PROVIDENCE — Six progressive former legislators and candidates are blasting J. Aaron Regunberg as he attempts to establish himself as the progressive choice for the First Congressional District seat that US Representative David N. Cicilline is vacating.
The clash represents the latest salvo in a “progressive civil war” that was evident in 2021 when Regunberg, a former state legislator, was among those criticizing the Rhode Island Political Cooperative for backing primary challengers to Democratic legislators who had advocated for progressive causes.
Regunberg, a Providence Democrat who narrowly lost the 2018 lieutenant governor’s primary to now-Governor Daniel J. McKee, announced his run for the First Congressional District seat last week.
Now, he is receiving criticism in a joint statement from former state senators Cynthia Mendes and Jeanine Calkin, former state representative Moira Walsh, former state Senate candidate Jennifer Rourke, and former Providence City Council candidates Monica Huertas and Corey Jones. Calkin and Rourke co-founded the Rhode Island Political Cooperative with Matt Brown, who ran for governor last year alongside Mendes, who ran for lieutenant governor.
But in a statement sent to reporters this week, Mendes, who is Afro-Latina, described both Brown and Regunberg as wealthy progressive men vying to become the “white savior.”
“Powerful in their little lefty spaces, wealthy, career-driven men in the progressive movement” represent a barrier to “unifying the left movement,” she wrote. “Why? Because they couldn’t agree on which one of them got to be our white savior.”
But, she said, “They are not in politics to help us. They are in politics to help themselves. They practice their own version of trickle-down politics.”
Mendes had also considered entering the congressional race, and she asked why Regunberg didn’t back her if he “truly cared about the progressive movement and not just his own political career.” She said Regunberg called her when he was exploring a run for the seat, and that he was “startled” when she compared him to Brown, who stepped down from the Rhode Island Political Coop on Dec. 31.
“They are not poor leaders because they have trust funds and reckless ambition,” Mendes wrote. “They are terrible leaders because they are utterly disconnected from impacted communities (the ones they supposedly will save), feel entitled to power, their egos far outweigh their values, and they consistently use people to get what they want.”
Regunberg responded to the criticism, saying many of the statements were inaccurate and that one of the authors was seeking employment in his campaign last week. “What’s true is that I didn’t endorse these candidates in their most recent campaigns, and it’s not been a secret that I have at times disagreed with the approach of some members of the RI Political Cooperative,” he said.
Regunberg said he has worked to build coalitions to “pass policies that help everyday Rhode Islanders” on issues such as paid sick days, higher wages, and access to clean energy.
“Though we may have political disagreements, I am not going to fight other progressives,” he said. My focus is on taking the fight to Big Pharma, Big Oil, and the gun industry, and addressing the climate crisis with the urgency it requires.”
Regunberg has received support from progressive legislators of color. For example, when he announced his candidacy, Representative Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, said, “I’ve seen Aaron show up for people facing injustice, and I’ve seen Aaron get things done at the State House. That’s why I am proud to endorse his campaign for Congress.”
Also, Representative Cherie Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat, said, “Aaron has worked tirelessly to help progressive women like me run for office and win. He has a proven record on the issues that matter in my community — raising wages, supporting working class families, investing in affordable housing — and I think he’s exactly who we need fighting for us in Congress.”
Other supporters include Representatives Megan Cotter and Kathleen Fogarty, and City Council member Helen Anthony.
Calkin, a Warwick Democrat who lost her Senate re-election bid last year, wrote that when he was a state representative, Regunberg “took walks or voted in favor of bad bills,” and she claimed he warned she would “suffer consequences” if she did not support Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, for Senate president.
“It seems that some progressive men are not immune to participating in the patriarchy when it suits them,” Calkin said. “For far too long, these ‘progressives’ claim one thing while behind the scenes, do the exact opposite. They swear to support equity and equality, and want more progressive women in office, but have no qualms about running or working against them.”
Walsh, who served in the House from 2017 to 2021, said in the joint statement this week that Regunberg had encouraged her to run for the House in 2016. “I was a waitress at a local diner making $2.89 an hour and Aaron saw something in me that I couldn’t yet see in myself — potential,” she said. She wrote that she defended Regunberg “long after most lefties had written Aaron off.”
But Walsh said she became disillusioned with Regunberg. “Over the course of our friendship, Aaron told me about all the progressive values he believed in,” she wrote. “He swore that we needed more women and women of color at the State House. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that in nearly every race he ever ran, Aaron ran against a woman of color.”
Walsh said Regunberg was “furious” that she considered running for lieutenant governor last year. “He decided that he could control me,” she wrote. “He didn’t care about my future, my leadership skills, or the trajectory of my political career.”
Regunberg had considered running for lieutenant governor again, but he decided not to run after McKee became governor and chose Sabina Matos, then Providence City Council president, to succeed him as lieutenant governor. Matos is now running for Congress.
Rourke, a Warwick Democrat who ran for state Senate in 2018, 2020 and 2022, said she backed Regunberg for lieutenant governor in 2018, but wrote in the joint statement this week that he “wouldn’t even look my way when we were in the same room. He treated me as if I was less than. Even refused to take a photo with me.”
Rourke, who co-founded the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, claimed that Regunberg has “trashed” some of the group’s candidates. “I was informed that there was a rift within the progressives — that there was some sort of progressive Civil War,” she wrote. “That war narrative was created and pushed by Aaron and his cronies.”
Jones, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter RI PAC who lost a Democratic primary for Providence City Council last year, said he served on Regunberg’s exploratory committee for lieutenant governor.
“We were progressive allies — so I thought,” he wrote. But when Jones filed to run for the City Council Ward 3 seat, he said an activist friend told him that Regunberg was considering running for that seat and would “crush” him — but would support him if he moved to a different ward.
“Later I was told a rumor that he was trying to clear the field for someone else to run,” Jones wrote. “Aaron’s since apologized, but in this upcoming congressional race, we need a progressive leader that builds coalitions and trust in open and honest ways.”
Regunberg did not run for City Council and backed Susan Anderbois, who won the Ward 3 primary. Jones is now assisting another First Congressional District candidate, Providence City Council member John Goncalves, with policy, field, and strategy work.
Anderbois is backing Regunberg for Congress, saying, “Climate change is the existential threat of our time. Aaron understands these issues at both a very personal and professional level, and there’s nobody who will advocate for them more passionately.”
Huertas said Regunberg gave a speech about “fighting for the people of Washington Park” but did not support her when she ran for the City Council Ward 10 seat in 2019. She finished fourth in the Democratic primary won by Pedro J. Espinal.
“I was the only candidate that was fighting for environmental and social justice in that community,” Huertas wrote in the joint statement this week. “In the end, he did not support me. He used the rally to uplift himself, and no one else.”
The six former legislators and candidates wrote that, “As Aaron gears up for another run for yet another elected position, progressive men have been reaching out to ask us to end the rift in the progressive party. Every time we are asked to explain why we are not supporting him, we need to relive hurtful experiences, only to not be believed or questioned. This is why we have decided to explain our reasons. The rift was caused by Aaron and only Aaron can solve it — by stepping down.”
This story has been updated to include a response from Regunberg.