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R.I. congressional race growing contentious in closing days

The Working Families Party, which backs Aaron Regunberg, criticized donations that Gabe Amo received from corporate lobbyists, while Stephanie Beauté sent a message to Bernie Sanders during a rally for Regunberg

First Congressional District candidate Gabe Amo, center, responds to a question as fellow candidates Stephanie Beauté, left, and Walter Berbrick listen during a debate at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island on August 17, 2023.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s First Congressional District is becoming increasingly contentious as it enters its final days before the Sept. 5 primary. In the latest example, the Working Families Party issued a memo on Monday criticizing Gabe Amo for taking contributions from lobbyists for big corporations.

The Working Families Party, which backs J. Aaron Regunberg, stated that Amo’s campaign has received $21,127 from federal lobbyists working for companies that represent Fox News’ parent corporation, “Big Pharma” firms including Eli Lilly, “Big Tobacco” companies including the owner of Marlboro, “Big Oil and mining” corporations including Marathon Petroleum, and others.

Amo’s contributions included more than $8,000 from lobbyists for Wall Street firms and “Big Banks” such as Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Mastercard, and Bitcoin, according to the memo.


“Corporate influence over our politics is one of the most significant threats to the well-being of working people and the health of the planet,” the Working Families Party said. “Democratic primary voters who care about working people should pay special attention to who can actually be trusted to stand up to corporate power. Gabe Amo’s past corporate work and current corporate support should give them pause.”

Last week, the Amo campaign released an internal poll that showed him in second place (at 19 percent) behind Regunberg (at 28 percent). The poll was criticized for lacking a margin of error or methodology statement and for not including all the Democratic candidates.

But Amo’s rise appears to have drawn the attention of the Working Families Party. Georgia Hollister Isman, New England regional director of the Working Families Party, said the group wrote the memo “for people interested in scrutinizing this race especially with Gabe emerging as candidate who has received less attention. It’s time to look at where his support is coming from.”


Amo’s corporate donations draw a sharp contrast with Regunberg, who has pledged not to take money from corporate PACs or lobbyists, Hollister Isman said. “Progressive voters should be worried about this. You can’t simultaneously fight for working class people and the interest of these corporate lobbyists,” she said. “These folks don’t make these contributions without expecting something in return.”

The Amo campaign responded in a statement, saying the Working Families Party and Regunberg’s campaign had launched “out-of-left-field attacks against our campaign, citing our strong momentum as we head into the final stretch of this campaign.”

“Let’s start with this: one of the largest, if not the largest, corporate donations to any individual in this race came from Aaron’s father-in-law, a corporate executive,” the Amo campaign said. “Since his father-in-law established a Super PAC to help buy this seat, there has been strong evidence to suggest that Aaron knowingly misled and lied about the issue to voters.”

Critics have slammed Regunberg for a super PAC backing his campaign that has been funded by his father-in-law, James Cielinski, who donated $125,000, and his mother Erica Regunberg, who donated $5,000. Regunberg says his campaign did not coordinate with his family members on the new super PAC.

Also, the Amo campaign said that, “In this historically diverse field of working class candidates, the Working Families Party of Rhode Island endorsed someone who is hardly a working person given that he has rarely had a full-time job in his adult life.”

“I refuse to be lectured by the Working Families Party,” Amo said. “My father works behind the counter at his own liquor store, and my mother is recovering from her second knee replacement surgery, having spent her career as an SEIU nurse, while the WFP’s endorsed candidate’s Super PAC gets checks of $5,000 and $125,000, respectively, from his mother and father-in-law.”


Amo said Regunberg knows he is “best positioned to defeat him.”

“What is perhaps most disheartening and disconcerting,” Amo said, “is to be attacked by a group I sat with in the governor’s executive suite years ago to work on legislation to pass paid sick leave in Rhode Island, which was ultimately signed by my former boss Gina Raimondo, in order to score political points on behalf of their endorsed candidate.”

When asked about the super PAC funded by Regunberg’s relatives, Hollister Isman said Regunberg’s father-in-law “is a family member, not a lobbyist paid to make sure government looks out for corporate interests.”

Among other things, the Working Families Party memo said Amo was a “registered lobbyist for Home Depot during their time as one of the most significant corporate funders of Trump Republicans.”

That same point arose during an Aug. 17 debate at Roger Williams University when Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos criticized Amo for working as a lobbyist for Home Depot, whose billionaire cofounder backed Donald Trump’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020.

Amo responded during that debate, saying, “For five, maybe six months I worked at the Home Depot to help build stores. Who has spent a Saturday at Home Depot on this stage? I’m sure a lot of you have. They’re buying things for your homes, building jobs for people across this region.


And, Amo said, “The other thing I did there is work against organized retail crime, which is very threatening to the people who work in these stores.”

Another sign of friction in the race came Sunday as Regunberg held a rally with US Senator Bernie Sanders at the Columbus Theatre in Providence. As the crowd left the building after the event, a truck rolled by emblazoned with a sign that said, “Bernie Sanders once again not supporting a woman of color.”

Democratic candidate Stephanie Beauté took credit for the truck’s message, posting photos on X (formerly Twitter) of her standing beside the truck. “My name is Stephanie Beauté and I approve this message,” she wrote.

On Tuesday, the friction is expected to continue when WPRI-12 holds a live televised debate with Democratic candidates at 7 p.m.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.