PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — One week after Congressman David Cicilline unexpectedly announced his resignation, no major candidate has officially entered the race to replace him. But plenty of big names are continuing to test the waters.
House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has been widely expected to take a pass on the 1st District race after declining last year to run for the state’s other congressional seat when it opened up. But on Tuesday, he kept the door wide open to a run for the Democratic nomination.
“My position hasn’t changed that I am exploring all options,” Shekarchi told 12 News in a statement. “However, I am encouraged by the number of people who have approached me and offered their support. I won’t base my decision on who else might be running, but who is the best person to serve the people of Rhode Island.”
While Shekarchi’s hometown of Warwick is in the 2nd District rather than the 1st, the U.S. Constitution allows someone to run for a congressional seat regardless of residence as long as they live in the state they would represent.
Shekarchi would have some formidable advantages if he runs. He has nearly $2 million in his state campaign account, which he could seek to convert into federal contributions. He has allies throughout the state from his years in politics, and is well-liked by union leadership. And as speaker, he controls the state party endorsement.
“I enjoy a good relationship with the other members of the congressional delegation and based on my experience, I am confident I could hit the ground running in Washington should I decide to become a candidate,” Shekarchi added.
The speaker’s flirtation is already more serious than last year, when he took himself out of the running just two days after Congressman Jim Langevin unexpectedly announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. And it is one of the reasons the 1st District field has stayed effectively frozen so far.
The other two Democrats being most closely watched — Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and former gubernatorial candidate Helena Foulkes — are also taking their time as they evaluate their options. Neither is on track to enter the race as quickly as the eventual winner of last year’s 2nd District contest, Seth Magaziner, who announced his candidacy just eight days after Langevin stepped aside.
Matos spent Monday getting a taste of life in Washington, flying to the capital for a one-day visit to attend a Black History Month celebration at the White House. Matos spokesperson David Folcarelli said she flew out of T.F. Green around 9:30 a.m. and arrived back in Rhode Island before midnight.
Folcarelli declined to confirm whether Matos took the opportunity to have conversations with Beltway movers and shakers about her potential congressional run, saying only that no such meetings were on her “official schedule.”
“The lieutenant governor is discussing the opportunity with her family and loved ones and will sincerely consider how she can best serve Rhode Island,” Folcarelli said.
One person who could be helpful to Matos — Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List, the deep-pocketed group that helps elect pro-choice female Democrats — retweeted a message Matos sent about the event, writing: “The White House is committed to uplifting diverse voices at every level of government, and so are we at @emilyslist.”
Foulkes has been engaged in conversations with allies, advisers and family members as she decides whether a run for Congress should be her next attempt to win public office, following a close second-place finish in last year’s Democratic primary for governor.
“Helena has spent the last several days having conversations with Rhode Islanders about how she can best serve the people of our state,” Foulkes spokesperson Audrey Lucas said Tuesday. “She is seriously exploring a run for Congress.”
Gabe Amo, a Pawtucket native and Biden White House staffer, has also been in ongoing conversations about whether he should get into the race — including with Matos, who spoke with Amo when she was at the White House on Monday.
So far none of the state lawmakers, municipal officials and others who are flirting with a 1st District run have sought a first-mover advantage by jumping into the race ahead of the bigger-name aspirants. That is another contrast with last year, when former state Rep. Ed Pacheco kicked off his campaign less than a week after Langevin’s exit.
State Sen. Sandra Cano, state Sen. Dawn Euer and Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera are among the other frequently mentioned candidates considering a bid to succeed Cicilline. Rhode Island has never elected a Democratic woman to Congress.
Robert Walsh Jr., a former union official and longtime Democratic powerbroker, said he thinks part of the reason no candidates have taken the plunge yet is because Cicilline made his announcement during the week of school vacation and a legislative break.
“I’d say by a week from today we should have the names of at least one or two major contenders for the seat either announced or announcing that they’re going to announce,” said Walsh, who was himself an unsuccessful candidate for the 1st District back in 1992.
He added, “Wasting much more time than that is a barrier to entry in itself, and a lot of names that are floating around will have to take their names out of contention to be fair to the Democratic Party.” He also suggested labor unions could play an influential role in the primary if they consolidate behind the same Democrat.
One Democrat did publicly rule himself out as a 1st District candidate on Tuesday: Attorney General Peter Neronha, who is currently in his second term, said he won’t seek the seat.
As of Tuesday, the only candidate who had filed candidacy paperwork with the Federal Election Commission was Allen Waters, who was the Republican nominee against Cicilline in 2022 but has switched parties to run as a Democrat this year.
While a schedule for the special election has yet to be set, the secretary of state’s office has indicated the primary is likely to take place in August or September.
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
Tim White contributed to this report.