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Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Gregg Amore’s run for Secretary of State built on reputation and relationships

Secretary of State plays critical role in overseeing elections

By Uprise RI

State Representative Gregg Amore (Democrat, District 65, East Providence) is running for the position of Rhode Island Secretary of State in the Democratic Primary against Stephanie Beauté and if he wins, he’ll be facing Republican Pat Cortellessa in the general. Our conversation took place on Amore’s porch in East Providence on Saturday. It has been edited for clarity. See the Uprise RI Secretary of State forum here.

The Rhode Island State Primary is on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. Early voting and mail-in ballots are already being cast.

Uprise RI: Before you were a state rep, you had not sought public office before, correct?

Gregg Amore: Right. I was a columnist in the local newspaper. That was my entry into the political discussion other than my day job, which is teaching. I was writing a weekly column for the East Providence Post and it was by and large, 90%, about politics. I joined the Democratic City Committee right before I ran for state rep. I was 45 years old when I ran, which is why it’s strange for me to be called a career politician.

Uprise RI: What is it like to run for statewide office as opposed to running as a state Rep, basically in your extended neighborhood?

Gregg Amore: It’s much different. The money is the biggest difference, right? I have a pretty good reach because I’ve been in the General Assembly for 10 years, but statewide nobody knows who I am. I’ve been an athletic administrator and a teacher, and all the civics teachers come together at workshops, things like that, so I have a broad number of people I know across the state. It’s difficult to get your message across without television ads, but in this cycle, as you know, television ads aren’t doing it. That’s the biggest difference. When I knocked the door in my district, chances are, it was going to be someone I grew up with, someone I taught or I taught their kid.

I was out here the other night with Matt Dawson, who I endorsed for the House District 65 race. [Matt Dawson and San Shoppell are running to replace Amore in District 65 in the Democratic Party. The winner will face Republican John Peters in the general election.] I knew 80% of the people that we came across, even with the turnover. It’s nice when you can do that. I have an advantage locally because I’m a teacher. But running for statewide office entirely different. I have a small amount of time for personal contact, and it’s hard. We did a 140,000 household mailer. That costs a lot of money. We did digital ads. I’m breaking through.

At a West Warwick parade people say, “I saw your ad” or “I saw a sign,” but the biggest challenge is the 24/7 nature of the campaign. In a local campaign you come home from work, put your shorts on and hit the doors. This is different. This is interviews and making decisions on media. The statement I put out in regard to the voting machine staff snafu; no one was asking me to put a statement out as a state rep in real time. I was my own show. I ran my own campaigns. I did my own press. I wrote my own palm cards. I had to do this with a team, which is much different.

Uprise RI: You can’t really door knock in a race like this…

Gregg Amore: I am door knocking. I’ve done it just to get to every part of the state, and I’ve done it more in the last three weeks, since early voting I started. Because I know who’s voted, who hasn’t voted and I know if they’re a two or three time primary voter. When I was in East Greenwich the other night, we had 40 contacts and 35 of them are going to vote. And I point out to them that I’m the only statewide candidate they’re likely to see. They say, “We’ve never seen a statewide candidate knock at my door.” That’s going to be word of mouth too. We’ve done that as a strategy, but we were going to do that either way. No matter who the opponent was, we were going to spend some time knocking doors because we think it’s important. We’ve been to every corner of the state knocking doors.

Uprise RI: When you’re out knocking doors, what are you hearing from people about their concerns, especially as concerns the Secretary of State?

Gregg Amore: It’s been recent news stuff, right? Because my list is Democratic or unaffiliated voters who have voted in Democratic primaries, the first thing I’m hearing at many doors is reproductive rights. “I have a granddaughter and I’m really disappointed in the direction the country’s going.” That’s been the number one thing. I have not heard at Democratic primary houses about the cost of groceries or gas, I’ve heard about reproductive rights. I’ve heard about democracy. That’s what I’m hearing.

Uprise RI: Democracy is in your wheelhouse as a Secretary of State candidate.

Gregg Amore: I’ve gotten a few voter ID questions. I’ve gotten a few about ranked choice voting. “What do you think about all mail ballots?” And these are people that are tuned in because they voted two of three primaries. I went to a house in Charleston with Tina Spears and we went up to the door of a house with a veteran’s license plate, an American flag, but it was a Democratic voter. He came out and said, “Look, before we start, if you don’t support a woman’s right to choose, we’re not going to have a conversation.” [Tina Spears is running for the open seat vacated by Republican Blake Flilppi in House District 36.]

