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Michael Kennedy: Succeeding Cicilline: Which Democrat does Rhode Island’s First Congressional District want?
"...we don’t know what is going to happen on September 5. But I know it will be consequential for our state, and our country."
The cynical may invoke an old expression. The first time a Congressional seat “opened up” in Rhode Island in more than a decade was a history-making election. The second time a seat opened up, a little more than a year later, seems like a farce. After all, with a dozen people still vying for the Democratic Party nomination in August for the special election to be held on September 5, 2023, we have a lot to sort out. It’s no farce, however. It may be even more consequential than the first.
Republicans Seeking to Represent Rhode Island in Congress and Their Challengers
The first history-making election took place after Jim Langevin, of the Second Congressional District, announced his retirement in January 2022, leaving plenty of time for a primary to figure out his successor before the next general election. Seth Magaziner won the September 2022 primary handily with more than 50% of the votes cast, defeating David Segal, Sarah Morgenthau, Joy Fox, Omer Bah, and perennial candidate Spencer Dickinson. Magaziner only narrowly defeated Alan Fung, however. Fung was arguably the best-known Republican in the state, in the more conservative district of the state, in a year when Democrats were supposed to lose badly across the USA. Democrats did lose control of the House in DC, but not by much, and they did not lose Rhode Island’s Second District. Nor will they lose the First District in 2023 if the past is any predictor. But farces also can become history.
Folks were not prepared for David Cicilline’s resignation from Congress to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. His action ignited a good deal of interest among established politicians and other aspirants in joining Congress as Rhode Island’s First District Representative.
One former Republican has entered the 2023 Democratic Primary. Alan Waters established his distinction relatively early in this campaign by refusing to participate in the candidates’ forum organized by the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus. Why did he refuse? Because it was moderated by a trans woman, the Reverend Doctor Donnie Anderson. Such bigotry has no place in the Democratic Party; it should have no place in America.
For that and many other reasons, there is a snowball’s chance in Hell that Waters could win the majority of Democratic votes in this primary, but he does not need to win most votes. He only needs to win more votes than anyone else. And that means that if enough conservatives decide to vote in this Democratic primary, a MAGA Republican in spirit could win the Democratic nomination. That specter haunts some voters, leading them to declare that they will not vote their preference and rather vote for the real Democrat most likely to win the plurality of votes. In effect, they too are playing a conservative game. (I hope my senator, Sam Zurier, and others take our democracy out of that disastrous system soon; ranked-choice may be more responsible. But we are stuck with “first past the post” for this election).
The Front-Runners Among Democrats Seeking to Represent Rhode Island
Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos was supposed to be that front-runner not only for her existing political status but also because she is an Afro-Latina immigrant from the Dominican Republic. The first Dominican American elected to Congress, Adriano Espaillat, has just endorsed her. Were she to win, she would break that Rhode Island tradition of having only white people represent the state in DC. She would then also become only the second woman to have that responsibility. But her fate is more uncertain of late.
Dan McKee, the governor who initially appointed her back in March 2021 as LG, is not endorsing her, or any other candidate. The field is too crowded, one might say. One might also wonder whether the so-called “signature scandal” (her organization submitted illegitimate signatures on the petition legitimating her admission to the race) made her candidacy a bit toxic. It makes sense that her rivals would focus on that mistake, but it’s a shame that journalists extend the damage done instead of asking better questions. For example, what portion of signatures was declared invalid not only for her but for each candidate? This stuff happens.
It takes some deeper analysis to look beyond the divisions between front-runners and aspirants to recognize the political contests at work. Of course, some are at the surface; Aaron Regunberg declares himself to be the progressives’ choice, relying on Bernie Sanders’ endorsement among others to consecrate that status. With his substantial number of endorsements from progressives across the USA, he has been called Matos’s leading rival.
Regunberg also resembles Magaziner in their common trajectory – both graduated from Brown University and had experience in Rhode Island state politics. Although Magaziner did not win any endorsement from Bernie Sanders (his rival David Segal had that honor), they are both perceived to be relatively wealthy and are white. Of course, Regunberg is not alone in either status.
The Front-Runners’ Challengers
Three other white men are running as Democrats – perennial Dickinson, Walter Berbrick of Newport – a military affairs professor winning endorsements from veterans’ affiliated groups -- and Don Carlson of Jamestown, the wealthiest candidate (we believe) running, and the only person declaring publicly to be a member of the LGBTQ community. Outside analysts declare Carlson – perhaps because he is putting $600,000 of his own money into the campaign – to be the third leading candidate in the race. Carlson is also rather like Magaziner in his temperament, praising the kind of Democratic politician former Governor and now Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo represents: those who know business, know how to manage money, and can represent people. But the choices in this election go far beyond white men.
