BRISTOL, R.I. — Ten Democrats seeking to represent Rhode Island’s First Congressional District largely agreed that education, climate change, and protecting seniors will be among their top priorities if they win a special election this year, but during a debate Thursday evening, each candidate made the case that they are uniquely qualified to accomplish those goals in a House currently controlled by Republicans.
The candidates all heaped praise on former US representative David Cicilline, who upended Rhode Island politics earlier this year when he announced he would retire from Congress to lead the Rhode Island Foundation, the state’s largest philanthropic organization. The Democratic primary in this deeply blue district is Sept. 5, and the general election is Nov. 7.
Thursday’s debate was held at Roger Williams University in the heart of the First District, and sponsored by the Rhode Island Association of Democratic City and Town Chairs. Globe Rhode Island reporters Ed Fitzpatrick and Steph Machado were the moderators. (You can watch a recording of the livestream below.)
The candidates who participated in the debate were Gabe Amo, former deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; Stephanie Beauté, senior program manager in the tech industry; Walter Berbrick, former Naval War College professor; Sandra Cano, state senator from Pawtucket; Stephen M. Casey, state representative from Woonsocket; Don Carlson, the senior executive director of The Tsai Leadership Program at Yale Law School; John Goncalves, Providence city councilor; Sabina Matos, lieutenant governor of Rhode Island; Ana Quezada, state senator from Providence; and J. Aaron Regunberg, former state representative from Providence.
Two other Democrats are also on the ballot: former state representative Spencer Dickinson and Allen Waters. They were not invited to participate, and are considered significant underdogs in the race.
On education, nearly all of the candidates agreed that some form of college debt relief is needed, with Beauté arguing for debt to be erased and several others saying they believe President Joe Biden’s proposal to eliminate $10,000 in debt (and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients) is a good start.Carlson and Casey said they would prefer to target student debt relief to people in public service jobs, like teachers and nurses.
“If you’re a lawyer on Wall Street, pay your loans,” Carlson said.
In a question that drew laughs from the crowd, each candidate was asked who they would vote for if they couldn’t vote for themselves.
Berbrick and Carlson said they’d back Cano; Amo and Beauté said they would support Berbrick; Cano and Regunberg backed Quezada; Matos, Quezada, and Goncalves said they’d support a woman of color; and Casey said he’d support Beauté.
A large chunk of the debate focused on two of the candidates considered to frontrunners in the race: Matos and Regunberg.
Matos has been under scrutiny for the last month after hundreds of signatures on her nomination papers were thrown out by local boards of canvassers for a variety of reasons, including several dead residents whose names appeared on the paperwork.
Matos still secured enough signatures to qualify to appear on the ballot, but she fired a vendor who was hired to secure signatures and mail ballots for her campaign. Law enforcement is currently investigating the matter.
Matos said she takes responsibility for hiring the vendor in question, but she argued that “I am the most vetted candidate on this stage.”
“A person who I trusted lied to us, lied to me,” Matos said.
Regunberg, a progressive who has the endorsement of US Senator Bernie Sanders, drew criticism from several fellow candidates after saying that he was not aware that his father-in-law donated $125,000 to a Super PAC that is backing his campaign. Under federal law, candidates are prohibited from coordinating with outside groups spending on their behalf.
“Like many people, you can’t control what your in-laws do,” Regunberg quipped.
Several of Regunberg’s opponents claimed that Regunberg had previously sworn off Super PAC spending, but actually he started his campaign by calling on his opponents to not accept donations from corporate political action committees. He said he has not accepted corporate PAC money.
Matos, who is benefiting from the most outside spending in the race, said she is proud to have the support of groups like Emily’s List, which advocates for a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Amo quipped he is proud to have the support of outside groups that aren’t just funded by a relative.
Asked about their most important priority, Cano said protecting Democracy; Matos said gun safety legislation; Regunberg said taking on corporate power; Beauté said machine learning and artificial intelligence; Quezada and Carlson said the environment; Berbrick said building a strong middle class; Amo said protecting seniors; Goncalves said income inequality; and Casey said curbing spending on foreign aid.
Casey, who represents Woonsocket in the state legislature, has sought to establish himself as the moderate candidate in a field of Democrats who largely lean to the left. He said he doesn’t support banning assault-style weapons and is less supportive of a woman’s right to choose than his opponents. Still, he said he would oppose a national abortion ban if it ever came to a vote because “I’m a constitutionalist.”
The candidates largely praised the work Cicilline did in Congress since 2011, and Quezada called him her political role model. Goncalves said he wished Cicilline pushed harder to enact a Green New Deal, and Carlson said he’d seek to be more of a “builder” in Congress, calling Cicilline more of a “fighter.”
The winner of the Democratic primary will take on the winner of the Republican primary between Terri Flynn and Gerry Leonard.
This article has been updated with a recap of the debate.