For the first time since 2012, both the Democratic and Republican parties will hold contested primary elections for the Rhode Island District 2 seat in the House of Representatives.
Rep. Jim Langevin has held the seat since 2001, and is running for what would be his 11th term. He will face a first-time progressive challenger in the Democratic primary, while a former state representative and a third-time Republican primary candidate will compete in their primary on Sept. 8.
Langevin, longtime incumbent, faces young progressive upstart
In the Democratic primary, Langevin, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly 20 years, will face Dylan Conley in another political race that highlights the progressive/establishment split in the Democratic Party.
Langevin was a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1988 until he was elected Rhode Island Secretary of State in 1994. He ran for Congress in 2000, and has been in office ever since. Langevin serves on the Committee of Armed Services and the Committee on Homeland Security. He is co-chair of the House Cybersecurity Caucus, which he helped found, and serves on many other caucuses such as the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus, the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, the Congressional Diabetes Caucus and the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Caucus.
He said he is running for reelection because he believes more needs to be done to address the economic fallout and health crisis of the pandemic.
“There's still more work to be done to help the people of Rhode Island, and the people of our country get through this crisis right now,” Langevin said. “We are battling a war on two fronts: The COVID healthcare crisis, but also the economic fallout from the COVID crisis.”
Conley is an East Providence native who served as an attorney at his father State Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Conley’s law firm and for several municipalities, boards and unions across the state. He is currently chair of the Providence Board of Licenses and serves on the board of the Federal Hill House Association, and was part of Millennial Rhode Island’s first board of directors.
Conley announced his intention to run in June, a late start for a primary that happens three months later. He said that the pandemic’s spread and protests for the Black Lives Matter movement encouraged him to run.
“This moment in time is completely unique. It’s an opportunity for change that I don’t think I’ll see again in my lifetime,” Conley said. We could have a unified government with Democratic control of the House, Senate and president. We need to meet the moment, and Congressman Langevin’s legislative history is waiting on the sidelines until he can do a basic move. He’s not driven by policy, and right now is a policy driven moment.”
During his 10 terms in Congress, Langevin sponsored two bills that were signed into law. One of them, cosponsored by Rep. David Cicilline, renamed the post office on 7715 Post Road in North Kingstown after Melvoid J. Benson, the first African-American woman to serve in the Rhode Island General Assembly. The other revised the Future Farmers of America charter to remove the U.S. Secretary of Education as the organization’s Board of Directors chair, as well as “making it a purpose of the organization to be an integral component of agricultural education.”
Of the 251 bills Langevin has introduced in Congress, 16 were chosen for floor consideration, but he has also co-sponsored 3,493 bills. For comparison, Rep. David Cicilline, who represents Rhode Island District 1 in the House, has five sponsored bills that have gone into law since he was sworn in on 2011, over 3,000 pieces of legislation proposed as a sponsor or co-sponsor and a higher national profile due to his investigations into major technology companies like Facebook and Google.
Conley criticizes Langevin for his low profile in the House, but Langevin defended his legislative record by explaining that the process is more complex than outsiders may believe.
“At the state level, a representative or senator would introduce a bill, a single bill, and you would see that bill move through the process as an individual bill and presumably, hopefully it makes it through the House and the Senate and the governor signed that into law,” Langevin said. “In Washington that's not how it works. In Washington, what happens is you can introduce an individual bill, but very often later on that individual bill might get or would get transformed into an amendment to be offered on a part of a larger bill that is moving its way to the Congress.”
Langevin said one of his proudest moments in Congress was supporting the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He said that the plan was not perfect, but he supported it because he felt it expanded healthcare coverage to more Americans. Langevin criticized Republicans for trying to repeal the act, but he said that their initiatives weakened it even if it was not repealed fully.
“I hope to see [the Affordable Care Act] move forward and cover more people, lowering premiums and hopefully I want to see us establish a public option in every state in the country for every insurance market, so that people have a choice between a public option that the government offers a health care plan, and what [their employer] might offer as a private plan, so people have choices to choose from,” Langevin said. “And then ultimately, at some point, working toward the idea of Medicare for All.”