Outsiders have identified Gabe Amo as the fourth leading contender. While he has engaged in DC political life more than Rhode Island’s in his adult years, he celebrates his Rhode Island roots by emphasizing his family’s West African background and networks across the state. He is closer to the Biden/Raimondo wing of the party than Regunberg, and some declare him to represent Regunberg’s “moderate” alternative. And perhaps he is a younger Black alternative to Carlson given their commonly moderate politics. Even while he has earned the endorsement of the Black Caucus in Congress, Amo does not lead with his racial distinction. Nobody does, explicitly. But race is saturating the race, and it spilled out in the forum on July 24.
Do Race and Class Matter?
Stephanie Beauté has not been identified as a frontrunner in this primary; she has among the fewest endorsements and campaign funds. She did, however, break the taboo on marking race in this race with an observation. The rules of the July 24 forum prohibited any mention of another candidate, but it was clear to whom she referred when she said, “We don't have equity and inclusion in this seat currently. For the folks who've answered this question on how their views would be formed, the essence of affirmative action would be for any one of these candidates that's already checked that box to support a candidate of color, someone who's not represented and provide them with their resources and backing. That would be a sign of equity.” That challenge could, of course, apply to all the white men running, but the leading candidate Regunberg identifies as the most progressive of all. He did not reply to Beauté and is facing increasing pressure to articulate how race, and class, matter in this race.
Ana Quezada reinforced Beauté’s point in the Forum with her succeeding comment. She also has moved the question further with her challenge to all candidates to make public their tax returns. We know that Donald Trump famously refuses that reveal, but I am frankly surprised that other Democratic candidates had refused her invitation, through July at least, to make transparency and ethics more central to their campaigns. It’s tough, however, to bring these ambitions to the surface at this moment given the histories it evokes.
Following Quezada’s tweet, Cynthia Mendes - who ran for Lieutenant Governor against Matos in 2022, is associated with the Rhode Island Political Co-op, and is among Regunberg’s critics from the Rhode Island left -- reinforced Quezada’s call on Twitter. Regunberg did reply quickly with the release of his taxes.
Nevertheless, this call for transparency appears to be an attempt to bring class into the conversation. It could also contribute to a contest over from where endorsements come.
What Do Endorsements Signal?
Earlier in the campaign, the Working Families Party readily endorsed Regunberg as their candidate. I was not surprised when that happened as Regunberg has long enjoyed their support. However, other candidates have too, including Sandra Cano, whom the Party backed in 2020 and 2022 in other elections. Her campaign raised the difficult question in 2023 in a statement:
It is deeply disappointing to learn that the Rhode Island Working Families Party has chosen to not endorse the type of candidate they claim to champion: a woman of color, an immigrant, a working mother. They continuously claim credit for the electoral victories of many women of color and working class people, often while lifting up the lived experiences of those same candidates – so why then, with an historic slate of diverse candidates, would RI WFP choose to support a person who enjoys extreme life privilege over an actual working person?"
Where public opinion polling is so limited, and when so few votes in this primary are expected, endorsements can matter a great deal. It’s not surprising, then, that Cano would challenge the Working Families Party over their endorsement, or criticize Vote Mama for breaking its own rules prohibiting primary endorsements when multiple Mamas are competing. Vote Mama endorsed Matos when in fact there are several other mothers in this primary race. But there is an even bigger story that is not being emphasized.
There are class politics at play, racial politics at play, as well as a contest over whose endorsement matters most. We can of course consider who has the most; here Regunberg and Matos lead the pack. But we should also consider from where those endorsements come.
According to the Wikipedia entry on this special election (accessed July 29, 2023), Regunberg had about 31 endorsements from across the board, with celebrities and senators alongside unions and other organizations. Matos has 32, also with her own DC and RI politicians, unions, and celebrities. (By the way, Matos has Eva Longoria and Regunberg Jane Fonda – who matters more in Rhode Island?) Cano was a clear third with 20, but no notable celebrities in her corner. Nobody else comes close in sheer numbers. But those statuses shift dramatically when you consider what those endorsements represent.
Consider the sources of those endorsements – from within Rhode Island or from beyond it. All of Cano’s 18 individual political endorsements came from figures within Rhode Island, just as all 8 endorsements for Quezada. Two of Matos’s 28 individuals are beyond Rhode Island, and 4 of Regunberg’s are national figures. That doesn’t say too much, I suppose, other than that Regunberg has the widest political network (although Matos has recently secured endorsements from two additional congressmen representing New York City in DC).
Much more distinctive, however, are the racial backgrounds of these endorsers, and here the racialization of the candidates becomes much clearer. Based on July 29, 2023’s Wikipedia accounting, about 2/3 of those who endorsed Matos and Cano were white folks; a little more than 90% of Regunberg’s endorsers are white. Two of the local folks who endorsed him – Leonela Felix and Cherie Cruz – were also identified by the Rhode Island Working Families Party as evidence that they do, indeed, support “working-class women of color in Rhode Island.” But this example begins to move us beyond categorical identifications to figure out how networks function in our state.
