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Democrats agree on issues, differ on background and experience

Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus holds forum with 10 of the 12 Democrats running in the First Congressional District

An American flag waves below the US Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Ten Democratic candidates for the First Congressional District seat took part in a forum Monday, largely agreeing on issues such as climate change and affirmative action but seeking to distinguish themselves in terms of background and experience.

With the Sept. 5 primary ballot now set, the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus hosted the forum the Weaver Library in East Providence, and the Rev. Donnie Anderson, a transgender woman who was elected caucus chair in January, served as moderator.

At the outset, Anderson noted that Allen Waters, a former Republican, refused to participate in the forum because the moderator was a transgender woman, and she said Representative Stephen M. Casey, a Woonsocket firefighter, did not respond to an invitation to participate.

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The 10 candidates tried to draw distinctions when providing introductory remarks.

John Goncalves said he is a Providence City Council member representing the East Side and downtown. “I’m also a teacher. That’s what differentiates me from the rest of the people on this stage,” he said, adding that he has worked for nearly a decade as an elementary school teacher.

“This work is not theoretical for me,” Goncalves said. “I grew up in poverty, to a single parent mother in the city of Providence, and being a person of color, my lived experience is exactly why I’m in this fight. There are so many people who need folks like me to be a part of these fights.”

Sandra Cano, who was born in Colombia, introduced herself, saying, “Buenas tardes…I’m a state senator from the city of Pawtucket.”

She said she was the only candidate with experience “from every level of legislative government, starting from the school committee, two-term city councilwoman and now a state senator and the chair of the Senate Education Committee.” And, she said. “It’s important that we have someone who not only has the lived experience but is passionate and knows the struggles of the Congressional District 1 working families.”

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Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos said she has been in elected office for 12 years, beginning as a Providence City Council member representing the Olneyville, Silver Lake and Valley neighborhoods. She became City Council president, and has served as Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor for two years.

Matos said she came emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States when she was 20. When she arrived, she didn’t speak English, but she worked in jewelry factories, took English classes after work, and graduated from Rhode Island College. “If my family had decided to immigrate to a different country that wasn’t the United States, I don’t believe that my story was possible,” she said. “I believe that the American dream is alive, but we have to protect it because right now we are losing rights.”

Walter Berbrick said that since launching his campaign he has been struck the “grit and generosity” of Rhode Islanders but also by the “frustration and fear” that many are feeling. “The same frustration and fear that I have as a working father, as an educator, and as a veteran,” he said.

Berbrick said he met an older woman in East Providence who must choose between eating and getting medicine, and he said people are frustrated by high costs, low wages, and divisive politics. “Extremist ideologies are just ripping away the freedoms that I spent the last two decades defending both as a Naval officer and as a civil servant,” he said.

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Stephanie Beauté said she is running Congress because she is tired of seeing people like her mom, who has worked two or three jobs as a certified nursing assistant, struggling to get by. “We will not fix things in Congress by sending another politician,” she said. “We will continue to have the same rhetoric, we will blame the other party for why we can’t get things done, and we will not focus on the working class who really need our help.”

Beauté said, “What makes me different is my unique sense of self starter and ambition, but not only that the work that I’ve done in the private sector at (General Electric), managing billion-dollar accounts, and working with small startups and being able to scale.”

Ana B. Quezada said she has been a state senator from Providence for eight years. She said she emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States when she was 17 years old. “I had to be a welfare mom for a little while,” she said. “I went back to school, I got my GED, and I went to back to college.”

Quezada said she became a social worker, and as a state legislator she has pushed to increase the minimum wage, support abortions rights, and provide driver privilege cards for undocumented residents. “I came from the factory floor to the Senate floor, from the welfare office to the state office,” she said.

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Gabe Amo said his father immigrated from Ghana and a mother immigrated from Liberia. “They are two hard-working people who instilled the values that gave me the opportunity to serve at the heights of government, both here for Governor Raimondo, and in Washington for two presidents — President Biden and President Obama.”

In the White House, he said he “had the opportunity to be there for people across the country, whether it was a mass shooting and communities shattered by violence or whether it was extreme weather and needing to aid and coordinate a response.” And he said he could bring that ability “to drive an agenda” to Congress.

J. Aaron Regunberg, a former state representative from Providence, said he’s running for Congress because he has a 2-year-old at home, and he’s worried if kids will be safe from guns and mass shootings, if they’ll be able to afford housing and health care, and if they’ll have clean air to breathe. He said the gun industry, fossil fuel corporations, and “radical Republicans” are making money off those problems while distracting votes by “putting the blame on immigrants and queer and trans folks.”

Regunberg said he has worked on issues such as paid sick days, increased wages, and clean energy programs. “Winning real change is possible, but it doesn’t just happen,” he said. “We need leaders who can organize and bring people together and have a record of winning real progressive policy change, and that is the work I’ve been doing in Rhode Island for many years.”

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Spencer Dickinson, a former state representative from South Kingstown, used his introductory remarks to recall a story about meeting Anderson, the moderator, at the State House rotunda, referring to Anderson as “he” and at one point saying, “Correct me if I’m wrong.”

“Just if you would use ‘she’ instead of ‘he,’” Anderson responded.

“OK, she understood all of the issues that the Democratic Party stood for,” Dickinson said.

Donald Carlson introduced himself as a businessman who is a volunteer EMT in Jamestown and a professor at Yale Law School. He called for making Rhode Island “the renewable energy hub of the Northeast.”

“I’ve built a lot of business in the field of sustainability really because I believe climate change is one of the main things we have to fight in this country,” he said. “I can take that expertise to Washington and look at the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the most important environmental legislation of the last 20 years, and try to get a lot of those funds into Rhode Island.”

Anderson asked the candidates to name their favorite fictional character.

  • Dickinson said: “Mickey Mouse. He’s the guy that prints all our money.”
  • Regunberg said: “My favorite book is Catch 22 — Captain Yossarian is a real hero.”
  • Amo said: “I’d say Josh Lyman from The West Wing.”
  • Quezada said: “Mulan. She fought for the right for the women to be in their army at that time.”
  • Beauté said: “Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), because she liked books and she didn’t need a boy to be happy.”
  • Berbrick said: “I’m going to say Moana because it’s at the top of my head, and we watched it last night.”
  • Matos said: “There is a character in the Barbie movie (America Ferrera’s character, Gloria). I can’t remember the name, but she gives a monologue about women’s issues, about what we face in society, that I think we are going to be quoting that for years to come.”
  • Cano said, “Wonder Woman. As a working mom, I really feel like moms can do everything, but women especially can get things done and we need representation at the table.”
  • Goncalves said, “I have to say Harry Potter or otherwise my fourth-graders will kill me.”
  • Carlson said, “Tom Sawyer because he was clever enough to let other people have things his way.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.