Conley also supports Medicare for All, but takes a more aggressive approach in wanting to implement it sooner rather than later. He said that this could be funded through a millionaire tax proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as this would address income inequality and access to healthcare.
“I think the biggest thing that COVID-19 proved is that healthcare is a community issue,” Conley explained. “When vulnerable people don’t have access to quality healthcare, we’re only as strong as our baseline. We don’t have sufficient support or opportunity for the baseline of our economy.”
Langevin voted in favor of the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion COVID-19 economic stimulus package passed in the House by a Democratic majority. However, the Republican-controlled Senate considered the act “dead on arrival,” and instead proposed their own $1 trillion aid package called the HEALS Act, which has not had any action taken on it yet. Both bills propose stimulus checks of $1,200 per individual earning up to $75,000 and $2,400 per couple earning up to $150,000, but the HEALS Act would add an additional $500 per dependent, while the HEROES Act would offer an additional $1,200 per up to three dependents. Immigrants with taxpayer identification numbers but without Social Security numbers would qualify for payments under the HEROES Act, but not the HEALS Act.
While the HEROES Act calls for an extension of the eviction moratorium, $200 billion in hazard pay for essential workers, provides $600 in weekly unemployment insurance through January 2021, and continues the suspension on student loan interests and payments through September 2021, the HEALS ACT does not call for an extension of the eviction moratorium, does not provide hazard pay to essential workers, cuts weekly unemployment insurance to $200 a week through September where it would be replaced with a payment worth 70 percent of a worker’s previous wages combined with state benefits and cuts student loan repayment plans to either an income driven plan or a standard plan, with an option to defer payments up to October 2020 if they have no income.
Langevin understands that many Americans are upset that Congress has been in a stalemate regarding a second relief package.
“Mitch McConnell, originally said 'Let the states go bankrupt’ which is outrageous,” Langevin said. “He's since backed off with that, but [the Republicans] haven't taken up another aid bill yet. Now I know that negotiations are going on between the House and the Senate and the White House. But, the sooner we pass another COVID aid bill, the better it will be for the American people.”
Conley was critical of the relief packages.
“The pandemic relief packages are an absolute mess,” Conley said. “They are unpredictable, they fail small businesses, they encourage unemployment. I would encourage a monthly payout to all Americans, and a workshare bonus split between the employer and the employee.”
Conley made income inequality a major part of his platform, and would like to reverse the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, increase the earned income tax credit, cut income taxes below the poverty line and median income lines and close corporate tax loopholes. He described the pandemic as “reshaping the American economy,” and hopes that others will see a need for the economy to change.
“The American ideal is equal opportunity but American reality is not that,” Conley said. “You can predict someone’s wealth by their zip code, race, identity. That’s not true equality. We’d need expansion of low income tax credits. expansion of child tax credit. Shift payroll taxes on corporations, reduce income taxes on individuals.”
As mentioned above, Conley was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in running for office. He does not believe that police departments should be abolished, but that they should be trained to handle situations in nonviolent ways. He also believes that some money could be reinvested towards community resources. Conley also said that education and ending mass incarceration were important for progress against racism.
“Fundamentally, what we have in this country is a history of insufficient opportunity for minorities, especially African Americans,” Conley said. “If we want economic equity, we need a system that gives all parties equal opportunity. This would allow a closure in the wealth gap. One way to do that is to radically expand voting opportunities.
Langevin, who wanted to become a police officer before he was paralyzed, said that racial injustice is a serious concern.
“I know that the vast majority of police officers who serve, go to work every day trying to do the right thing, they remember their, their training and their motto to protect and serve and that's what they do,” Langevin said. “So, I don't want to paint all people in law enforcement with a broad brush because that's not fair. But there's something going on in this country, whether it's in training or in attitudes or discrimination that African American people or people in communities of color are not getting or being treated fairly and justly under the law. So we need to revisit how we do police training. We need to revisit, you know, where are we putting our resources. It's important to properly fund our police departments, but it's also vitally important that we have community resources like crisis intervention counselors or non violence, counselors that also need to be a part of the equation and maybe would be a more appropriate response.”
