawtucket State Sen. Sandra Cano.
Donnis started the round asking candidates about where they thought President Joe Biden could do better.
“There’s only one thing that I can think of that I disagree with him on — and that’s sending cluster munitions to Ukraine,” Carlson said, adding that their prohibition under international law made the move morally dubious. “I think he’s doing a fantastic job and he’s brought decency back to government.”
Berbrick said that he agrees with the decision to send cluster munitions, but that Biden could do better on climate change. He added that Biden’s decision to allow oil drilling off the coast of Alaska was short-sighted.
“I know the economy relies significantly on oil,” Berbrick said. “But at the same time we need to be smart and strategic about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.”
Cano also criticized Biden’s approach to climate change, particularly his reaction to the recent wildfires that devastated Maui.
“Last week there were very devastating fires in Maui and I thought he took a little bit of time in responding,” she said, adding that she supports his presidency overall. “We are in a climate crisis that is very urgent.”
Beauté, the child of a Haitian immigrant, said she has been disappointed in Biden and other Democrats inaction at the border, and called for immigration reform.
“We’ve seen how the other party has used it to their advantage,” she said.
Though the candidates did their best to distinguish themselves, the final winner will be decided at the polls on the Sept. 5 primary.
“You will be heard when you vote,” Hernandez, the host, told audience members.