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Democrats battle in live televised debate a week before R.I. congressional primary

Candidates take swipes at each other over issues such as the debt ceiling deal, corporate donors, a family super PAC, and endorsements, while choosing between Del’s and Mr. Lemon

Aaron Regunberg, right, speaks during a WPRI-12 debate at Rhode Island College on Tuesday. On stage, from left, are Democratic candidates Sandra Cano, Sabina Matos, John Goncalves, Stephen Casey, Gabe Amo, Ana Quezada, and Walter Berbrick.Corey Welch / WPRI 12 News

PROVIDENCE — With exactly one week until the Sept. 5 primary, Democratic front-runners on Tuesday sparred in a live televised debate in the First Congressional District race.

The battle began right at the outset as Aaron Regunberg, the progressive former state representative from Providence who’s considered the current front-runner, stood out as the only one of eight Democrats on stage to say he would have voted against the debt ceiling deal negotiated last spring to avert a first-ever national default.

But Regunberg said he would have voted for the deal if he had the deciding vote, and he drew sharp criticism from his rivals.


Gabe Amo, a former White House official seen as among the top contenders, said, “Aaron has said he would vote to take this country into catastrophic default. That is saying he knows better than (Rhode Island Senators and Representatives) Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, David Cicilline, and Seth Magaziner. I would have voted to stand with Rhode Islanders.”

Walter Berbrick, a former Naval War College professor, said, “It’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible, but it speaks to Aaron’s dishonesty and lack of integrity, because he said four months ago, early on in this, that he would vote against it.”

Regunberg noted the question posed to him previously was not how he’d vote if he was the deciding vote. “In that case, obviously you have to vote yes,” he said. But, he said, “That wasn’t the situation. The situation was the (Republican House Speaker) Kevin McCarthy took our economy hostage in order to push through dangerous Republican cuts to critical programs.”

Given that situation, he said he sided with many leading Democrats, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, and John Fetterman.

Amo faced questions about a memo issued Monday by the Working Families Party. The progressive group. which backs Regunberg, criticized contributions Amo has received from lobbyists for big corporations, including those representing “Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, Big Oil.”


Amo rejected that criticism. “I am the epitome of someone with a working family background,” he said, noting that his father owns a liquor store and his mother is a nurse. “I’m not going to take the lecturing from folks who are supporting a candidate who has a $125,000 contribution from his father-in-law to a super PAC. That is a red flag.”

Regunberg has faced criticism for a super PAC funded by Regunberg’s father-in-law, James Cielinski, who donated $125,000, and his mother Erica Regunberg, who donated $5,000.

“My family has come under attack a lot in the last few weeks with some pretty wild and dishonest accusations,” Regunberg said. While his in-laws are backing someone they believe in, he said, “That is very different from contributions from corporate lobbyists. Let’s be clear about that. Corporate lobbyists give contributions in their professional capacity in order to buy influence for their corporate clients.”

Sandra Cano, a state senator from Pawtucket who is seen as a leading contender, asked Regunberg if his father works for a corporation. Regunberg said he does. (Cielinski is global head of fixed income at Janus Henderson Investors).

But Cano noted Cielinski was listed as “not employed” in a Federal Election Commission document for a $6,600 donation to Regunberg. “That’s an accident,” Regunberg said, adding that the report would be corrected.

Ana Quezada, a state senator from Providence, accused Regunberg of lying about not knowing that his father-in-law and mother were funding the super PAC that backed him. “He says he’s fighting for people,” he said. “He has never fought for anything in life. He hasn’t had a job in his life.”


Regunberg bristled, saying, “I find that very offensive, not just for me but for everyone who works in the nonprofit and public sector.” He noted he was founding executive director of the Providence Student Union, a local nonprofit, and a senior policy adviser to former Providence mayor Jorge Elorza, in addition to serving as a state representative.

Cano faced questions about the endorsement she received on Sunday from another Democratic candidate, Don Carlson, who dropped out of the race after a WPRI-12 investigation into his conduct with a student at Williams College while he was a professor there in 2019.

At first, the Cano campaign issued a statement saying, “We are thankful for Don Carlson’s kind words about Sandra.” But Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos issued a statement saying she would not have accepted an endorsement from Carlson. And Cano elaborated on her initial statement, saying, “I take neither the accusations nor the implications lightly.”

When asked if she should not have embraced the endorsement, Cano emphasized that she didn’t seek Carlson’s endorsement and the found the accusations against him very concerning.

Matos was asked if she had taken “a political cheap shot” at Cano, given that Cano had not blasted Matos over a scandal involving potentially fraudulent signatures on her nomination papers. Matos said she was surprised to see Cano embrace Carlson’s endorsement given the accusations against him. “As a mother, I’m concerned with those accusations,” she said.


Cano said nothing she has done in the campaign has been a “scandal or a controversy.” And turning to Matos, she cautioned against “scoring political points,” saying, “That is really, really, disappointing, lieutenant governor.”

Carlson’s early exit prompted renewed calls to either limit early voting or to adopt ranked-choice voting because thousands of votes were cast before he dropped out. The candidates were asked if they would expand, reduce, or stick with the state’s current 20-day early voting period.

Amo and Stephen Casey, a state representative from Woonsocket, said the current 20-day period is appropriate. But the other candidates said they’d support expanding early voting.

Regunberg said has not heard Carlson supporters complaining about early voting. “I’ve only been hearing the classic Republican voices who are trying to use any opportunity to restrict voting rights.” Quezada said expanding early voting would help working families vote.

Berbrick also called for making sure military ballots get to service members overseas. Goncalves also called for passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. And Matos and Cano also called for making Election Day a holiday or moving it to a weekend.

WPRI’s Tim White and Ted Nesi moderated the debate. And after a full hour barbed of exchanges and policy disagreements, the candidates were asked a simpler question: Del’s Lemonade or Mr. Lemon? Only Amo raised his hand for Mr. Lemon.


Three of the Democratic candidates — Stephanie Beauté, Allen Waters, and Spencer Dickinson — failed to meet the debate participation criteria set by WPRI-12′s parent company, Nexstar Media Inc. Among other factors, candidates for federal office must have reported accepting at least $50,000 in campaign cash.

WJAR-10 will hold a pair of debates with First Congressional District candidates later this week at Rhode Island College. Five of the Democratic candidates — Beauté, Casey, Cano, Regunberg, Quezada, and Allen Waters — will take part in a session recorded at noon Thursday. Five other Democratic candidates — Matos, Dickinson, Amo, John Goncalves, and Berbrick — will take part in a second session recorded at 2 p.m. Thursday. Candidates were assigned to sessions via a random drawing. The first session airs and streams at 4 p.m. Thursday, and the second session airs and streams at 4 p.m. Friday.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.