When asked if he would support term limits, Conley said that he does not think it could be done, at least not in a traditional way.
“It would require a constitutional amendment, so the likelihood of Congress voting to give themself a term limit is zero,” Conley said. “What you can do is actually make elections competitive. Every person in America gets $1,000 to donate to a candidate of their choice. Make election day a federal holiday. You do all of those things, each one of those policies mitigates the incumbent advantage. Competitive elections are term limits done well.”
When he was 16, Langevin was accidentally shot at a Boy Scout Program with the Warwick Police Department that left him paralyzed. He is the first quadrapalegic person in Congress, and has advocated for disability rights throughout his career. He said his experience motivated him to get involved in politics.
He did not comment directly on term limits but said “I'd like to continue to serve the people in the state of Rhode Island, for as long as they would like me to be their Congressman, as long as they want me to serve them in Washington.”
“I'm honored to be the voice and the vote of the people of Rhode Island in e Washington and I'm humbled by the trust they placed in me time and time again. And this journey all started if you remember when I had my accident, the community rallied around me at a time when I and my family needed the most, and that really touched me in a profound way. And I said back then, there were ever anything that I could do to give back to the community that rallied around my family, when I needed the most, that I would jump at that chance. I found that passion and that that way of giving back to public service. I also found something that I really enjoyed. I didn't know that it was going to be a lifelong effort and way of giving service and way of giving back but it's really has been an interesting career and over these many years it's gone by quite fast.”
Regardless of winner, there is a chance that the District 2 representative may not hold his seat for much longer. Rhode Island has been rumored to lose a seat in the House of Representatives within the next four years due to its stagnant population. Langevin encouraged voters to complete census forms for accurate representation, but also because the loss of a House seat could cut federal aid by tens of millions of dollars, according to Langevin.
“Doing the census right now makes it even more challenging, not only here in Rhode Island but around the country so hopefully we're going to get an accurate count,” Langevin said. “I encourage people to answer those census forms and make sure that every person in the household is counted because if we lose a seat, it means significant amount of loss of federal revenue that we all depend on for things like public education, health care and some of the other important needs that that we have in our state, and we'll be really hurting. And it's not just about one year. If we lose a congressional seat, that the funding formula that census, those numbers stay in effect for a decade. And so it'd be a significant financial hit to Rhode Island if we don't keep to congressional seats.”
Langevin has over $1.2 million in his campaign account, while Conley has a bit over $9,000 according to public data from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Langevin has spent $660,845.74 on his campaign as of Aug. 31, while Conley has spent $10,728.82.
Lancia runs active Republican campaign, opponent keeps low profile
For the Republican nomination, former state representative Bob Lancia is running against Donald Fredrick Robbio, who even those in the Rhode Island Republican Party know very little about.
Lancia is a U.S. Navy veteran born, raised and currently residing in Cranston. He served as the District 16 representative in the General Assembly beginning in 2015, but lost his 2018 reelection bid to Democrat Christopher Millea in that year’s general election. His achievements include co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill signed into law that increased the distance that a registered sex offender cannot reside near a school from 300 to 1,000 feet and a bill that “eliminates the requirement that a service person serving in conflicts or undeclared wars receive a campaign ribbon or expeditionary medal in order to receive a property tax exemption.” He served on the House Veterans’ Affairs and the House Health, Education and Welfare committees.
Robbio previously ran for the District 2 congressional seat in 2010 and 2012, losing both times in the Republican primary. According to the Providence Journal, Robbio is 88 years old and a Navy chaplain. However, little else is known about him beyond this. Robbio does not have a campaign website or social media, the Warwick Beacon was unable to contact him for this story and the Rhode Island Republican Party said they have never been able to reach him either. The party endorsed Lancia for the seat.
