PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Working Families Party, a progressive organization that has helped several candidates win General Assembly seats in recent years, has endorsed Aaron Regunberg for the special election in the 1st Congressional District.
Regunberg, a former state representative who lives on the East Side of Providence, is one of 15 Democrats so far running in the special election to replace Congressman David Cicilline, who is resigning June 1.
“Aaron is exactly the type of leader Rhode Islanders need in Congress,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, the Working Families Party’s New England regional director. “He has an unshakeable commitment to progressive values. He’s dogged enough to take on the Republicans and corporate Democrats organizing to block progressive change, and skilled enough to get things done in tough conditions.”
The endorsement was swiftly criticized by one of the other Democratic candidates, state Sen. Sandra Cano, who works as the Commerce Director for the city of Pawtucket.
“It is deeply disappointing to learn that the Rhode Island Working Families Party has chosen to not endorse the type of candidate they claim to champion: a woman of color, an immigrant, a working mother,” said Sydney Keen, Cano’s campaign manager.
“It is past time for organizations like RI WFP to stop using the experiences of working people as campaign rhetoric,” Keen wrote.
Georgia Hollister Isman, the New England regional director of the Working Families Party, said there were five candidates who applied for the endorsement: Regunberg, Cano, Nick Autiello, Walter Berbrick and John Goncalves.
“Obviously, a candidate’s identity and life experience is something we take seriously in the endorsement process and we did in this one,” Hollister Isman said, responding to Cano’s criticism.
She said Regunberg has a track record of organizing, showing up on picket lines, and “going to bat trying to elect working class people,” which all contributed to the decision to endorse him. Plus, she said the party considered the candidates’ likelihood of success in the primary.
“We think Aaron is the person with the best chance of winning,” Hollister Isman said.
She said the left-wing group would reach “tens of thousands” of voters in the 1st Congressional District while canvassing for Regunberg.
The progressive endorsement of Regunberg comes as the former state representative has been criticized by other segments of the political left, including members of the Rhode Island Political Co-op, another progressive group, and the Providence chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
A group of mostly former elected officials recently circulated an op-ed taking aim at Regunberg. Among them was former state Sen. Cynthia Mendes, who criticized both Regunberg and the one of the Co-op’s founders, Matt Brown.
“They are terrible leaders because they are utterly disconnected from impacted communities (the ones they supposedly will save), feel entitled to power, their egos far outweigh their values, and they consistently use people to get what they want,” Mendes wrote.
Regunberg disputed the claims.
“It’s no secret that I’ve had political disagreements with these particular groups,” Regunberg said on a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last week. “We have very different approaches to politics.”
He pointed to his efforts in the legislature to get paid sick leave approved, along with increasing the tipped minimum wage and other progressive policies.
Hollister Isman said the left-wing criticism of Regunberg is far from her experience working with him. She noted his efforts in helping getting progressive women elected including state Reps. Leonela Felix, Cherie Cruz and Megan Cotter.
Regunberg had tweeted in February that he planned to sit out the race in order to support a progressive woman candidate, but deleted the tweet the same day.
“I think identity and representation are really important,” Regunberg said, adding that he deleted the tweet because he was still working as a federal law clerk at the time. “That’s why I’ve spent close to 15 years helping to elect women and people of color here in Rhode Island.”
The crowded field could still grow larger, with the candidate declaration period set for June 29 and 30.
The primary is scheduled for Sept. 5, with a general election on Nov. 7.
Steph Machado (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.