Progressive activist emerges as frontrunner in open Rhode Island House race

Aaron Regunberg is the nephew of Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), but he doesn’t share his uncle’s moderate brand of politics

Progressive activist Aaron Regunberg, 33, is running to represent Rhode Island in Congress, but he hasn’t yet shed the Chicago accent of his youth — the drawn-out “a” that comes out when he talks about his campaign, his family, the far-right legislators he loathes. 

It’s there when he mentions Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), two prominent Jewish progressives who have endorsed his campaign. 

And the accent is also apparent when he mentions, only when prompted, the lawmaker to whom he has the closest relationship: Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), a moderate Democrat from the heavily Jewish Highland Park, where Regunberg also grew up. Schneider is Regunberg’s uncle. 

“He’s also someone that I am often leaning on for expertise and thoughts,” Regunberg told Jewish Insider in an interview on Monday when asked about his connection to Schneider. The Illinois legislator has not endorsed Regunberg’s campaign, and Schneider’s spokesperson declined to comment on the race. 

That the two related politicians — 1,000 miles and a generation apart — appear to be publicly keeping a degree of separation between themselves exemplifies the different wings of the Democratic Party with which they each identify. 

Regunberg, a recent Harvard Law School graduate and former state representative who in 2019 was arrested while protesting former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, has sought to shore up support from the activist wing of the party ahead of the Sept. 5 Democratic primary. On Tuesday he earned the endorsement of the political action committee affiliated with the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). 

Meanwhile, the AIPAC-endorsed Schneider has clashed with the powerful CPC on matters related to Israel and antisemitism. National pro-Israel advocacy groups across the ideological spectrum, including AIPAC, J Street, Jewish Democratic Council of America and Democratic Majority for Israel, have not yet gotten involved in this crowded Democratic primary. 

The one Jewish group that has so far taken a position in the race is JACPAC, a Chicago-based political group that endorses candidates who are pro-Israel and pro-choice.

“While he is progressive on a lot of issues, his position on Israel was pretty much aligned with where we are,” said Hollis Wein, JACPAC’s director of communications and research. “We are hoping that he will be a bridge, once he gets to Congress, with some of the more progressive members, on Israel.”

One of those members might be CPC chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who last week faced criticism from House Democratic leadership after she called Israel a “racist state.” (On Tuesday, she and fellow CPC members Raskin and Rep. Mark Pocan [D-WI] praised Regunberg for “dedicat[ing] his life to promoting the common good and taking on special interests.”)

Regunberg disagreed with Jayapal’s assessment: “No, I do not think that Israel is a racist state,” he told JI. He grew up visiting family members in Israel, and recalled when they took him to see the bomb shelter in their home. “I remember,” he said, “just how hard it was for me to wrap my head around the fact that this was a reality for them.” He spent summers in Israel studying Hebrew.

“I care deeply about Israel’s future and the safety and well-being of all the people who live there,” Regunberg said. “Based on my family’s experience, my grandfather’s experience in the Holocaust, I feel strongly about the importance of a Jewish and democratic state and homeland. And I think Israel has long been an essential partner for the U.S.” (Regunberg speaks often of his grandfather, who was born in Germany and survived the Holocaust — including in a 2019 speech in which he called U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement “a modern-day Gestapo” and compared Trump to Adolf Hitler.)

Aaron Regunberg

Regunberg described a personal approach to Israel rooted in a love for the country and an inclination to call the country out for taking actions that “diminish or undermine the shared values and common interests that bring our two nations together,” he said.

“Like many progressive American Jews, I often feel extremely betrayed by [the Netanyahu government]’s actions, which I think undermine the future and security of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, which I feel very deeply committed to defending,” he said, referring to the controversial judicial reform legislation passed this week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. 

Regunberg pointed out that his aunt and uncle have been protesting the legislation “with their Israeli flags, because they love and believe in this project.” Meanwhile, Schneider — not a frequent critic of Israeli policy — said on Monday that he is “deeply saddened and profoundly concerned” by the Knesset’s action.

The former Rhode Island state legislator also pledged to speak out against antisemitism, and praised the Democratic Party for “treating this threat with the danger and urgency that I think we should be.” 

“When I try to, like, map out the real threats that give me real pause and concern when it comes to antisemitism, those feel overwhelmingly like they’re coming from the far right,” said Regunberg. When asked about whether he is also concerned about antisemitism on the left, he said antisemitism “is an ideology that can and does manifest itself all across the political spectrum,” but declined to comment further. 

“It is a problem everywhere. But as far as the actual imminent dangers, that seems to be more of a far-right problem,” he noted, pointing to the neo-Nazi Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville in 2017 and the 2018 mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. 

At least a dozen candidates are running in the Democratic primary for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District, a seat vacated earlier this year by former Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI). A June poll showed Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos in the lead, and Regunberg in second. Forty-three percent of voters said they remained undecided.

The race experienced a major shake-up last week as reports emerged about dozens of forged signatures on the nomination forms Matos filed to run for Congress. Matos has blamed the incident on a vendor hired to gather and file the signatures. The matter has been referred to the attorney general’s office for further investigation. 

“Presumably the whole thing helps [Regunberg], as well as some of the other candidates,” said Adam Myers, associate professor of political science at Providence College. Regunberg was the top fundraiser in the second quarter of this year, bringing in $470,000. Behind him were former Biden White House official Gabe Amo and businessman Don Carlson. Amo, Matos and Regunberg all started airing TV ads this week. 

Regunberg has sought to lay claim to the progressive mantle in the race. He has earned the endorsement of the Working Families Party and Our Revolution, a PAC aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), whose presidential campaigns Regunberg supported. His top issues include progressive priorities such as Medicare for All, raising taxes on the wealthy and fighting climate change.

But a statewide progressive organization has accused the former lawmaker, who unsuccessfully challenged a Democratic incumbent in the 2018 lieutenant governor’s race, of not doing enough to challenge mainstream Democrats in the state. He has also faced criticism from some progressive women and activists of color who claim he has promoted himself and his own brand at the expense of supporting candidates from underrepresented backgrounds. 

“He hasn’t been universally liked among the left community in Rhode Island, and in fact, a lot of people really don’t like him,” said Myers. 

But, Myers added, “It could well be that he will be able to take advantage of the fact that there’s so many candidates in the race, and he’s the only one very clearly identified with the left and the progressive movement. That may well end up allowing him to win.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.