The cultural politics of representation around community, race, and class is quite complex in Rhode Island, especially when it does not easily map onto crude ideologies contrasting progressive and moderate. We might, however, clarify the contest with a couple of axes marking candidate backgrounds and commitments, and figure out the networks that are operating to express them. After all, Rhode Island is known for how people “know a guy…”
Is Rhode Island’s Politics Changing?
Ideology does not differentiate Rhode Island Democratic Party networks in this race very well. First and foremost, while different labels are applied – is a candidate progressive or moderate? – policy differences among candidates are hardly apparent. One can seek out the differences – Carlson mentioned that suing oil companies, a policy Regunberg advocates, is an outmoded intervention, but we have not seen anything yet resembling a real debate. In general principle, most of the candidates seem to agree about Medicare for All, a more redistributive tax system, and support for Reproductive Rights. Those running for office, especially those with political experience, ought to be able to say more than issue vague priorities and general statements. Forthcoming debates would do us all a service if they could highlight these differences.
Relatedly, although Regunberg claims the progressive label, it’s harder to see, beyond the endorsements, how he is different from other candidates. One recent endorsement – of Sandra Cano by State Senator Sam Bell, claiming her to be a real progressive - could shift votes. But it should do more: it should lead us to consider how rootedness in oppressed communities and commitments to transforming the injustices they suffer are related. David Cicilline here offers an example.
Although Cicilline pursued many progressive agendas while in Congress he was a Congressional leader around LGBTQ politics, evidenced by the important legislation he helped to pass. It does seem to have mattered that he was gay. Of course, identity politics is not so simple as to say that only candidate Carlson would advocate effectively around LGBTQ concerns, but we might ask what commitment looks like when you are a progressive without attachment to particular communities. How do you recognize commitment then? I hope we can learn in this next month about the dedication of candidates to issues and communities, and how they follow through not only during a term of office but across years of commitment beyond their job.
Commitments and careers are not the only things we should be looking at in this collection. Coalitions and solidarities also matter.
I remember one political friend with a particularly good sociological imagination remarking on the Providence mayoral contest of 2022, noting that the eventual winner, Brett Smiley, a white gay man, was fortunate that he was facing two people of color as his main contenders. Their struggle to win, drawing votes from each other, made his victory much simpler.
Of course, the constituency supporting people of color in this race is much broader than their racial and ethnic identifications, but one should have imagined that the leading Latina figures in this election – Matos, Cano, and Quezada – with significant ties to Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, would have consulted each other before the race to figure the method by which they would all decide to run, or team up to advance one of their candidacies. They have been around Rhode Island long enough to have processed the lessons of the 2022 Providence mayoral race. Maybe they could still figure out a common stand so that the electorate’s choices could be clearer.
One would not have expected Beauté, Amo, and John Goncalves to have had such discussions. Although all have powerful stories about their trajectories, the Black community and its struggles for recognition and justice, they are also part of different Black communities within Rhode Island. And they each represent different kinds of politics, at least as different among themselves as there are policy differences in this whole race. Amo is getting plenty of attention and airtime given his DC connections and money, but Beauté and Goncalves are relatively invisible. That’s unfortunate. They have important things to say, and their contributions to our politics will only grow. But all three are relatively new to Rhode Island politics, at least in comparison to Matos, Cano, and Quezada, and we should benefit much from their growing prominence, especially in a state whose political scene is changing.
Once upon a time, Rhode Island’s politics was dominated by white folks, mostly men. It’s still possible that the Democrats will nominate another white man – Regunberg’s progressive mantle and Carlson’s money and policy expertise make them obvious contenders -- but this election offers the greatest chance Rhode Island has ever seen to elect a person of color. And this election will likely seal the next decade-plus of Rhode Island’s representation in DC.
Would it be only ironic that the richest candidate, or the most endorsed progressive, be the primary’s victor, defeating candidates of color through this unrepresentative electoral system of “first past the post?”
Or would a Matos victory be the greater piece of ironic justice for the fact that her LG appointment by a moderate relatively rural white male Rhode Island governor gave her state-wide name recognition?
Or might the triumph of Cano reflect the emergence of a new kind of politics, one where a woman of color is recognized not only as committed to the community but a leader in the definition of what it means to be progressive?
Might Quesada’s manifest integrity move Rhode Island to embrace a sense of political responsibility that does not lead with general invocations of the state and abstract visions for the future, but rather with concrete concerns for communities most at risk in this increasingly dangerous world?
This race is no farce. It will set the patterns of Rhode Island representation for decades to come. And we don’t know what is going to happen on September 5. But I know it will be consequential for our state, and our country.
Vote like your future depends on it. It does.
See other articles on the Congressional District One race interviews here:
See Congressional District One interviews here: