PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democrat Aaron Regunberg is getting help from Hollywood as he seeks to supplant Sabina Matos as the perceived frontrunner in Rhode Island’s special election for Congress.

Jane Fonda, the 85-year-old movie icon and liberal activist, has cut a new TV ad that will begin airing next week in which she urges Rhode Island voters to support Regunberg over his 11 primary rivals.

“Aaron is the only candidate we can trust in this race to truly stand up to Big Oil,” Fonda says in the spot, before narrating efforts by the candidate to combat climate change over the years.

“That’s why I’m asking you to join us in supporting Aaron,” she concludes.

It’s the second time Fonda has made an endorsement in a Rhode Island congressional election in as many years. During the 2022 campaign she backed former state Rep. David Segal, a close Regunberg ally, in the 2nd Congressional District primary — though she never cut a TV ad for Segal.

Fonda has also agreed to headline a virtual rally for Regunberg next Monday night alongside Bill McKibben, one of the country’s most prominent climate activists. The Regunberg campaign is seeking donations of $50 to $1,000 tied to the event, though supporters can sign up to attend for free.

The commercial marks the latest effort by the Regunberg campaign to consolidate progressive voters, part of a drumbeat of like-minded endorsements from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, progressive House members, and various left-wing groups.

There has been no public polling in the 1st Congressional District primary, but political observers frequently cite Regunberg as one of the strongest candidates in the race — even more so after the Matos campaign was rocked by a weeks-long scandal over fraudulent signatures on her nomination papers.

“How do you separate yourself from the crowd?” said Leah Askarinam, who is tracking the race as a contributing analyst at the Cook Political Report in Washington. “Regunberg seems like he’s figured out that he can align himself with the kind of progressive wing of the party, and in the most visible way possible.”

But Regunberg has also faced heavy criticism over the past week after 12 News revealed that his father-in-law Jim Cielinski, an executive at the financial firm Janus Henderson Investors, has poured $125,000 into a super PAC that is now sending a series of mailers promoting Regunberg to voters. His mother also donated an additional $5,000 to the group.

“The opportunity to serve in Congress shouldn’t be limited to candidates with exceptionally wealthy family members,” said former White House official Gabe Amo, another leading Democrat. “I am concerned that my opponent expects Rhode Islanders to believe that there’s been no coordination between his campaign and the super PAC entirely funded by his immediate family. I think we should all play by the same rules.”

Regunberg has insisted he has not engaged in illegal coordination with his family members over the outside spending. “Our campaign was not expecting this effort, and there is no coordination taking place,” his campaign spokesperson said last week, though he has stopped short of denouncing his family’s efforts.

The Regunberg campaign has also noted that the roughly $100,000 spent so far by his family is still dwarfed by the roughly $400,000 spent for Matos by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus BOLD PAC, which has been handling her entire TV advertising effort this week. (Two of that caucus’s members, Greg Casar and Delia Ramirez, endorsed Regunberg on Thursday.)

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With early voting set to start next Wednesday, all the candidates are picking up the pace of their activities, including a growing list of debates and forums. That included a debate taped Thursday morning moderated by local podcast host Bill Bartholomew where both Regunberg and Matos took criticism from their rivals.

12 News will host a live televised 1st District primary debate on Aug. 29 at 7 p.m.

Also on Thursday, the Rhode Island SEIU Council announced it won’t make an endorsement in the 1st District primary — meaning no Democrat will get a boost from a labor group that made a difference for its favored candidates in past campaigns. Unions have been split between Matos, state Sen. Sandra Cano and Regunberg so far.

Askarinam said the Democratic contest could be on track to end in a photo finish.

“What we’re looking at is the potential winner could win with a plurality of the vote — much less than 50%,” she said. “So this could be decided on the margins. This could be, you know, 22% versus 20%.”

Ted Nesi ( 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.