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Democrats’ controversy-filled Rhode Island primary nears end

Self-funder quits as questions about signatures and spending dog others

Gabe Amo, a former aide to President Joe Biden running in the special primary in Rhode Island’s 1st District, greets a voter in Barrington, R.I., on July 31.
Gabe Amo, a former aide to President Joe Biden running in the special primary in Rhode Island’s 1st District, greets a voter in Barrington, R.I., on July 31. (Daniela Altimari/CQ Roll Call)

A turbulent off-cycle campaign to fill a vacant House seat in Rhode Island draws to a close Tuesday, when voters will select one of the 11 Democrats running in the safe blue district.

The race to replace Rep. David Cicilline, who resigned in June to lead a Providence-based nonprofit, was expected to be a sleepy contest unfolding at the height of summer, when many voters aren’t focused on politics. 

Instead, the campaign has been roiled by a series of controversies, including an investigation into fraudulent ballot signatures, allegations of illegal super PAC coordination and revelations that a candidate may have had an inappropriate relationship with a student when he was a college professor.

While the seat is unlikely to flip to Republicans, the Democratic primary has drawn the attention of outside groups, which collectively have poured more than $1.4 million into the race.

Initially, 15 Democrats qualified for the Sept. 5 ballot, and most were political unknowns. Several familiar names, including Joe Shekarchi, speaker of the Rhode Island House, and Helena Buonanno Foulkes, who ran for governor in 2022, opted not to run. 

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, the only candidate who holds statewide office, was viewed as the early front-runner, although there has been no independent public polling in the race. Matos, who was born in the Dominican Republic and would be the first Afro-Latina in Congress, has the backing of BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as well as EMILY’s List and Vote Mama.

In July, the Matos campaign became embroiled in a scandal over forged signatures to secure her place on the primary ballot; officials are investigating. Matos has said she played no role in collecting the false signatures, blaming the matter on a vendor. 

Lost momentum

The controversy didn’t keep her off the ballot — she had more than enough signatures even after the questionable ones were discarded. But it left her struggling to find her footing, said Joe Fleming, a political strategist and analyst for WPRI-TV in Providence. 

“The signature scandal … basically sort of stopped her campaign in its tracks,” Fleming said in an interview. “And since then, she has been trying to get herself back on track … but she hasn’t got the momentum that she had before, which I think opened the door for other candidates to make the moves.”

A poll released by another candidate, former White House aide Gabe Amo, suggests the scandal hurt Matos. The survey put her at 11 percent, tied with state Sen. Sandra Cano but behind Amo, who had 19 percent of the vote, and Aaron Regunberg, who led the pack with 28 percent.

Family funding

Regunberg, a progressive former state lawmaker, has also come under fire over campaign finance issues. Matos filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging illegal coordination, which Regunberg denies, between Regunberg’s campaign and a super PAC funded primarily by his father-in-law.

Regunberg has the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who recently attended a campaign rally with him in Providence. On Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., announced she also was supporting Regunberg.

During the campaign, Regunberg said he would not take corporate PAC money, but he got $37,000 from other political committees, including $5,000 each from the PACs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Medicare for All and the Progressive Turnout Project. The political arm of the Working Families Party spent another $150,000 on digital ads backing him, more than the $119,000 spent by Progress Rhode Island, the PAC primarily funded by family members.

Overall, outside spending has most heavily favored Matos, however, with nearly $812,000 spent through Wednesday, nearly half of it by BOLD PAC.

Carlson quits

Last week, the campaign received another jolt when WPRI-TV raised questions about candidate Don Carlson’s dealings with a student when he taught at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Carlson, a renewable energy investor who topped the field’s fundraising list primarily because of a $600,000 loan he made to his campaign, dropped out of the race and threw his support to Cano.

In addition to Matos, several of the candidates would make history should they win the nomination and then the special election that will follow on Nov. 7.

Amo, who has the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus and former Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, would be the first Black member of the House from Rhode Island, and Cano, who has the support of dozens of state and local elected officials, would be the first Colombian American woman in Congress.

The controversies may not have much impact on the race, however, because of when it is happening in the calendar, said Daniel T. Carrigg, a lecturer in the political science department at the University of Rhode Island.

“I am not sure to the extent Rhode Islanders had been paying attention to summertime political drama — this is peak beach season, after all,” Carrigg said in an email, adding that if anyone were hurt, it would be Matos.

“The fact that Attorney General [Peter] Nehrona is taking over the investigation, and I believe they allege to have found ballot signature issues in three municipalities, East Providence, Jamestown, and Newport, may draw more voters’ attention,” he said.

Regunberg’s ability to fire up progressives also may give him an edge, Carrigg said.

“Ideologically-driven partisans are more likely to turn out in these types of off-year primary elections, and so that may be his best case for victory,” he said.

Fleming, the TV analyst, said that in a crowded primary on a day people probably are not used to voting, 10,000 votes might be all that’s needed to win.

“The race seems to be pretty wide-open now,” he said. “I think there’s probably a number of candidates who have a chance to win based on how good their organization is in getting the voters out.”

There is also a Republican primary with candidates Terri Flynn and Gerry Leonard. The GOP hasn’t held the seat in nearly three decades, and in 2020 President Joe Biden won nearly 64 percent of the vote in the 1st District, which includes most of Providence and runs along the state’s eastern coast.

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Photos of the week ending April 19, 2024