Can An Unabashed Progressive Clinch A Statewide Seat? Regunberg Thinks So.

Sep 11, 2018

The power of progressive Democrats faces a local test Wednesday. In the Rhode Island primary, a group of progressives are challenging candidates backed by the party establishment.

One of the most high profile races pits 28-year old State Rep. Aaron Regunberg against incumbent Dan McKee in the race for Lieutenant Governor.

If you’re a progressive, Aaron Regunberg strikes many of the right notes. His pitch? The Democratic establishment isn’t doing enough to help Rhode Islanders.

“We’ve got a lot more work to do to build a Rhode Island that works for everyone, and not rigged for the few,” Regunberg recently told a small gathering at a Newport meet-and-greet. “And that’s really what this election is all about, is our state going to stand up on the issues that matter.”

Those issues have become rallying cries for liberals in the two years since President Donald Trump was elected: immigration reform, gun control, affordable healthcare, economic equality.

“Are we going to stand with working families who are asking for basic standards, like sick time, a living wage, equal pay for equal work?,” Regunberg asked, as the room nodded and sipped wine.

Regunberg was raised by a single mother in Chicago. His father died in a plane crash before he was born. His grandparents were a source of inspiration. His Grandmother figures heavily into a typical stump speech.

“Bunny was her name. A bit of a misnomer, she was not a cute and fluffy person,” Regunberg explains, usually to laughter. “She was tough. She was a fighter and she had to be. She was the executive director of her local Planned Parenthood in the years before Roe V. Wade.”

This past session, Regunberg supported legislation to codify a woman’s right to an abortion in state law, but it failed in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. He hopes frustration with stalled progressive policies will propel him to statewide office.

At well over six feet, with a crop of curly black hair, Regunberg is easily spotted at a small Labor Day rally for hotel workers’ rights in downtown Providence.

Regunberg honed his own organizing skills while a student at Brown University, where he co-founded the Providence Student Union, a group that teaches high schoolers advocacy on education issues.

Regunberg at a Labor Day rally for hotel workers' rights.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

Though his own upbringing, attending private school followed by an Ivy-league education, may be different from many hotel workers, rally attendees like Chris Cook believe he has their back.

“Aaron’s the real deal Holyfield,” Cook said. “Cause he believes in the fight. He believes in the right to have health insurance, the right to have a decent minimum wage. That’s who he is, that’s why I’m voting for him.”

Regunberg’s already garnered support from numerous unions including the teachers, as well as an endorsement from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who won Rhode Island during the 2016 presidential primary.

Regunberg was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2014. He picked up the Providence seat held by former House Speaker Gordon Fox who pleaded guilty to corruption.

But in the race for Lieutenant Governor, Regunberg is not the party favorite. He faces incumbent Dan McKee, who has the endorsement of Democratic leaders including Gina Raimondo and both U.S. Senators.

At a recent campaign event, six mayors stood behind him in a show of support. McKee says he’s been working to help cities and towns as Lieutenant Governor for the last three years.

“Each and every community has its own issues, and unless you know what they are, unless you actually go out and work with them individually, you’re not really paying attention,” McKee said at the press conference. “And you’re not really able to service the men and women and residents.”

Dan McKee at a press conference in front of the Statehouse
Credit John Bender / RIPR

McKee adds that Regunberg, who’s never had a traditional 9-5 job, doesn’t have the executive experience to lead should the Governor leave midterm.

Regunberg says his goal as Lieutenant Governor would be to take on a culture of entrenched interests and backroom deals in the Statehouse and push for progressive policies.

That’s intriguing to Dominique Alfandre, a self-described progressive, the host of the Regunberg house party in Newport.

“If Aaron can shake things up from that vantage point, then he deserves a chance to try to do that,” Alfandre said. “I think shaking up is what Democrats need to do; a little change of perspective.”

Progressive political organizer, and head of the Rhode Island Working Families party, Georgia Isman, says the election is a measure of the state’s mood for progressive politicians.

“This race is a little bit of a referendum on what people want the direction of state government to be,” Isman said. “Are they comfortable with the status quo or are they looking for a kind of leadership that’s not so beholden to the powers that be.”

Regunberg touts his four years as a Representative, helping win paid sick time and an increase in the state minimum wage. He says he wants to leave the legislature to champion the issues he cares about with the amplified power and resources of statewide office.

With a loosely defined job description it’s unclear how much influence over policy Regunberg could have in the Lieutenant Governor’s seat, but a primary win would be a victory for the progressives challenging the Democratic party establishment.