It’s on my Palm card. I was the only male sponsor in the top 10 on the bill [to codify Roe v Wade] for five for years. And I’m a big supporter of the EACA [Equality in Abortion Coverage Act]. I whipped it for it but we didn’t have the numbers.

Uprise RI: Well…

Gregg Amore: We had the numbers if everybody showed up.

Uprise RI: I think it will pass next session.

Gregg Amore: I do too.

Uprise RI: The timing of the Supreme Court dropping the Roe reversal decision the morning after the House closed up shop for the session was embarrassing…

Gregg Amore: Liana Cassar and I would go back and forth on the numbers and we’d go through names and she’d say, “They promised me.” And I’d say, “They weren’t as firm with me.” It’s just a matter of your relationship. We had our list of people, but are they really going to be there when it counts? The Speaker was in, which is interesting, because a lot of times the Speaker doesn’t tell you yes or no. But he was in. My number was on the number, which to me is not there. You’ve got to go in there three up. [Representative Liana Cassar (Democrat, District 66, Barrington, East Providence) was the House sponsor for the EACA and is not seeing reelection.]

Uprise RI: I also knew that the Senate was not likely to pass it.

Gregg Amore: That’s the other dynamic.

Uprise RI: Abortion is not an issue that’s necessarily going to fall into the Secretary of State’s wheelhouse. Is there any way you think it could?

Gregg Amore: We’ve heard from the current Secretary of State [Nellie Gorbea, who is term limited and presently running for Governor] about these issues. She’s wanted to come out as a leader on these issues. We heard Stephanie Beauté the other night in our debate talk about neutrality. I think that’s true when it comes to counting the votes, when it comes to establishing the ballot, when it comes to not putting your thumb on the scale. Neutrality is a false equivalency when we’re talking about what the Democratic values are, as opposed to what the current Republican Party’s values are. So on abortion, I think it’s important for voters to know where are you coming from, because they know that if you’re coming from this point of view on abortion, then you’re probably a person that believes in make voting accessible and not entertaining this idea of widespread voting fraud. That’s the connection I want to make, but I don’t anticipate myself jumping into the fray on issues like that unless they’re directly connected to the office.

Uprise RI: What other contentious issues are you hearing about that are not directly related to the office?

Gregg Amore: Health insurance. It’s been very difficult for some people to get coverage, and the coverage they have is not complete. I haven’t heard much about guns and I think it’s because it’s a Democratic primary, right? Even in the conservative districts, I haven’t really heard much about that. And you know what the numbers are. I tell my colleagues who are back and forth on the gun issue that, politically speaking, you’re all set. The numbers are off the charts for people who want common sense gun control.

Uprise RI: It would not occur to me to ask a candidate for Secretary of State about these issues.

Gregg Amore: I was knocking doors yesterday in Portsmouth and a woman asked me about voter ID. First question, which was really good. Some ask me about education because I introduce myself as a teacher. They’ll ask me about education and what I think will happen with Providence, where I will have no role whatsoever. But it’s just kind of the flow of what’s on their mind and what they connect to. I’ve had people are upset about January 6th. They think Secretary of State and they think, well, this is about elections. They worry about the idea that the election was stolen. I tell them, “This is McCarthyism, only with social media. The nation watched Joseph McCarthy implode before them and it was hard for them to not say he’s out of his mind, this is insane, we can’t back this anymore, enough is enough.” That’s not the case now because of the nature of not only social media, but but our cable media.

Uprise RI: You said you had a question about voter ID. Since it was passed 20 odd years ago voter ID has been a sore spot because some people know it’s racist and classic. What are your thoughts on voter ID? Is it here to stay? If it is, what can we do to make the best of it? If it’s not here to stay, what do we do to get rid of it?

Gregg Amore: This is going to be an interesting answer because I think it’s going to go away because of the way we vote is going to change. Let’s start with the first part. When I got into the House I immediately signed on to the repeal of the voter ID. Larry Valencia was the sponsor and I sat next to him. He knew that I had talked about it on the campaign trail. I wrote about it a lot for the newspaper because my knowledge as a history teacher is that it’s just another form of suppression, and it’s always the same people that things like voter ID are trying to suppress. [Larry Valenicia represented House District 39 (Richmond, Exeter, Hopkinton) from 2010 to 2015.]

Black and brown people, workers, anybody that can’t go to the polls on a certain day, somebody who’s been incarcerated – it’s the same people, right? The times have changed, but it’s the same people. I get in there and there was no appetite for it, none whatsoever. Then it kind of disappeared as an issue in the General Assembly. Nellie Gorbea was always in favor of getting rid of voter ID. She was always anti-voter ID. I respected that because that’s where I was too.

