BURRILLVILLE – Aaron Regunberg believes that Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor should serve as a watchdog over the state legislature, acting as the people’s advocate and holding others in power accountable.
Regunberg says it’s a different philosophy than the one that’s guided the office in the past.
And in his opinion, it’s an approach to the job that would help to protect state residents from “bad deals” such as a proposal by Invenergy, LLC to build a power plant in the town of Burrillville.
“That’s the exciting potential to me: to bring some accountability to the legislature,” Regunberg told a crowd of Burrillville residents packed into the basement of First Universalist Church Wednesday night. “That’s one of the things that’s missing from our government, that watchdog.”
Regunberg will face Democratic incumbent Daniel McKee for the lieutenant governor position in a primary on Wednesday, Sept. 12.
A progressive Democrat who, for the past four years, has represented House District 4 in Providence, Regunberg noted that he was the first politician to come out against Invenergy’s proposal, a controversial project that would see a 1,000 megawatt gas-burning facility built off of Wallum Lake Road.
Many say the issue has galvanized Burrillville voters since it first came to light in 2015, and over the past three years, opponents of the plant have gathered momentum in their campaign.
“I have been publicly engaged in the fight against Invenergy since day one,” Regunberg said. “I think we can win this fight, but no matter what happens, it’s made a big difference.”
The representative’s visit to Burrillville was the latest in a series of town hall-style meetings organized by resident Donna Woods, a vocal opponent of Invenergy’s proposal. Woods opened the event with a speech aimed at those in the room who have worked to draw attention to the issue.
“We are in a war,” Woods said. “A war does not have to be fought with guns and bombs and on foreign soil.”
“Our weapons are truth, education, morality, confrontation, and most importantly, votes,” she said. “This issue that we battle will be a deciding factor in who gets elected. They can’t say they weren’t warned.”
Several residents gathered at the forum cited the plant as a central issue for them in the upcoming election, and thanked Regunberg for his support.
“You were opposed to this from the very beginning,” said Jason Olkowski, a Burrillville resident who has worked against the proposal through the organization Keep Rhode Island Beautiful. “We have had to beg people to support us.”
Regunberg said that his opponent documented support of the plant in a survey put out by the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council.
Contacted by NRI NOW this week, McKee said he did not know what survey Regunberg was referring to, but pointed to a statement his office put out in May.
“As a former mayor, the lieutenant governor has been and continues to be supportive of the community of Burrillville,” the press release noted. “Unless and until they have a meaningful voice in the process, the lieutenant governor cannot support the proposed power plant.”
“Representing the municipalities the way I have, I think it’s very important that towns have a say in something like this,” McKee told NRI NOW.
Woods has offered politicians for all high-ranking state offices in Rhode Island the opportunity to meet with residents. While McKee has not been among those to participate in a question and answer session at the small community church where the forums are held, he did cite his record in working for northern Rhode Island voters.
A sheet highlighting McKee’s accomplishments points to his work in winning back money for ratepayers from utility companies including National Grid. It also points to his role in eliminating a tax on kegs; his work in organizing a lawsuit against drug manufacturers that aims to help those suffering from opioid addiction; and the $10,000 his office raised to launch Rhode Island’s first statewide scholarship program for high school entrepreneurs encouraging young people to open small businesses.
McKee, the former mayor of Cumberland, has served in the role since 2015.
In his talk with Burrillville residents this week, Regunberg said that he’s been personally inspired by the town’s effort to fight the power plant proposal.
“When this fight began i was not very optimistic about it,” Regunberg said. “They had all the money. They had all of the corporate attorneys. You have proven them wrong. There’s a lot of us that have been inspired by your fight.”
The representative cited issues like making healthcare and prescription drugs more affordable, and government more accessible and accountable to the public, among his priorities. He pointed to legislation he supported that would have made it illegal for lobbyists to make contributions to political candidates.
“Policy ought to be decide on the strength of an argument, not the size of the check someone can write,” Regunberg said.
He also pointed out that the lieutenant governor’s office is constitutionally separate from governor’s office.
“It is an autonomous office and i think it should be acting like that,” he said, noting that he’d like to see it used as a “bully pulpit to call out the bad deals.”
He noted that the office has a budget of just over $1 million.
“It’s got some resources and that, I think, is critical,” Regunberg said. “That’s the one office that’s not beholden to any other interests. There’s so much more potential than what we’ve seen recently.”
Resident Terry Lacey asked Regunberg about his plan to bring businesses into the state.
“I think that in Rhode Island, we’ve had it a little upside down,” Regunberg said, pointing to state efforts to lure in businesses from elsewhere, rather than support small, local economic efforts. “It doesn’t trickle down. They keep it at the top.”
Mark St. Pierre, a candidate for the Town Council, pointed to the resolutions in opposition to the Burrillville plant signed by more than 30 municipalities in the state.
“Why are we still having this conversation?” asked St. Pierre. “It seems like Smith Hill has got its own agenda and it’s not the people’s agenda.”
Regunberg said that his four years as a representative have been a learning experience.
“I was blown away by how quickly in statehouse you can find yourself in a bubble,” he said. “I think that’s a lot of where that disconnect happens.”
“Do we give in to the Invenergys of the world? My opponent and I have very different answers to these questions,” said Regunberg. “That office should be a public advocate. Let’s take that office for the people.”
“I’ve seen that it is possible to bring people together to win real change,” Regunberg added. “The groups that can write big checks drown out the voices of regular people. That’s why I’m here today.”