“To my knowledge, I have never met, spoken, or even received an email from Mr. Robbio (I have no contact information for him whatsoever),” William Ricci, secretary of the Rhode Island Republican Party said in an email. “I am not aware that he has attended or spoken at any GOP events or meetings. Although he qualified for the ballot, I am not sure he is running an active campaign. I honestly had forgotten that there was even a Republican primary in [Congressional District 2].”
As vice chair of the Rhode Island Republican Libertarian Caucus, Lancia explained that the country needs to decrease spending and erase the deficit. He also believes that progressives are leading the country down a path towards socialism, which he thinks will harm people’s freedoms and quality of life.
“I honestly believe that this election, more than any other, is a critical moment in our history,” Lancia said. “With what’s been going on both in the state as well as nationally, we need new leadership to stand up. Basically, my biggest concern is in terms of whether this nation is going to stay capitalist or become socialist. I’m running to ensure that it remains capitalist instead of socialist.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shambled the economy at the state, federal and international level. Lancia believes that deregulation can help businesses, particularly smaller ones shuttered by the pandemic, thrive. He also believes that certain education initiatives touted by others recently are not as necessary as they may believe.
“We need more initiatives for small businesses, all across the board,” Lancia said. “One of the things I’m most concerned about is the thought that everyone needs to have a college education. I’ve talked to businessmen, college manufacturers. Not every kid needs to go to college because there are jobs and industries that don’t require a college education. We’re talking to a variety of employers in Rhode Island so we need more diverse training opportunities.”
Also on the topic of education, Lancia said that he would support a hybrid of online and in-learning, but he is concerned that schools may not be able to afford the ventilation and personal protective equipment to do so safely. He claims the governor has not done enough to balance the budgets so schools have enough money to reopen, but he also criticized both Democrats and Republicans at the federal level for stalling the passage of a second stimulus package that could help schools as well as the economy.
Lancia advocated for some changes in the healthcare system, but not through a single-payer system proposed by liberals.
“I would like to see people who like their healthcare keep it but the cost of medicine in this country is out of control,” Lancia said. “We need to be able to shop for healthcare across state lines. I’d like to see partnerships with medical schools so when we graduate doctors, we’d have ‘doctorpreneurs,’ which is the term I’ve seen thrown around that I really like.”
Lancia was endorsed by National Right to Life. Langevin has previously said that he is personally opposed to abortion but does not believe the country should overturn Roe v. Wade, while Conley has been vocally pro-choice.
“As I have said before, my candidacy is centered on providing a voice for the silent majority, the Americans who cannot lobby and protest because they are working, taking care of the elderly and their families, trying to build a future,” Lancia said in a press release. “That absolutely includes the unborn, who have no voices but ours.”
Lancia also believes that despite the Democratic Party’s reputation of being more welcoming of racial minorities than Republicans, the Republican Party is catching up, and Democrats still have blind spots on the matter.
“I’ve told my party that we’re a party of old white people way back in 2006,” Lancia said. “We really need to work with those communities, understand those issues. My wife and I made it our business to work with marginalized communities and actually know the people we’re trying to serve, so I think the [Republican] party’s doing a better job than back in 2006. When we see how Black people and Latinos are economically compared to others, it’s really upsetting. Yet [Langevin] hasn’t done a darn thing to bring money to the state, to those in poverty, to these communities he keeps saying he’s defending.”
Ultimately Lancia argued that Langevin is a “career politician” and that Rhode Island needs change.
“My opponent, who has been in Congress for 20 years, has passed two bills, one bill to rename a post office,” Lancia said. “I think I can do better than that. “We don’t need people who have been in office 20, 30, 40 years. So the first bill I would put in would be term limits. I promised that to the people I donated to.”
Lancia has $15,814.02 in his campaign account as of Aug. 31, according to FEC records, has received $27,109.54 and has spent $11,295,52. Robbio has no data reported to the FEC.