I think the Stacey Abrams movement kind of changed that, because she stopped talking about voter ID and started talking about restrictive voter ID. I think that opens the window to where we’re going to go next. You’ve seen the polling, even Democrats think there should be voter ID and it’s like 60%, not a low number. And then Stacey Abrams started talking about it in relationship to “restrictive.” The Texas voter ID law is the worst example. It’s $40 for the ID. It’s the worst example, but there are other examples of states that have it and they don’t allow provisional ballot like we do. It’s just outrageous. Stacey Abrams started talking about Democrats not being against voter ID, but against voter ID that makes it impossible to vote. For instance, in Rhode Island, we can cure any ballot within moments.

The traditional ballot works really well here because we’re so small. It’s not overwhelming, we don’t do it by counties. It’s functioning. What I think will happen is we will eventually move to a mail system. And that mail system is going to be signature verification like it is an Oregon and Washington. Voter identification may be an aspect of registering to vote in some form, but it’s not going to be an in pocket process. That’s what I believe will happen. I think it’s 10 years away, but I think we’re on our way.

For instance, the situation that happened with the multiple machines with the wrong candidates on the Spanish language screen doesn’t happen with an all mail ballot system. It just doesn’t happen. The strange part about voting in America right now is that the safest form of voting is paper voting, and mail balance might be the safest form of paper voting.

Uprise RI: We always have the paper ballots to go back and recount.

Gregg Amore: It’s unhackable. You can manipulate the mail ballot system, but it’s hard. And we have not seen wide spread significant fraud in the places that do it. That’s the pathway into the ID not being an issue anymore. I don’t think there’s any appetite in the general assembly to repeal voter ID. I know the Co-op candidates talk about Voter ID and I’ve had conversations with Sam Bell and others about it because I think they knew where I was on it, but I have not made it a platform piece. One because I know it’s the General Assembly’s purview and two, I think, I think people aren’t there and we have other fights to fight. [Samuel Bell (Democrat) is the Senator from District 5, Providence.)

Uprise RI: When we talk about mail ballots people think of these mail ballot experts, these hired guns who engage in, if not outright fraud, the appearance of impropriety in the way they collect mail ballots. People who lose the in person vote celebrate because they know somehow that they have the mail ballots locked down.

Gregg Amore: One of the most important things to me about the Let Rhode Island Vote Act is the removal of the witness signatures. That keeps campaigns out of voter’s home. The way the machines operate is, “I have the notary here. I have two witnesses that will sign your ballot.” That puts them into the process. Firstly, those witness signatures were never checked. They could have been anybody wasn’t require anyone. Right. Secondly it took away the private ballot. People talk about harvesting mail ballots, in my mind, that’s harvesting. Having somebody associated with a campaign providing witnesses or a notary, that’s harvesting. I think we did a great thing by removing that.

If you’re running a good campaign, you know who hasn’t sent their mail ballot in yet. I’m going to contact those people. I’m not going into their house to sign their envelope, but I’m going to contact them and say, “I saw that you request a mail ballot. I hope you consider me on September 13th.” If you’re an organized campaign that doesn’t take a lot of money. That takes a computer screen and a phone or door knock or a letter. If you’re an organized campaign, you can use this to your advantage in trying to contact voters.

Uprise RI: Recent news stories make some people question the relationship between the Secretary of State and the Board of Elections. Should we reconfigure the roles of these agencies? Should we switch that around a little bit?

Gregg Amore: I think the way we have it set up keeps the political Secretary of State away from voting, which we need to maintain. The reason the statute requires the, the Board of Elections to do the accuracy and logic testing is because we don’t want politicians in that space. They shouldn’t be there. You don’t want them there. When I read the news I went and looked at the statute. It was clear to me that the testing part of this is on the Board of Elections.

I don’t want to throw anybody at the Board of Elections under the bus. But in this particular case, it’s pretty clear to me that the testing falls to the Board of Elections. And I don’t want the Secretary of State or anybody in that office anywhere near the testing.

Uprise RI: You mentioned ranked choice voting. I’m very interested in ranked choice voting. In the province selection we have three mayoral candidates and it would be helpful to eliminate one of them and make a binary choice through ranked choice voting.

Gregg Amore: Would you be open to an open primary rather than a top two go on the next level? Here’s my issue with ranked choice. Theoretically I like ranked choice for all the democratic reasons that we probably both agree on. The problem is, and I said it in the debate the other night, you can’t take the politics out of politics. It’s going to happen in a ranked choice system, which is designed for you to literally rank the choices. You’re supposed to exhaust your ballot. You’re not supposed to leave any blank. But people do, because there’s going to be a strategy around that. It’s not going to be the democratic process people hope for it to be. There’s going to be political machinations around who should vote for who and who should not vote for who.

