Rhode Island lieutenant governor touts support for Israel in closing week of congressional campaign 

Sabina Matos has positioned herself as the most stalwart backer of Israel in a field that includes a Bernie Sanders-backed progressive

In the final days of a Rhode Island congressional primary, an unexpected issue has quietly come to the fore: Israel. 

The Democratic primary in the special election for the 1st District, newly vacant after former Rep. David Cicilline, a Providence Democrat and pro-Israel progressive who stepped down earlier this year to run a foundation, takes place on Tuesday. 

The race has not featured the heavy spending or brutal attack ads that played out in last year’s proxy battles over Israel in races in Michigan and Maryland, where pro-Israel establishment groups like AIPAC went head-to-head with left-wing candidates backed by major progressive organizations. 

But Rhode Island lieutenant governor Sabina Matos, who is facing a more progressive challenger in former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, spent part of the penultimate weekend of the race speaking to a virtual fundraiser hosted by NORPAC, a grassroots pro-Israel group whose members are mostly in the New York area. The event raised $20,000 for the Matos campaign. 

“She seemed very heartfelt in terms of wanting to be strong on U.S.-Israel relations,” said NORPAC’s president, Ben Chouake, who co-hosted the event. Chouake expressed concern that Regunberg —  who appeared this weekend at a rally with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)  — is “basically going to be another member of the Squad,” referring to a group of far-left lawmakers who are hostile to Israel. 

“I’m looking forward to being a strong ally, and making sure that the United States and Israel partnership continues, because they are our strongest democratic ally in the region,” Matos told Jewish Insider in an interview Monday. “I don’t want to make this a partisan issue.”

Larger pro-Israel organizations have not gotten involved in the race. JACPAC, a Chicago political action committee that supports candidates who are pro-Israel and pro-choice, endorsed Regunberg. He has also been endorsed by Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), two prominent Jewish progressives. “I care deeply about Israel’s future and the safety and well-being of all the people who live there,” Regunberg told JI in July.

Matos said she will “definitely” support U.S. security assistance to Israel, and that she opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. When asked what role Washington should play in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Matos noted that Israel is a “sovereign country.”

“We cannot dictate what they’re going to do,” said Matos, who pledged to travel to Israel while in office. “We have to respect them. I think there has to be an ally and partner in something that I believe — that I apply not just in this case, but even in personal relations and in business relations — you talk to your friends in private about the things that you disagree on, but not start disagreeing publicly.”

Eleven candidates are running for the safely Democratic seat, and recent polling shows that there is still a significant chunk of voters who remain undecided. 

“It’s really just been sort of this mad dash everybody, and their brother, and their sister, and their cousins looking to get elected to the House and jumping into the race,” political strategist Rich Luchette, who worked for Cicilline for a decade, told Politico this week.

The poll, commissioned by the campaign of former Biden White House official Gabe Amo, showed Regunberg in the lead, followed by Amo. Matos and State Sen. Sandra Cano are tied for third. That’s a dramatic fall for Matos, whose campaign released a poll in June showing her well ahead of Regunberg.

The lieutenant governor came under fire in July amid reports that dozens of the signatures she gathered to get on the ballot were forged. Matos has blamed the incident on a vendor hired by her campaign.

“It was tough to see that my campaign is the one that has been battered the most,” Matos said of the scandal, noting that it is not uncommon for campaigns to sometimes have signatures invalidated. The state Board of Elections voted earlier this month to review all the signatures she had gathered. 

But Matos noted that voters do not often raise the issue to her.

Providence, RI – January 3: Rhode Island Lt. Governor Sabina Matos takes the oath of office with her husband Patrick Ward at right.

“They want to talk about the issues. They want to talk about what I’m going to do to protect their Social Security and Medicare, [and] what am I going to do to protect a woman’s right to choose, and ensure that abortion is protected and legal throughout the nation,” she explained. “People are very concerned with gun violence.”

Regunberg, too, has faced his own scandal in recent weeks: allegations of improper coordination with a Super PAC supporting him that is funded by father-in-law, who donated $125,000 to the committee. His campaign has denied that anything unlawful has taken place.

With endorsements from the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and the Working Families Party, Regunberg has faced little opposition in his bid for the progressive lane in the race. Matos avoided the label, and cast herself as someone more focused on results than on ideals.

“I’m not big on labels. I like to get things done,” said Matos, who has earned the backing of EMILY’s List, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s BOLD PAC, Latino Victory Fund and the New Democrat Coalition Action Fund, along with several local unions. “Acting like, if I don’t get 100% of what I’m looking for, nothing works, is not what we need right now.”

Matos, who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, came to the U.S. at age 20. 

Matos was first exposed to politics when she was young; her father was the mayor of her hometown, Paraiso. She took from that experience an understanding of the power that local politicians hold to help people in need access crucial services, which she learned when people came to her house looking for assistance.

This most crucial role of public servants is she believes she is best suited for the role: After serving more than a decade on the Providence City Council, she has an “understanding of the needs of everyday Rhode Islanders,” and people’s struggles to provide for their families. Matos became lieutenant governor in 2021, when then-Gov. Gina Raimondo became commerce secretary. Matos was elected to the role last year.

Growing up, Matos never met any Jews, until she arrived in Providence.

“Even though there are Dominican Jews, I was never exposed, never had an opportunity to learn about the Jewish community or the religion,” she said. “I know we’re very fortunate that we have a large Jewish community.” The 1st District includes parts of Providence, Newport and Bristol, where Matos on Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the state’s second-oldest synagogue. 

“It just caught my eye every time I go to a Jewish community building or a Jewish celebration, I see that they have to have someone guarding the door, a police officer. When I go to church, I don’t see that,” Matos said. “I think that’s a reminder of the threat to the Jewish community. We have to be actively engaged in making sure that we show our support, and that we provide resources, also, for them to be able to protect their institutions.”

A special election on Sept. 5,  the day after a holiday weekend, on the last day of summer vacation for Providence students, means turnout will likely be low. But in a blue state with just two representatives, victory could mean years of job security and an immediate boost to the upper echelons of Ocean State politics.

“If you’re elected,” said NORPAC’s Chouake, “you have a pretty good chance of being there in perpetuity.”

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