Race, gender are focal points of final CD1 Democratic debate


The internet never forgets.

Just ask Aaron Regunberg, whose since-deleted tweet in February claiming he would sit out Rhode Island’s special congressional election to support a woman of color, reemerged during a debate Thursday. Regunberg, a former state representative, was one of six Democrats to share the stage in Rhode Island College’s Sapinsley Hall in the first of a two-part, pre-taped debate hosted by WJAR and moderated by reporter Brian Crandall.

Rivals blasted Regunberg, a white man, for failing to honor the declaration in his February tweet by subsequently entering the race during the one-hour segment airing Thursday afternoon.

“Why not support a progressive woman of color that already has those values,” said Pawtucket Sen. Sandra Cano, a native of Colombia. 

Stephanie Beauté, who works in IT, likened Regunberg to Donald Trump.

“He believes as an educated, white man that he is the only person who can defend the working class,” she said. 

1st Congressional District candidates Stephanie Beauté, left, and Aaron Regunberg, right, appear on screen during the WJAR 10 debate taped Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, at Rhode Island College in Providence. (Screenshot/WJAR 10)

Regunberg responded by telling of his upbringing as the son of a single mother whose grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, whose experiences influenced his progressive values. He also pointed to his support for other “new voices,” including women and people of color, in past local and state races.

“My family understands what can happen when we lose our democracy,” he said. 

Identity politics runs deep through discussion of the upcoming special election, with the diverse field of Democratic candidates offering what some say is an opportunity to better reflect Rhode Island voters in Congress.

“We cannot keep having four Caucasian men representing us,” Providence Sen. Ana Quezada said.

While the three women of color on stage all touted their lived experiences as evidence that they can understand and represent the district’s diverse residents, the only Black man on stage, Allen Waters, disagreed. Waters, a Republican-turned-Democrat who has been absent from most of the forums and debates held to date, defended Regunberg’s candidacy. 

I do believe he has as much of a right, regardless of the color of his skin,” Waters said.

Woonsocket Rep. Stephen Casey also urged candidates to move away from race and gender to talk about the issues.

Progressive-moderate divide

Unlike in prior debates, where most if not all of the Democratic contenders aligned on nearly every policy question, Thursday’s group showcased the split between progressive and more moderate candidates. Both Waters and Casey, who describes himself as a “John Kennedy Democrat,” differed from the other four when it came to an assault weapons ban.

Casey opposes an assault weapons ban in favor of “common-sense gun legislation,” adding that “the NRA is not driving the bus,” to which Quezada repeatedly shouted “no” over his response.

Casey and Waters also gave different viewpoints on rebalancing the tax system, both advocating for tax cuts only if they were across the board regardless of income. Regunberg, Cano, and Quezada meanwhile, stressed the importance of reducing taxes for lower-income people while raising them for the wealthiest earners.

To the prospect of raising taxes on the rich,  Beauté said, “That’s cute but if we’re not really responsible with the way we’re spending… it’s not really addressing the root problem.”

Attacks over Regunberg continued over his family-funded Super PAC, which has funneled more than $125,000 into mailers for his campaign, despite the progressive candidate’s advocacy to take money out of politics. Rivals framed their criticisms in terms of Regunberg’s character, not the money itself.

Other candidates in the race have also taken PAC money, but have acknowledged it openly rather than “lying,” in Cano’s words.

“The issue is here, it shows the character we have on stage,” Beauté said. “Mr. Regunberg will say, or do, whatever he needs to be elected.”

Regunberg insisted his stance against money in politics has remained consistent, but that until PAC funding was actually banned from campaigns, he wouldn’t want to stop a contender like Joe Biden from taking PAC funds to help beat a rival like Donald Trump.

The second, one-hour debate featuring the other five Democrats – Gabe Amo, Walter Berbrick, Spencer Dickinson, John Goncalves, Sabina Matos –  will air on WJAR on Friday at 4 p.m. Both segments were pre-taped on Thursday, with candidates divided randomly.

The primary is Tuesday, Sept. 5.

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