PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Outside money is starting to make its presence felt in Rhode Island’s crowded special election for Congress, with barely a month left before the Sept. 5 primary.
Federal Election Commission filings show Jim Cielinski, father-in-law of Democratic candidate Aaron Regunberg, contributed $125,000 to a newly created super PAC called Progress Rhode Island that just sent primary voters a comic-book-esque mailer touting Regunberg.
The only other donor to the super PAC is Regunberg’s mother, Erica, who gave $5,000.
“It can feel like only a superhero can help our families with high costs and build an economy that works for all of us,” the mailer says. “Aaron Regunberg has been fighting to make a difference for everyday Rhode Islanders for almost 15 years.”
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Cielinski, who lists a Saunderstown address, is global head of fixed income at Janus Henderson Investors, a London-based asset-management company, according to an online biography. He was previously a managing director at Goldman Sachs.
Progress Rhode Island was established June 7, and Regunberg’s family members made their donations over the following week.
The FEC requires outside groups to disclose their expenditures within 48 hours. Progress Rhode Island’s treasurer — Emory Rogers of the Washington law firm Ballard Spahr — said the mailer was sent out on Tuesday and that the spending would be reported to the FEC by the end of the day Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus BOLD PAC has signaled plans to spend big money backing Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who is Regunberg’s leading rival for the Democratic nomination.
Dan Sena, a Democratic operative who works with the group, sent an unusual tweet last week saying BOLD PAC “is getting in the fight” with Matos and laying out exactly what they plan to do. (Federal law bars the PAC from coordinating directly with the Matos campaign, but the group can share its plans publicly in order to send a signal to her team.)
This tweet from Sena would likely be all but unfathomable to the average voter: “1000 bcast grps 8/3-14 plus 3 pieces of mail to likely (2 of 3 primaries) Dems in the same pre EV window. AfAm and Latinos expanded to 2/3 generals =33k Hh per piece Drp8/3,7,10.”
Translation: BOLD PAC plans to air a commercial supporting Matos on broadcast TV stations from Aug. 3 to Aug. 14 that will total 1,000 gross ratings points, a way of measuring the reach of a commercial.
More translation: BOLD PAC also plans to send three mailers to 33,000 households of likely Democratic primary voters — defined as those who’ve voted in two of the last three primaries — dropping on Aug. 3, Aug. 7 and Aug. 10. (Early voting starts Aug. 16.) For African American and Latino voters, mailers will also be sent to individuals who voted in two of the last three general elections.
The Matos campaign has also put pages on its website laying out themes that outside groups can use in their spending on Matos’ behalf.
“Democratic primary voters need to see Lt. Governor Sabina Matos’ strong record of leadership protecting people’s rights and freedoms,” reads the text on one page, while another page has six minutes of professional B-roll footage of Matos ready for use in commercials.
Earlier this week, Regunberg sent a fundraising email to his supporters warning them about the impact BOLD PAC’s big spending could have on the race.
“Super PAC money has started pouring into our race,” he wrote. “In fact, one Super PAC just booked over $300,000 in TV advertising for one of our opponents. That’s a lot of outside spending.”
“And here’s the issue with Super PACs: they are, generally speaking, way more aggressive in their mudslinging,” Regunberg added.
Asked whether Regunberg was being hypocritical since he is now benefiting from his family’s super PAC, campaign spokesperson Matt DaSilva told 12 News, “There are a lot of outside vehicles that are spending heavily in this race for different candidates. In Congress, Aaron is committed to fighting to ban outside spending.”
“Our campaign was not expecting this effort, and there is no coordination taking place,” DaSilva added. “We are grateful for support from a wide range of Rhode Island groups and elected officials.”
Regunberg and Matos aren’t the only candidates benefiting from outside spending. Another group, Democrats Serve PAC, has so far reported spending about $37,000 to support Gabe Amo in the congressional primary, and has announced plans to spend at least $100,000 on his behalf by the end. The group’s latest donors haven’t been reported to the FEC yet.
John Marion, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, expressed dismay about the outside money. “Unfortunately, Rhode Islanders have seen outside super PACs insert themselves into our elections all too often,” he said in a statement.
Marion urged Republicans in Congress to support two bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s DISCLOSE Act — that would put in place stronger rules regarding illegal coordination and stricter reporting requirements around outside money.
“This sort of behavior — from a tweet with arcane programming jargon to a super PAC funded by a candidate’s wealthy father-in-law — directly contradicts the Supreme Court’s premise in its flawed Citizens United decision when it reasoned that unlimited outside money is truly independent of candidates’ campaigns,” Marion said.
“Don’t play cute with us, Aaron,” she said. “We see you for who you are: a privileged rich kid with no real job experience who’s cosplaying ‘man of the people.'”
She added: “The most progressive thing Aaron Regunberg could have done in this race was use his privilege and considerable resources to help elect one of several credible candidates who are women and/or people of color, but he was never about that because it doesn’t serve his ego or his ambitions.”
There are 12 Democrats seeking the 1st Congressional District nomination in the Sept. 5 primary. The party’s nominee will go on to face the winner of the Republican primary between Gerry Leonard and Terri Flynn in the November special election.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.