Talking Politics

Insights and takeaways from the CD1 special election

By Ian Donnis
Posted 9/5/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: If Aaron Regunberg and Gabe Amo finish first and second, respectively, in the CD1 Democratic primary election on Tuesday, it will be not be a surprise. The former state rep and the …

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Talking Politics

Insights and takeaways from the CD1 special election


STORY OF THE WEEK: If Aaron Regunberg and Gabe Amo finish first and second, respectively, in the CD1 Democratic primary election on Tuesday, it will be not be a surprise. The former state rep and the former White House aide are arguably the two most polished candidates in the 11-person primary field, with the best grasp of policy details and the ability to concisely unpack them. Regunberg’s advantage coming into the race was the name recognition that comes with repeated runs for office and time as a state rep. Amo has a compelling story in rising from humble roots in Pawtucket to ultimately work at the White House – and he would be the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress. But translating his familiarity among reporters and political insiders across a congressional district, in the compressed timetable of a special election, is not easy.

Of course, the outcome of Tuesday’s Democratic primary can’t be predicted with any certainty in advance, and state Sen. Sandra Cano of Pawtucket and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos can’t be ruled out as potential victors. For Matos, the one-time perceived front runner, the challenge is overcoming weeks of coverage of the signature-gathering controversy that filtered down to low-information voters. Cano personifies how Blackstone Valley voters have brought more diverse representation to the General Assembly over the last 20 years. The diverse field in CD1, which includes Stephanie Beauté, John Goncalves and Ana Quezada, marked a watershed for Rhode Island politics, even if there was a ton of overlap between candidates on their views.

Rep. Stephen Casey and Republican-turned-Democrat Allen Waters offered options for voters with a conservative lean. Walter Berbrick has impressed some observers as a first-time candidate. And the candidacy of former Rep. Spencer Dickinson, who has placed newspaper ads lambasting the pension overhaul championed by Gina Raimondo in 2011, will test the appeal of that single-issue message.

MATOS MATTERS: If Sabina Matos can pull a win out next week, it will be a stunning victory. Conversely, if Matos lags in the field, she will likely face more competition in the next statewide election. Of course, regardless of who wins the primary and the CD1 general election in November, that candidate will face re-election next year, helped to some degree by the benefit of incumbency.

CD1 NOTES: The special off-year election has been marked by three distinct phases: 1) an early listlessness marked by an absence of issue-based discussion (despite one story that none of Matos’ rivals picked up on, about her support for a 2021 transaction that endangered two local hospitals, according to AG Peter Neronha); 2) the weeks-long coverage of the signature controversy, with rhetorical crossfire among various campaigns; 3) the race to the finish, with campaigns shifting into GOTV mode and Gabe Amo pressing his case …. Another quirk has been the absence of endorsements by a host of prominent top Democrats, including Gov. Dan McKee and House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, and their counterparts in Massachusetts …. Finally, the lack of independent polling added a certain opaqueness to the race, although Amo’s team seemingly made a smart gambit by releasing an internal poll last week showing him in second place behind Regunberg.

POLLING: Ted Nesi and Patrick Anderson joined me on Political Roundtable last week to break down the home stretch of the CD1 race. We talked about the effect of debates, the historic slate of diverse candidates, and since WPRI has routinely polled RI elections, I asked Ted if the decision not to do a poll in CD1 was an outlier or something else. His response: “I think it's partly an outlier. It's a special election, I'll just be candid. It's harder as someone who works in a newsroom — and as you know, newsrooms all feeling a little tighter financially than we did 20 years ago — to argue for a poll that would be just serving Democratic primary special election voters. That means the poll, which is going to be expensive — no matter what we can't say it also told us about how people feel about the Cranston Armory project or the approval rating of the governor. It would just be this one time small electorate [and] who's winning or losing. I think it was just hard for media outlets at a time when there's a lot of different places we'd like to put the money to put it into that. That said, it is so difficult to cover a race like this with only internal polls, and we are kind of flying by the seat of our pants as reporters.”

