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Rhode Island voters have multiple chances to break with the past when they fill the US House seat that David Cicilline has now officially relinquished.
Voters in a special Democratic primary will see a ballot dominated by Black and Hispanic aspirants, including several female candidates. One of the party’s hopefuls was born in Colombia. Two were born in the Dominican Republic. Two others are living out their immigrant parents’ American dreams. Based on the initial paperwork on file with the Federal Election Commission, at least 15 Democrats are interested in competing to go to Washington.
“You’ve just seen a lot of people come forward in Rhode Island politics in the last decade who just didn’t have any openings before that,” Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, said in an interview.
After Providence elected Dominican American mayor Angel Taveras and Guatemalan American mayor Jorge Elorza, “It just opened the floodgates,” Schiller said. “And when Gina Raimondo gets elected as the first female governor in 2014, that’s another step forward.”
In addition to parts of Providence, the open 1st District seat includes Pawtucket, where people of color account for a majority of residents, as well as Newport and Woonsocket. The district is about 19% Hispanic, matching the national average.
The candidates in the special primary are generally in sync on policy, emphasizing the need to address rising prices generally and housing costs specifically; curbing gun violence; and mitigating the effects of climate change, which threatens their coastal state.
Without major differences on issues, the candidates will have to try to break out of the pack based on their preexisting relationships with voters and their ability to get the stories out about their qualifications and experiences.
“Ethnic and nation-of-origin distinctions matter in this race because it’s a very diverse district,” said Schiller.
The huge Democratic field reflects the nothing-to-lose element of an off-year election — sitting officeholders don’t have to relinquish their seats — and shows the pent-up ambition for a role that doesn’t come open often. Cicilline served more than 12 years, following 16 by ex-Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D).
The district voted 63%-35% for Joe Biden in the 2020 election and 62%-35% for Gov. Dan McKee (D) in the 2022 election, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government. The nominee will be a shoo-in in the Nov. 7 special general election to fill the remainder of the unexpired term.
The highest-ranking officeholder in the primary is Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who was born in the Dominican Republic. The former Providence City Council president, whose backers include the Latino Victory Fund, was elected to the statewide post last November. She has promoted her mix of local and state government experience.
State Sen. Ana Quezada, who also was born in the Dominican Republic, sponsored the 2021 law raising Rhode Island’s minimum wage to $15 per hour in 2025. She said her network of more than 100 volunteers will make up for any disadvantage in campaign funds. “Community support is the greatest asset that I have at this point,” she said.
State Sen. Sandra Cano, who leads the Senate Education Committee, was born in Colombia and promoted her financial background as Pawtucket’s commerce director.
“I’m a champion of racial justice and cultural inclusivity because I live under the cloud of bias every single day. And I fight for environmental justice in the face of the climate crisis because I worry about the world that my children will inherit,” Cano said in an interview.
She and candidate John Goncalves, a Providence city councilmember, called education “the great equalizer.”
Goncalves was raised in a single-parent household by a mother from Cape Verde. He described himself as a “working-class person” who teaches fourth-graders — the same age as children killed by a gunman at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school a year ago.
“We have to get serious about making sure that we’re addressing gun violence in our country and standing up to the gun lobby,” he said in an interview. “Republicans don’t want to talk about gun reform; they’d rather go after drag queens.”
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Candidate Gabe Amo, who was born to a mother from Liberia and a father from Ghana, grew up in Pawtucket and worked for Raimondo and in the Obama and Biden administrations, most recently as the Biden White House’s deputy director of intergovernmental affairs — a job that helped Amo cultivate relationships with mayors and other local officials.
“The fact that I can connect to so many different communities in this state because of my story and because of my record of service to people, I’m hopeful they’ll see and support someone who has really spent their career trying to make the lives of people around them better,” Amo said in an interview.
State House Experience
Three current state representatives are in the race: Nathan Biah, a Providence high school principal who was born in Liberia and fled its civil war in the 1990s; Finance Committee Chair Marvin Abney, an Army veteran who represents the Newport area; and Municipal Government and Housing Committee Chair Steve Casey, a Woonsocket firefighter who’s running as a more centrist Democrat.
In an interview, Biah said high school is “a microcosm of our society” in that he deals with gun violence, mental health and immigration issues. As a refugee from a war-torn country, he said, “I do understand in depth exactly what the people in Ukraine are going through today because I lived through that.”
Aaron Regunberg, a former state representative and community organizer who almost unseated McKee in the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, said in an interview he’s running on the “most ambitious progressive platform” of any candidate.
His backers include the progressive Working Families Party.
Regunberg praised the climate provisions of Democrats’ 2022 tax-health-climate law, but said Congress must focus next on “stopping the expansion of fossil fuel supply.” He opposed the debt-limit agreement (H.R. 3746) passed by the House Wednesday, saying in a statement it was a “profound mistake to give in to the GOP’s hostage-taking.”
Don Carlson, a renewable energy investor and former House aide, and Nick Autiello, a former Raimondo aide, were endorsed by the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, which works to elect more LGBTQ people to office. Cicilline was one of the few openly gay members of Congress.
Autiello told Providence’s CBS and NBC affiliates he’d be part of a “new generation” of leadership in Washington.
Other candidates in the race include Walter Berbrick, a former Navy intelligence officer running on a platform of addressing “rising divisions, rising costs, and rising seas”; Stephanie Beauté, who ran for Rhode Island secretary of state in 2022; Mickeda Barnes, a political newcomer who was a bus driver for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority; and Allen Waters, the 2022 Republican nominee against Cicilline now running as a conservative Democrat.
Rhode Island so far has been represented in the US House by 73 white men and one white woman. Its only female member of Congress was Claudine Schneider, a Republican who served five terms. In 1990, she gave up her seat to run unsuccessfully against Sen. Claiborne Pell (D).
Though the seat officially became vacant Thursday, the field for the Sept. 5 primary has had months to develop; Cicilline announced in February he’d leave Congress to run the Rhode Island Foundation.
“This primary really is the contest for this seat,” Schiller said. “The Democrat will most likely win the general election.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org