OZY: The Activist Putting the Heat on Rhode Island's Lefties
It was the Saturday after Donald Trump won his election, and more than a thousand left-leaning Rhode Islandershad gathered in the cafeteria at Hope High School in Providence. “We were all feeling lost and feeling like we needed to do something,” says Aaron Regunberg, the state representative who helped organize the event.
The location was personal for Regunberg. In 2010, Hope High was where, as a political science major at Brown University, he got his first big break as an activist, helping the students organize around issues related to student bus passes and infrastructure repairs. And “Hope” was also the slogan of the Chicago native’s idol, Barack Obama, whose ascent from community organizer to president made the previously unheralded job “sexy,” as he puts it.
With such a fitting backdrop, the organizer and his partners got to work, forming Resist Hate RI, which committed itself to opposing Trump’s agenda. Their first action? To plan a rally — protesting at the state capitol, outside the offices of the governor, the speaker of the house and the Senate president, among others, in Rhode Island’s major leadership roles. The point: “At the state level, business as usual won’t cut it,” Regunberg says.
A year later, Regunberg, now 27 and newly married, is among the notable party-defying progressives taking the fight to the old guard of Democratic politics. Some have seized on the opportunity created by Trump’s scrambling of the national discourse and believe Democrats will win again only by embracing the left, not running toward the middle. Oftentimes, they, like Regunberg, are alumni of the Bernie Sanders campaign — people like Vincent Fort, an early Bernie backer now running for mayor of Atlanta, and Ben Jealous, the civil rights leader seeking the governorship of Maryland. On September 25, Regunberg announced he would challenge Lt. Gov. Dan McKee. He is running on an unapologetically progressive platform — promising to secure a living wage, protect immigrants and make sure the “1 percent pays their fair share” — which, if successful, could inform the campaigns of Democrats nationwide.
Too often, Regunberg argues, Rhode Island lawmakers are hesitant to lead on progressive labor and tax policies, concerned about staying competitive economically with their New England neighbors. His fears aren’t unfounded: Despite Rhode Island’s historical role leading on issues like religious freedom, abolitionism and gay marriage, political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty found that, from 1996 to 2013, the Ocean State had the narrowest ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats in the nation, according to state legislative voting records. And yet, activists like Regunberg have a special opportunity to break through in Rhode Island, says Michael Kennedy, a sociologist at Brown University. “If you want to get something done, you have to talk to somebody,” he says. “Rhode Islanders generally look at this as if it’s a sign of corruption, and it is, a little bit. But it’s also a sign of how much you can change things. If you get the right change agent, it can be dramatic what can be accomplished.”
Regunberg is hoping to be that catalyst. He ran for the Rhode Island House’s 4th district in 2014 after co-founding the Providence Student Union, which extended his activism at Hope High to other area schools. Once elected, he introduced legislation to guarantee earned paid sick days and to create a state-level carbon pricing system, among other objectives. At the beginning of this year, he partnered with fellow representatives to draft a “Fair Shot Agenda,” which aims to reach a $15 minimum wage, repair school buildings and create a tax code directed at wealthier Rhode Islanders. ”I don’t know who this hypothetical centrist voter who gets excited about the bland, moderated focus group message is …” Regunberg says, before getting interrupted by Laufton Ascencao-Longo, a friend who mockingly chimes in: “You’re gonna raise my taxes in just the right way. Yeah, that’s a voter.”
The pair are hunkered down in Regunberg’s satellite office, a workspace that also houses the Sierra Club and the Providence Democratic-Socialist Workers of America. Curly haired, with thin glasses and a sharp blue suit, Regunberg’s look doesn’t mesh with his activist roots (to be fair, his next stop is a meeting with a constituent at the Capitol). It’s 8 a.m., and by the time our interview is over, he’ll already be behind schedule — a common occurrence, friends say, for a man who has been wearing multiple hats for years now. “Real change requires building power on the outside to push an agenda,” Regunberg says, “and also having receptive people on the inside.”
He operates as both the megaphone on the outside and the voice of reason on the inside. “As an organizer, you need to polarize, set clear lines, put pressure on people,” Regunberg says. It’s an approach that’s earned him some enemies — getting slack, for instance, for his November statehouse rally. “There are lots of things that have gotten me into trouble,” he concedes. But party support and fundraising may prove to be his biggest obstacles, as the Midwest transplant takes on McKee, a former councilman and mayor whose family has run businesses in Rhode Island for over a century.
Still, Regunberg sees an opportunity to push the office of lieutenant governor past its traditional limitations. “The joke is that it’s like the vice president; you’re just waiting to see if the governor is still around,” he says. But because the position is elected, it “can’t be held captive,” he adds. “If used in the right way, it could be … an independent advocate for all the families who can’t afford a well-connected insider or a team of lobbyists.” With that pitch, his ability to rally the grassroots could be a formidable strength, one that could rattle Rhode Island’s comfy left by this time next year.