Regunberg kicks off bid for lieutenant governor, touting progressive platform

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – State Rep. Aaron Regunberg formally launched his campaign for Rhode Island lieutenant governor on Tuesday, promising to turn the office into a platform to push progressive policies.

Regunberg, a 27-year-old Democrat who represents Providence’s East Side in the General Assembly, has quickly emerged as one of Rhode Island’s highest-profile progressive elected officials. He held his kickoff event at the Aspray Boat House in Warwick’s Pawtuxet Village, a spot he chose to echo the revolutionary-era Rhode Island rebelliousness celebrated during Gaspee Days.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do in Rhode Island, but I know that change is possible,” Regunberg told the crowd of about 100 supporters. “We can take on inequality and secure living wages for all working families. We can guarantee health care as a fundamental human right, not a privilege for those who can afford it.”

“We can defend our immigrant neighbors who contribute so much to our state,” he continued. “We can rebuild our crumbling schools and make sure the top 1% pays their fair share. We can launch a ‘Green New Deal’ to put thousands of Rhode Islanders to work to expand green energy. And we can, and we will, stand up to protect a woman’s right to choose.”

There is at least one major obstacle standing in Regunberg’s way: incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, a first-term Democrat who has not yet said whether he will seek re-election in 2018. McKee, a former Cumberland mayor, has scheduled an announcement for early next month to reveal his plans, setting up a primary clash with Regunberg if he runs.

“Rhode Islanders are struggling every day. There’s so much work to do in Rhode Island,” Regunberg told reporters. “We need some new energy and we need some new leadership. I think the lieutenant governor’s office can be a really important platform to be an independent advocate to bring people’s voices up to the State House.”

There was no immediate comment from McKee’s campaign. So far no Republican has announced plans to run for lieutenant governor next year.

Regunberg, a 6-foot-4 Brown University graduate who grew up outside of Chicago, first made his mark just out of college as an organizer for the Providence Student Union, an advocacy group for city high-school students. In 2014, he won the race to succeed disgraced former House Speaker Gordon Fox, and was easily re-elected two years later.

A number of Regunberg’s fellow Democratic lawmakers were on hand for Tuesday’s announcement, including Reps. Gregg Amore, Jean Philippe Barros, Lauren Carson, Kathleen Fogarty, Evan Shanley and Teresa Tanzi. Officials from the SEIU and American Federation of Teachers unions were also spotted in the crowd.

Among the speakers who introduced Regunberg was Jason Rodrigues, a pipefitter who lives in Pawtucket whose 4-year-old daughter was badly hurt in a dog attack in 2015. He said he was grateful to Regunberg for successful pushing through a new law guaranteeing paid sick days to most Rhode Island workers.

“It was clear to me he understood the challenges that working families face,” Rodrigues said.

Asked about the nuts-and-bolts of his campaign, Regunberg said he has not yet hired a campaign manager and downplayed the possibility he will self-fund to a significant degree. He also refused to rule out accepting donations from lobbyists and political action committees, but emphasized he supports public financing of elections as a long-term goal.

Regunberg had $152,000 in his campaign account as of June 30, while McKee had $71,000, according to R.I. Board of Elections filings.

Regunberg was one of the few Rhode Island elected officials who endorsed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton last year, and his candidacy is likely to highlight the internal splits in the state Democratic Party between its increasingly energized progressive wing and its more conservative members.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook