Omar Bah survived persecution and torture as a journalist reporting on human rights in the West African nation of The Gambia. After barely eluding a government manhunt, Bah wound up in Rhode Island 15 years ago. He went on to get four college degrees, buy a home, start a family and establish the Refugee Dream Center, a nonprofit that helps other displaced people.

Bah said that for him the American dream is not an abstract concept.

“I came to Rhode Island, hearing the name just one day before arrival,” he recalled, “and I got friendships, support, welcomed by the regular American. I got scholarships and jobs and family that I never had. It was build myself from the bottom up, get out of poverty.”

Now, Bah is one of seven Democrats running for the Second Congressional District seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, who first won election back in 2000.

Bah is at Felicia’s Coffee, a bustling spot on Post Road in East Greenwich, to meet with supporters and spread his three-part message the old-fashioned way. He said he wants to defend the American dream, protect democracy, and help young people, through his own experience as an immigrant from rural Africa who made it in America.

“That can show any kid, whether it’s in East Greenwich or Providence, that if this kid can do this, you can do better,” he said.

Bah’s dramatic personal story sets him apart from other candidates in the Second District. But he has just a trickle of campaign money -- about $12,000 so far.

That’s less than two percent of the $1.4 million that the best-funded candidate, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, said he’s collected since the start of the year. This disparity means that Bah and other under-funded CD2 candidates will find it tough to boost their name recognition through television commercials to get their message out.

Federal campaign finance reports for the first quarter of 2022 will become public Friday. Some of the campaigns in CD2 have already offered estimates of their fundraising.

Bah says a committed group of volunteers could help his campaign make up in sweat equity what it might lack in dollars. “So we are leveraging the lack of money.”


Most Americans want to limit campaign spending and believe big donors have too much influence, according to the Pew Research Center. Despite that, a series of court decisions has reinforced a status quo in which the cascade of money in politics grows by hundreds of millions of dollars every few years, up to $14 billion in 2020.

Magaziner is unapologetic about his fundraising, and he fueled his first run for treasurer in 2014 with an $800,000 personal loan. When he announced a change in course from a run for governor in January, Magaziner said the important thing is keeping a Democrat in the Second Congressional District.

“Make no mistake about it -- what is happening in Washington right now is serious, and we cannot take the risk that a Republican represent Rhode Island in the United States Congress,” he said during a news conference in Cranston. “Not in this cycle, not in this of all years.”

But other contenders say money in politics is a real issue.

“These races should not be decided by who has the most money, but rather who can do the best job,” said Joy Fox, one of the other Democrats running in CD2.

Fox is a former staffer for Congressman Langevin and former Gov. Gina Raimondo who leads a strategic communications company. Fox lags the top-two Democratic fundraisers in the race, although by collecting more than $175,000 so far, she’ll have some ability to spread her message.


Unlike other candidates in the race, Fox is a lifelong resident of Warwick and Cranston and she emphasizes her strong roots in the district.

The other Democratic woman in the race, Sarah Morgenthau, has declined to specify whether she’s ever lived year-round in Rhode Island, although she calls a family summer home in North Kingstown a constant in her life. As a veteran of the Obama and Biden administrations, Morgenthau has a lot of connections and she says she’s raised close to $500,000 for her campaign.

“What I bring to the table is extensive experience and relationships, in Washington, in the business community, that allow me to get things done and help the people of the Second District,” she said.

Another candidate raising serious money is David Segal, a former Providence city councilor and former state rep who co-founded a national activist group, Demand Progress, that has a million-plus members.

Segal said he’s long supported public funding of campaigns. In a nod to the real world of politics, he’s nonetheless raised close to $300,000 so far -- about the same amount he spent during a losing First Congressional District campaign in 2010.

“I never anticipated that I would have the most money in this field,” Segal said, “but I think I would have more than enough to be competitive and ensure that every voter in the district is afforded an opportunity to understand what I stand for.”

Three Republicans -- state Sen. Jessica de la Cruz of North Smithfield, former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, and former state Rep. Bob Lancia of Cranston -- and two other Democrats are also running in the Second District.

Democrat Michael Neary, a former John Kasich staffer, was recently arrested in Ohio and charged with menacing and drug possession. He did not respond to a message.

Earlier in the campaign, Neary tried to make an issue of Seth Magaziner's $800,000 personal loan from his first run for treasurer, pointing to how Magaziner was earning far less than $100,000 at the time.

Magaziner's campaign declined to make him available to respond to questions on the loan.

In a statement, campaign spokeswoman Patricia Socarras offered this explanation regarding the source of the loan: "The treasurer's family has been generous to him over the years, primarily through the annual gift tax exemption, which allowed him to put his own resources into a previous campaign eight years ago. The treasurer has always followed every campaign finance law and regulation."

Another Democratic candidate, Cameron Moquin, is a lieutenant in the Providence Fire Department. Like Omar Bah, Moquin is a first-time candidate who calls the September 13 primary election a referendum on the power of money in politics.

Citing the example of the late Robert “Cool Moose” Healey, who spent little money while attracting more than 20 percent of the vote in the 2014 race for governor, Moquin hopes his commitment to social justice and other issues will propel his campaign.

“I haven’t raised enough to even show up on the radar for the FEC,” he acknowledged.

Instead, Moquin is using humor. He tweeted a challenge this week to the other CD2 candidates to run at least part of the Providence Marathon, without help from personal riches, dark money, super PACs, or corporate money.

But in a sign of the challenge facing under-funded candidates, Moquin has fewer than 100 followers on Twitter, so the reach of this message was pretty limited.

Ian Donnis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. Sign up here for his free weekly RI politics newsletter.