That’s problem one in my mind. Problem two is what we saw in New York city. In a day and age where people are questioning election integrity, to take a month to give you a result? And to do it in a way that the media couldn’t explain? I don’t think it’s a problem in Providence, but in a large scale election, people want a result. If it takes a long time, people start to get antsy.

So theoretically I’m a ranked choice fan, but as I said in the debate, we can bring working groups together. Bring the experts in from places that do this, write a report, hand it to the general assembly, find somebody to sponsor legislation and then get it before everybody.

Some of my friends in labor don’t like me saying this, but I’m not terribly opposed to an open primary where Democrats and Republicans are in the primary together and you take the top two. We’re probably going to get more voter participation in something like that. We’re at 46% unaffiliated voters. Some of them just don’t want to go into a Democratic or Republican primary. They’d rather vote in an unaffiliated primary cast their ballot and move on. That’s something I’ve been thinking about.

Uprise RI: If you win the primary what are your thoughts on the general election? How is your strategy going to change? You’d be facing Republican Pat Cortellessa.

Gregg Amore: Well, obviously we’re going to have to appeal to a broader electorate, but my message won’t change. I was out there on the Let Rhode Island Vote Act. I have been for years. I’ve sponsored early voting bills. The voter ID question is a question I answered just the way I answered it here for years. So my message won’t change. I watched the video of Pat Cortellessa accepting the nomination from the Republican party where he said, “It’s the other side of the cheats.” He comes at this from the “election was stolen” perspective. Okay. Let’s have that discussion. Let’s talk about voter integrity and election integrity.

Let’s talk about the 60+ lawsuits. Let’s have that discussion. I’m more than willing to have that discussion. I’m more than willing to have a discussion about civic engagement. I look at this landscape in Rhode Island and I know that this goes counter to what we were talking about six months ago, but I think there’s a democratic friendly landscape here.

Uprise RI: I want to talk a little bit more about how your experience as a teacher and your experience in education makes it easier for you to reach out to the public and get messages out about voting, about the importance of voting, and about the fairness of voting.

Gregg Amore: My plan, if I’m fortunate enough to win, is to create a budget that has a line item for public information, so that the office is out in front of all of the things we’re talking about. It’s what I do. I communicate with people and I’ve got these contacts all over the state in colleges, universities, and high schools who are messengers as well. I talked about a little bit in the debate. I want a liaison program, not only with colleges, universities and, high schools, but with community groups, and use them as town criers. Do it in a grassroots way, targeting misinformation and giving good information.

And this is not only in the area of voter registration and information, but also curriculum. Let’s have the archives be reactive to what the professor, the community group or the high school teacher wants. Tomorrow is Labor Day and I’m going to go to the cemetery to commemorate the Saylesville Massacre. If I’m a Lincoln high school teacher I want to call the archives and get primary documents on Saylesville. “What do you have for me? Give me the list of the people who were in the union, who were arrested.”

Uprise RI: Kids in those mills at that time were no older than the high school kids you’re teaching. They’ll see themselves in those kids, 16 years old and fighting the National Guard…

Gregg Amore: No doubt about it. I used to take my class and we’d walk three quarters of a mile from East Providence High School to Roger Williams Springs. I would sit there with them at the Springs and I’d say, “This guy was alone here. Take the houses out, take the streets out. And he was being chased. Think about survival and think about what prompted him to do to risk that.” Then you can connect that to the risk of coming over the Southern border. It opens itself up. And we have documentation. We have things that we can show them either digitally or, in certain cases in the archives itself. I get excited about this kind of thing. There’s an opportunity to be the educator in chief in regard to our election system.

Uprise RI: I love the new East Providence High School the first time and it was amazing. It was like being on the Enterprise.

Gregg Amore: It’s beautiful.

Uprise RI: We can talk about school construction and bonds and stuff if you want, but I think to myself, how valued the student feels when they go into a school like that. They think, “This is for me to use, to jumpstart my life.”

Gregg Amore: I can’t say it better than that. That’s it.

Uprise RI: But, we have students in Providence go into schools that are simply unacceptable…

Gregg Amore: Because I was so deeply involved in this, I toured probably 25 high schools around the region. Most of them were Massachusetts because they’ve been doing most of the new school construction. I would talk to people and they’d say, “We tore down the high school that was built in 1974 because it’s usefulness was gone.” We’re battling here to replace something from 1954 and earlier.

Uprise RI: Built by the WPA.

