PROVIDENCE — US Senator Bernie Sanders, the progressive icon who beat Hillary Clinton the 2016 Democratic presidential primary in Rhode Island, on Thursday endorsed J. Aaron Regunberg in the First Congressional District race.
“I’m endorsing Aaron Regunberg for Congress because he understands the vital need to stand up against large corporations who have too much control over political and economic systems,” said Sanders, an independent from Vermont.
For example, Sanders said Regunberg supports Medicare For All “because he knows Big Pharma and the health insurance industry continue to put their own greed ahead of the lives of thousands of Americans.”
“At a time when we’re living with record high temperatures and devastating flooding, Aaron understands that we can’t address catastrophic climate change without boldly taking on Big Oil,” he said. “Aaron knows we have to focus on an economic agenda that improves the lives for working families, from expanding paid sick days to raising wages.”
I’m endorsing @AaronRegunberg for Congress because he will stand up to Big Pharma and Big Oil, and will fight for Medicare for All, bold climate action, raising wages, paid sick days, and a government that works for everyday people, rather than corporations and billionaires. pic.twitter.com/vh40weuvR9— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) July 27, 2023
The Sanders announcement comes two days after the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC endorsed Regunberg, a Democratic former state representative from Providence. And it adds to his endorsements from progressive legislators such as US Representatives Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, and Ro Khanna, a California Democrat.
The high-profile backing is helping Regunberg present himself as the top progressive choice in a 12-person Democratic field that will square off in a Sept. 5 primary.
“We are excited about the week that we’ve had with support from leaders like Bernie Sanders and from the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC that David Cicilline was a leader in,” he said in an interview. “We think it’s becoming clear our campaign is running on the strongest progressive record and the strongest progressive platform.”
Regunberg said it is an honor to receive Sanders’ support.
“I was in office before he ran for president and after, and there was a real sea change in that time,” he said. “He changed the game in a lot of ways. He made it possible for folks to believe that structural change was possible, and to believe we could fight for a brighter future — for things like Medicare for All, a real living wage, and ambitious climate policy.”
And Regunberg said the Sanders endorsement provides practical help.
“We’re certainly going to have help from Bernie with his networks, with his email list and text list,” he said. “We have been running a grassroots, volunteer-driven campaign, so I think it’s going to be a boon to our volunteer efforts.”
He noted that groups backing his campaign, such as Climate Action Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Working Families Party, provide boots-on-the-ground support.
“We know that Aaron is the clear choice in this race — he’s bold and tireless, he’s got a deep commitment to working people’s values and priorities, and he’s shown us again and again that he’ll organize to make progressive change actually happen,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, New England regional director for the Working Families Party. “There’s a reason progressives in Rhode Island and across the country are consolidating around Aaron — and when we all row in the same direction, there’s a lot of power we can bring to bear.”
In 2016, Sanders received 55 percent of the vote in Rhode Island’s presidential primary, topping Clinton at 43 percent.
“I think it makes a real difference in an open Democratic primary like this where voters are trying to decide between a lot of candidates,” Regunberg said. “Endorsements provide valuable information for folks who share my progressive values and want elected officials who will fight for climate action and universal health care and an economy that works for everyone.”
But not all progressives support Regunberg.
In April, six progressive former legislators and candidates blasted Regunberg soon after he announced he was entering the First Congressional District race. He received criticism 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, and Regunberg was among those who criticized the Coop for backing primary challengers to Democratic legislators who had advocated for progressive causes.
“It seems that some progressive men are not immune to participating in the patriarchy when it suits them,” Calkin said at the time. “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.”
In an interview, Calkin said she is now supporting state Senator Ana B. Quezada, a Providence Democrat, in the First Congressional District race.
“As far as the endorsements many of the national organizations are making, it’s who you know and who you are connected to,” she said. “I don’t think they will have a big impact. It will come down to who has a better ground game, who is knocking on doors, and who gets out the vote.”
Calkin said Quezada has a claim to being the candidate of choice for progressive Democrats because she supports “all the progressive ideas,” such as a $17 national minimum wage and a Green New Deal. She said Quezada is strongly progressive on both social and economic issues.
Quezada said she is not surprised that Regunberg has received some high-profile progressive endorsements. “He is more connected than me,” she said. “He has run before (statewide), he has name recognition, and he is connected in Washington.”
But Quezada said she has sponsored progressive legislation such as a bill raising the minimum wage from $11.50 to $15 over four years, and a bill making doula services eligible for reimbursement through private insurance and Medicaid programs. And she said she supported legislation protecting abortion rights in Rhode Island, although she said she represents a district in which many Latinos oppose abortion rights on religious grounds.
Quezada urged voters to “see who is really doing the work at the State House fighting for them.” She said, “It’s easy to come out and say ‘I will fight for this or that,’ but I’ve been there passing legislation that affects working families.”
In response to criticism from the Rhode Island Political Cooperative leaders, Regunberg said, “We are really proud of the progressive coalition we are building, and we are proud our campaign is the choice of progressive leaders and organizations.”
For example, he noted he has received the support of state legislators such as Representatives Cherie Cruz, Leonela Felix, Megan Cotter, Brandon Potter, Kathy Fogarty, Art Handy, Michelle McGaw, Terri Cortvriend, Lauren Carson, and Susan Donovan, and state Senator Linda Ujifusa.
Providence College political science Professor Tony Affigne said Regunberg has “significant support” among progressive voters and organizations. But, he said, Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos can claim some support from unions and progressives in Black and Latino communities. And he said Quezada — and “to an extent” state Senator Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat — can claim progressive support, especially in their urban communities in the South Side of Providence and the Blackstone Valley.
But Affigne said it’s too early to gauge the impact of endorsements in the congressional race.
“I am still of the opinion that this will be an election that turns on the ground game — Election Day organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts,” he said. “So endorsements that contribute to that will have an impact. Endorsements that garner headlines only will have much less impact.”
This story has been updated with comments from Senator Ana Quezada, Professor Tony Affigne, and Georgia Hollister Isman.