The 27-year-old Brown University grad already has some important achievements under his belt. He authored a bill, now law, that mandates paid sick days for Rhode Island workers. He pushed for, and won, net metering, which increases the use of renewable energy, and he was an important voice, and legislative co-sponsor, of increasing the tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers. He helped start the Resist RI activist group and, before that, the Providence Student Union, an activist group for students.
Regunberg’s decision to run for higher office sets up a potential primary against current Lt. Governor Dan McKee, a conservative-leaning Democrat, and opens up his District 4 House seat, which the progressive left hopes remains deep blue. I caught up with Regunberg, via email, to ask him about his campaign, his political strategy, why he’s running for lieutenant governor, and what he likes and doesn’t like about politics.
In one sentence, why are you running for lt. governor?
I’m running for Lt. Governor to bring the people’s voice to the State House – to be an independent advocate for all the Rhode Islanders who can’t afford an insider lobbyist.
With perhaps the notable exception of Bob Healey (who once campaigned on eliminating the position!) everyone who has ever run for lt. governor has promised to do big things with the bully pulpit or use to use the office raise the profile of a specific issue or cause. What are you going to do differently? Do you have a lt. governor role model? Is there someone whose tenure you might model yours after?
We’ve seen a number of Lieutenant Governors do important work from that office. Elizabeth Roberts was key to RI’s successful ACA implementation, Charlie Fogarty did important work around long-term care, and Richard Licht was the force that got some significant legislation passed, like the first iteration of family leave.
Still, I want to re-envision what that office can be. In NYC they have the position of the Public Advocate, which is seen as a watchdog for the public. As a constitutionally separate office, I think the RI Lieutenant Governor can be that independent advocate to bring communities into the State House, strengthen public accountability in state government, and help move a bold progressive agenda.
I’m an organizer. I’ve demonstrated that I know how to bring people together to take on special interests and win real change. So let’s use the Lt. Governor’s statewide bullhorn to bring thousands of Rhode Islanders together, let’s use its convening authority to forge strong coalitions (the unsexy work that is so important to building power, but that we often neglect because it’s hard and takes real capacity), and let’s use its resources to organize and bring the public into the State House in more powerful ways than folks up there are used to.
What are three of the policy issues you’ll want work on as lt. gov? How will you do so? And what will success look like?
We’ve got so much work to do in RI, it’s hard to name three. But there’s so much potential, too. I want to continue pushing forward on the issues I’ve fought for as a legislator. We need a statewide official who will push for economic development that comes from the ground up, by taking on inequality and securing living wages for all working families. We need to strengthen the movement to guarantee healthcare as a fundamental human right, not a privilege for those who can afford it. We need to defend our immigrant neighbors who contribute so much to our state. We need to rebuild our crumbling schools, and make sure the top 1% pays their fair share. We need to reform our criminal justice system with a focus on racial justice. We need to launch a Green New Deal to put thousands of Rhode Islanders to work expanding clean energy. And we absolutely must stand up to protect a woman’s right to choose, no matter what happens in Washington.
The work will look different on each of those fights. For some, it’s about using the Lt. Governor’s office to help build the coalition necessary to create enough political will to take bold action – for example, we desperately need to establish a really strong blue-green alliance to take climate action to the next level, which is going to take a lot of time and patience and relationship-building and policy development. For some fights, the work is around shifting the narrative – for example, using the statewide bully pulpit to consistently push back against trickle-down economics and for economic development that puts middle-class and working families front and center. And for a lot of fights, the focus must be on elevating new voices from the community and developing the next generation of leaders.
How well do you know Rhode Island outside of Providence and the urban core? What areas do you wish you knew better prior to launching your campaign? What areas are you looking forward to getting to know better?
I love Rhode Island. This is my home, and I’m absolutely looking forward to spending a whole lot of time in every corner of it – rural and urban, red and blue. My organizing and legislative efforts have brought me around the state a great deal prior to this campaign, but there’s always a lot more to learn, and I’m excited to continue that work!
Will you miss being a legislator? What was your favorite aspect of the job? What was your least favorite aspect?
I’ve loved my time as a legislator, and I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish alongside some great colleagues in the General Assembly. But I’ve been in state government long enough to know that the system needs change. I’ve seen firsthand how often Rhode Islanders who can’t afford a State House lobbyist get ignored. The only way to change that is to bring the people’s voice to the State House – to strengthen public accountability and get folks organized to make their voices heard. That’s why I’m running to be your Lt. Governor.
Some progressives wish you stood up more to House leadership as a legislator. What are your thoughts on that?
My focus has been on getting policy through to make real change for families, and I’ll work with anyone to do that. But I do think when all of our progressive legislators, including me, are primarily focused on specific policy campaigns, that creates a gap on the bigger picture, narrative-shifting, public accountability work that also needs to happen (and that, when it does happen, opens up more opportunities on the policy front). We should be diversifying our strategies, and that’s a big part of why I’m running for Lt. Governor – because it’s an office that is ideally suited to help fill that gap and provide some leadership, direction, and cover on that bigger picture work.
Tell me one thing you like about current Lt. Governor Dan McKee. What do you see as your biggest policy differences with him? How will you comport yourself and the office differently than he has?
I like the current Lt. Governor, I think his tours have been very positive. And I’m looking forward to a respectful campaign focused on the issues where we have different visions – standing up for working families, taking bold climate action, doing what it takes to protect a woman’s right to choose, repairing our crumbling public schools, making sure the top 1% pays their fair, and more. I’m running because too many Rhode Islanders are struggling, and we need new energy, new ideas, and new leadership. I have a vision for that office as an independent advocate for all the families who can’t afford a State House lobbyist, and I’m excited to take that vision across our state.
What’s your favorite and least favorite aspect to politics?
My favorite quote from one of my top political role models, the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, answers both questions: “Politics is not just about power and money games, politics can be about the improvement of people’s lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about more peace and more justice.”