Gregg Amore: This is what people don’t realize. You can reconfigure those old buildings, you just can’t make them schools. You can make them senior living. You can make them affordable housing. You’ve got some time to do that. When you’re rehabbing an old school, you can’t put those kids anywhere else.

Uprise RI: I think we should be in a position here to be always building new schools.

Gregg Amore: I do too. As I worked on the bond and the incentive programs, at each of the hearings I asked the same question of the treasurer. “Why are we not proposing a sustainable income source, a revenue source for this?” Massachusetts does a penny on the income tax that goes to school construction.

One of the most unheralded parts of that bond legislation is that you can’t actually access your reimbursement unless you’re committing 5% of your total school operational budget to maintenance, and that’s districtwide. That was a good idea. You don’t want to cut AP classes. You don’t want cut band or art, so you cut maintenance. But if you’re forced to plan that 5% in and your reimbursement is based on that, it forces districts to plan that way.

Uprise RI: In my head there’s this idea that you would never set a battleship out to sea without doctors, without people who do maintenance, without people can build replacement parts while it’s the ocean. You wouldn’t do it without counselors for people who are feeling stressed, you wouldn’t do it without access to social services. Yet we set up our high schools with very little of that. Or if we do have that, that’s where we cut. So there isn’t somebody who’s replacing light bulbs as they burn out – maybe they’ll come by once a week. If you’re having menstrual cramp you can go to a nurse and get something for it, if it’s one of the two or three days the school has one on duty. We need to start thinking about our schools as more full service.

Gregg Amore: You went right there because we’re starting to do that now with mental health. We’re starting to bring those agencies into the schools. For a long time there was resistance to that. Now we want them as partners because it’s a necessity. When I get into the school at 6:30am, I’m followed in by the crowd of breakfast eaters. That’s great. That’s what we want to do. Let’s get the day started and let’s feed everybody.

I cannot tell you how many lunches I’ve bought over the last 32 years for my students. Sometimes they’re not qualifying for free or reduced lunch, but they don’t have lunch.

Uprise RI: Let’s talk about matching funds and publicly funded elections.

Gregg Amore: I was kind of surprised that my campaign was cited as a wealthy campaign supported by special interests during the debate. I think the labor movement is essential to the Democratic Party and essential for the American middle class. I don’t apologize for that. I call myself a labor Democrat. That’s who I am.

If I’m accepting money from labor packs, I’m accepting it on the behalf of those people that I talked about, nurses, teachers, workers. This is an underfunded campaign, for a statewide campaign. I’m not on the phone every night with a donor list. I’m not on the phone any night with a donor list. It’s how I chose to operate this campaign. I chose to run based on the fact that I had built relationships over a long period of time and because I did have organized labor support. I’ve conducted myself in a way where people know I’m a qualified guy.

I have broad support. I have support from [Representative] Teresa Tanzi [Democrat, District 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown] and probably the most conservative member of the House, Arthur Corvese [Democrat, District 55, North Providence]. And it’s not because they agree with me. I think it’s because they think that I’m a fair player.

So let’s talk publicly financed elections.

Citizens United is not going away barring an overturn or a constitutional amendment. So publicly financed elections are the only way to compete. It’s the only way. And I think it should be expanded. My opponent, Stephanie Beaute, made the point in the debate that she’d rather have that money go to schools. But in order to preserve our democracy, there’s no way we can’t do this. The New York City model is a really good model. That’s a six to one match for primaries and generals and it goes all the way to the state assembly. Representative Terri Cortvriend [Democrat, District 72, Portsmouth] told me yesterday, that she really likes what I’m talking about here, because imagine not having to send out four mailers at $4,000 a piece, and getting my message across without having to raise funds, raise funds, raise funds…

Uprise RI: I have stacks of candidate flyers at home.

Gregg Amore: It’s the system we’re in. I’m open to hearing what other people think about how to balance this, but I think publicly funded elections are the only way.

Uprise RI: It would be harder for the media, like Channel 12, to exclude people from debates because everybody’s on an equal level. You can’t use money to judge who the “real” candidates are.

Gregg Amore: If you can get it into the General Assembly races…

Uprise RI: That would be amazing. Last question: When you’re at the door or meeting a prospective voter, what’s your elevator pitch, what do you say to get them to vote for?

Gregg Amore: I say, “I’m Gregg Amore, a Democrat running for Secretary of State. I’m a 26-year high school civics and history teacher.” People like teachers. That’s how I engage. Unlike what I’ve been accused of in this race, I’m not a career politician. And that’s kind of it. The people relax a little bit and then we can talk about the issues.