EYE ON WARWICK: It’s not every day that you see Gov. McKee and Speaker Shekarchi hosting a Crowne Plaza fundraiser for a local elected official, but two-thirds of the powerful statehouse troika is doing precisely that for a Sept. 27 time (suggested contribution levels: $100/$250/$500/$1,000) for Warwick City Council President Stephen McAllister. Asked if this points to a possible run for higher office, McAllister tells me via email, “Fundraising is unfortunately an important and necessary part of being able to get your message out to residents. So I am having this fundraiser to help ensure I have the resources necessary to run for reelection or another office in 2024 and future years.” 

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: With state Rep. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung (R-Cranston) showing signs of gearing up for a run for mayor, it’s fair to wonder if Republicans will be able to keep the House seat that Fenton-Fung stripped from then-House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat, in 2020. One name that comes to mind is that of RI GOP National Committeeman Steve Frias, who ran against Mattiello in 2016 and 2018. Frias tells me he’s not interested in running for elective office at this time, in part because he doesn’t believe his run would have much impact. Back in ’16, Mattiello introduced his plan to phase out the car tax in the face of Frias’ challenge, and the Cranston Republican’s second run, in ’18, may have softened the path for Fenton-Fung’s win two years later. But “it takes a lot of work and you get attacked, right?” Frias said, pointing to  evidence that emerged that an opposition researcher indirectly working for the then-speaker’s campaign spied on Frias and his family in 2016. Frias said he believes a strong GOP contender will run for the Cranston rep seat next year, although he said he was not aware of serious prospects at the moment.

GINAWORLD: Regardless of whether Gina Raimondo’s trip to China was a significant step in renewing communication in the U.S.-Sino relationship or a journey without much accomplished, there’s little doubt that Raimondo’s profile continues to rise by leaps and bounds. She was the first Commerce secretary to go to China in a number of years, and her embrace of a young Chinese girl at a Disney Park (“an important form of soft power for the U.S., she said in one report”) seemed to reflect Raimondo’s ease in adopting to the global stage. It’s a long way from Gina from Smithfield, right? For now, the world appears to Raimondo’s oyster, and it’s impossible to know moving forward if she’ll lean toward a lucrative private sector job, a university presidency, or something thing else. The Gina for president speculation seemed far-fetched when it started years ago when she was still governor. But hey, if a state as irrelevant in electoral politics as Delaware can produce Joe Biden, there’s little reason to doubt that Raimondo can be a player in 2028.

SENATE RACE: State Rep. Nathan Biah’s run for the Senate opening created by the passing of Maryellen Goodwin strikes some observers as quixotic, considering that the Senate’s preferred candidate is one of the chamber’s own staffers, Jake Bissaillon, chief of staff to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (meaning that Biah, who represents part of Goodwin’s former district, could find a frosty reception if he wins). But Biah tells the ProJo’s Antonia Farzan that he sees the potential to make a bigger impact in the Senate by fostering more diversity in state government. Farzan has a good look at the Democratic primary scrum that also includes Mario Mancebo and Michelle Rivera.


TAKES OF THE WEEK: A mix of views from various Rhode Islanders.

ROBERT A. WALSH JR, former executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island: “My political crystal ball sees multiple futures, so here are four ledes to save the press some time next Tuesday night:

**Buoyed by endorsements ranging from A(jello) to Z(urier), a base in Blackstone Valley, support from loyal colleagues and a diverse array of local elected officials throughout the district, and significant union support, State Sen. Sandra Cano marshaled an effective ground game to win a narrow victory in the low 29,000-person turnout Democratic primary.

**With 34,000 people participating in the Democratic primary, former state rep. and lieutenant governor candidate Aaron Regunberg, backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and running a campaign that balanced an impressive ground game and a substantial air war, prevailed in the 11-candidate race to win the Democratic nomination, successfully running down the left lane in a diverse field of candidates while dodging attacks from the left and right.

**Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos regained her original front runner status on the only day that mattered — Election Day — backed by a massive television advertising program including air support from powerful Washington-based groups and ground support from the building trades giving her a narrow plurality of the 38,500 primary voters.

