PROVIDENCE — Well, you can’t say that Rhode Island’s First Congressional District candidates agree on everything anymore.
After a series of polite candidate forums, some sharp debates have revealed distinct policy differences and prompted some pointed attacks between Democrats vying for the seat vacated by former congressman David N. Cicilline. And the increasingly volatile mix is setting up a fascinating final two weeks leading up to the Sept. 5 primary.
On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Globe reporter Steph Machado and Jim Hummel, host of “A Lively Experiment” on Rhode Island PBS, took stock of the special election, which involves a field of 12 Democrats and two Republicans.
Machado noted that while the Democratic candidates largely agree on many issues, 10 of them identified distinct priorities during a debate at Roger Williams University on Aug. 17.
“We made them name their top priority because you cannot prioritize every single issue that you care about at the same time, and they all had different answers,” said Machado, who moderated the debate along with Globe reporter Edward Fitzpatrick.
In naming their most important priority, Sandra Cano said protecting democracy, Sabina Matos said gun safety legislation, Aaron Regunberg said taking on corporate power, Stephanie Beauté said machine learning and artificial intelligence, Ana Quezada said the environment, Don Carlson said climate change, Walter Berbrick said building a strong middle class, Gabe Amo said protecting seniors, John Goncalves said income inequality, and Stephen Casey said curbing foreign aid.
The debate also revealed differences on issues such as defense spending and college debt relief, Machado noted. For example, Carlson and Casey said they would prefer to target student debt relief to people in public service jobs, such as teachers and nurses.
Machado noted that Matos went on the attack during the debate, asking Regunberg whether his campaign had posted a “red box” on its website to communicate messages to a super PAC funded by his father-in-law and his mother. “Red-boxing” is a way for candidates to coordinate with super PACs and other outside spenders in a way that flouts campaign finance law, watchdogs say.
At the debate, Regunberg said he has never had a red box on his campaign website. Matos disagreed and on Monday, her campaign produced an internet archive capture, saying it showed Regunberg had lied.
At Tuesday night’s debate at Rhode Island College, Regunberg said he had been “too definitive” in that denial. “I should have chosen my words more carefully,” he said, calling it a “nuanced” issue and saying other candidates, including Matos, also have red boxes on their websites.
Machado noted that Matos also attacked Amo during the Aug. 17 debate, grilling him about his work as a lobbyist for Home Depot.
During the debate, Matos also faced questions about a criminal investigation into potentially fraudulent signatures on her nomination papers, including the names of dead people.
“I think there’s been damage done, especially (because) it’s summer and not a lot of news from this campaign is necessarily permeating with voters,” Machado said. “So they’re getting home from the beach, turning on the news and seeing ‘signature scandal.’ They might not be paying that much attention to the details and who’s at fault. And frankly, we’re not going to have all the answers before the primary. The attorney general has said that it’s going to take longer than that to complete the criminal investigation.”
But she noted the state Board of Elections determined Matos had more than the 500 signatures required to appear the ballot.
The lack of independent polling makes the race difficult to gauge, but Hummel said the top tier of candidates appears to include Regunberg, Matos, Amo, Cano, Carlson, and Goncalves.
On the podcast, they also analyzed how much endorsements will mean in this race. “We see Sabina Matos getting a lot of endorsements, but it comes from a lot of out-of-state groups,” Hummel said. “I have seen some union endorsements here, but I’ve also seen some union endorsements not go her way.”
Machado noted the endorsements that matter most come with staffers and volunteers who are going to knock on doors and make phone calls for candidates.
To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.