PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Aaron Regunberg never met his dad.
Regunberg’s mother, Erica, already had a 2-year-old and was five months pregnant with Aaron when her husband, Jonathan Regunberg, was killed in a plane crash in October 1989. The small aircraft’s pilot was Jonathan’s brother, who had recently gotten his license to fly and was bringing the pair and a friend to a University of Michigan football game. All three men died.
Regunberg has spoken little about the tragedy in his years in Rhode Island politics, whether in his time as a state lawmaker or during his unsuccessful 2018 bid for lieutenant governor.
But on Wednesday, Regunberg — now a candidate for Congress — released a new campaign video where he delves into his biography at length. The 33-year-old speaks about the loss of his father as well as the formative influences of his paternal grandmother, who led a Planned Parenthood chapter in New York before Roe v. Wade, and his maternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor.
“I thought it was worthwhile taking a step out of my comfort zone,” Regunberg told 12 News.
“It is a little challenging talking about these things, and there’s a reason that I haven’t really in my public life,” he said. “But as folks in the district are trying to make this really important decision — who’s going to be our next congressperson — I think it’s good to share where our values come from.”
Regunberg is widely seen as one of the leading Democrats in the Sept. 5 primary to replace David Cicilline, who resigned last week to lead the Rhode Island Foundation. More than a dozen others are also seeking the seat, including Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and former White House staffer Gabe Amo — yet all of them are struggling to garner attention from voters.
In the new video, Regunberg drew a direct line between his family’s experiences and the progressive policy stances he espouses on the campaign trail. In the case of losing his father, he said his family relied in part on federal survivors benefits to help pay the bills while he was growing up.
“I understand how important it is to have support systems for families that are going through difficult times, because my family had that,” he said.
Regunberg said his late grandmother, nicknamed “Bunny,” instilled in him a deep commitment to abortion rights. And his grandfather, Ralph, gave him an appreciation for the plight of refugees because he had to flee Nazi Germany as a child.
Ralph, now 93, “is also just the most optimistic person I know,” Regunberg said. “I think that he’s someone who knows how close he was to losing everything — like, basically, the rest of his family did — and he approached every day just, like, this is a gift.”
That attitude “is something I’m not very good at, but I strive to do and think about him,” Regunberg added.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.