**A double primary surprise, as an unexpectedly large turnout of 45,000 voters gave a narrow victory to Gabe Amo, who will be heading back to Washington behind his disciplined ‘spend it at the end’ media campaign, financed by robust fundraising from the Raimondo universe and highlighting his White House experience with Presidents Obama and Biden.

While I was a little dismayed by some of the negativity in this race, I am proud that the Democratic primary showcased so many current and future leaders of our party, including some not mentioned in the hypothetical ledes above. Congratulations to all who participated.”


RI Senate GOP Leader JESSICA DE LA CRUZ of North Smithfield: “Labor Day, the last hurrah of summer, is upon us once more. Aside from the opportunity to indulge with family and friends in some clam cakes and Del's (since Mr. Lemon is closed for the season), we will celebrate the contributions and achievements of the over 167 million men and women in the U.S. workforce. While Republicans are often labeled as pro-business, it's unfortunate that we are stereotyped as anti-union, because most of us are not anti-union — we are pro-worker. Within my family, several individuals were proudly part of unions and trades. Republicans acknowledge that unions have fought for and won safer working conditions and fair wages that have benefited all workers, not just union members. What we are against is bloated government bureaucracy draining tax dollars to support itself while it stifles growth through excessive taxes. Republicans believe the individuals who work hard to earn their living, often returning home with physical signs of their labor, are far better stewards of those funds, not the government. That is why my colleagues in the Senate Minority Caucus and I have proposed and will continue to submit legislation to help Rhode Islanders keep more of the money they earn. Any individual or organization that is pro-worker should agree.”


PABLO RODRIGUEZ, physician, community activist and OG of RI Latino politics: “It's an oversimplification to label nearly half of the voters who would presently support Donald Trump as irrational, ignorant, or biased. Yet such is the stereotype propagated by liberal media outlets. We must question what's truly happening here. Despite his glaring imperfections, Trump elicits a visceral response from his followers. Equally, Joe Biden evokes strong feelings, though they seem to be centered around concerns about his age more than anything. The real test of our democracy lies in reconciling these intense emotions with the facts at hand. Admittedly, our emotional responses currently cloud our interpretation of the facts, but one would hope that reality will eventually cut through the fog. As we navigate towards this crucial intersection of fact and feeling, it's crucial to resist the urge to villainize each other, and instead affirm the validity of each other's emotions. Yes, there will be unwavering supporters who would back their candidate even from a jail cell. Time may lessen their resolve, but most voters are open to a message that resonates emotionally and helps them reject divisive politics. The political scene is less about logical Mr. Spock and more about emotive Captain Kirk. Descartes' ‘I think therefore I am’ doesn't hold sway in current politics. The reality is more along the lines of ‘I feel — therefore I vote.’ Democrats would do well to heed this message if they wish to avoid another four years of disconcerting governance.”

KICKER: A warning, via Larry Sabato’s excellent Crystal Ball newsletter, about the coming intersection of political persuasion and artificial intelligence: “We are rapidly moving from ‘alternative facts’ to artificial ones in politics, campaigns, and elections. In July, a campaign ad from Never Back Down, a group that supports Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) in the 2024 presidential race, attacked former President Trump. The ad featured a soundbite of what sounds like former President Trump’s voice. But it wasn’t. Generative Artificial Intelligence (Gen AI) is a tool that is used by humans, but it poses several dangers to elections and to democracy. Leading into the 2024 election, we are already seeing the use of ‘deepfakes,’ computer-created manipulation of a person’s voice or likeness using machine learning to create content that appears real.

We spoke with UVA Today about the challenges deepfakes pose to free elections and democracy, and we are sharing some key points that we made in the piece: Candidate comments out of context, and doctored photos and video footage, have already been used for decades in campaigns. What Gen AI tools do is dramatically increase the ability and scale to spread false information and propaganda, leaving us numb and questioning everything we see and hear at a time when elections are already facing a crisis of public confidence. Such tools also open up the ability to spread mis-, dis-, and malinformation to any person in the world with a digital device. On top of that, depending on how Gen AI tools have been trained, they can amplify, reinforce, and perpetuate existing biases, with impacts on decision-making and outcomes.”

Ian Donnis can be reached at

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.