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Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Rhode Island elects its first Congressional person of color

Decisive win for Democrat Gabe Amo

by Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

 Democrat Gabe Amo reacts at his watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket upon winning the 1st Congressional District special election on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Rhode Island has its first Black congressman, with Democrat Gabe Amo making history in his win for the 1st Congressional District race Tuesday.

The special congressional race between Amo and Republican Gerry Leonard Jr. was decided mere minutes after polls closed Tuesday evening, with several TV stations and the Associated Press calling the race for Amo. The only hiccup appeared to be the audio-visual equipment at Amo’s watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket, which ultimately forced Amo to address the packed crowd without a microphone.

Indeed, Amo had a nearly 30-percentage-point lead over Leonard as of 9:30 p.m., amassing 65% of the vote with 98% of precincts reporting, according to preliminary, unofficial results from the Rhode Island Board of Elections. More than 66,200 ballots had been counted, equal to just over 19% of the 341,387 registered voters in the district.

Over 19,000 voters made their picks ahead of Election Day, casting ballots early, in-person or by mail.

Amo wasted no time focusing his message on the work ahead, including staffing up and forming legislative priorities before heading to Washington, where he pledged to work with Democrats to avoid the looming federal shutdown in what may be his first vote as an elected official.

“The work we do together starts here tonight,” he said, later confirming in an interview with Rhode Island Current that he is “100% committed” to passing a spending plan to avoid a government shutdown.

The former White House staffer was favored to win given the Democratic-leaning makeup of the district. 

Democrats comprise about 45% of the district’s registered voters compared with 12% who are registered Republicans. However, there is also a large contingent of unaffiliated voters: 43%, according to data from the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office.

A poll published in late October by the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University highlighted the influence of unaffiliated (and at the time) undecided voters in widening or closing what the survey results showed as an 11-percentage point gap between Amo and Leonard.

Amo first proved the depth and breadth of his support by emerging victorious from a hotly contested, 12-way Democratic primary in September with nearly one-third of the vote.

In the days leading up to the election, he trotted out big party names, including a robo-call from his former boss, Barack Obama, sent to “thousands” of voters on Monday.

His humble beginnings also featured prominently in his campaign. A Pawtucket native whose parents immigrated from West Africa, Amo again recalled helping his mother study for her citizenship test as an 8-year-old.

“I never could have imagined that I would go with her to cast her ballot for her son,” Amo said, referencing when he tagged along with his mother to her assigned polling place earlier on Election Day.

Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman Joe McNamara also touted Amo’s roots, introducing the congressman-elect with a story about a teenage Amo running to catch the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus that took him to school at Moses Brown in Providence.

Just as Amo chased the bus, so too did he chase the American dream by winning elected office, McNamara said.

“That is what this represents,” McNamara said of Amo’s victory. “Something that all of us are yearning for, that is the American dream.”

Leonard, a former U.S. Marine Corps colonel, ran what many considered to be a sleeper campaign, though he picked up late endorsements from local and state officials including former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean.

Even in Leonard’s hometown of Jamestown, Amo won a decisive victory with 68.8% of the vote in the island community to Leonard’s 31.1%, according to preliminary results.

Leonard also fell short of his Democratic rival in fundraising.

Leonard conceded shortly after 8:45 p.m. After thanking his supporters at Narragansett Cafe in Jamestown, he was quick to congratulate his Democratic opponent in his concession speech.

“He’s a good man,” Leonard said. “And I hope he becomes a great congressman.”

After the speech, Leonard spoke to Amo on the phone.

“It’s a family value, it’s a Marine Corps value, and quite frankly it’s a good-person value,” he said. “That’s the right thing to do.”

Though Leonard lost this election, the Jamestown Republican said he does not plan to leave Rhode Island politics any time soon.

“My ancestors came here 13 generations ago,” he said. “I want to make sure 13 generations from now, that this is the greatest state in the United States.”

That next step remains unclear, as Leonard said it’s something  he intends to sleep on? But whatever it is, he said he intends to keep the same moderate approach.

“I still believe that the divisiveness in our country is absolutely unnecessary,” he said in an interview. “I think you need leadership in the state, Washington D.C., and at the town level.  At the end of the day, your job is a public servant — you serve the people.”

Amo raised over $1 million

The most recent pre-election campaign finance reports show Amo raked in more than $1 million in donations since launching his campaign, with contributions from deep-pocketed political action committees. Leonard, in contrast, raised just over $164,000 throughout the course of the race, supplementing his campaign coffers with $100,000 in personal loans.

The candidates faced off in a pair of televised debates last week that illustrated divides on abortion bans and assault weapons, but also highlighted similarities in their shared support for Israel and moderate fiscal approach. Leonard initially challenged Amo to a dozen debates, but Amo declined several other debate invitations from local media outlets. 

As winner of a special election, filling the unexpired term of former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline who left Congress at the end of May to lead the Rhode Island Foundation, Amo will face re-election next year. He will join a Republican-led House as its most freshman member, and earn $174,000 a year.

U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner congratulated Amo on his win.

“I look forward to working with Gabe in the House of Representatives to deliver for Rhode Islanders, and have no doubt he will hit the ground running,” Magaziner said in a statement.

Asked how he plans to balance his legislative duties with an imminent reelection campaign, Amo pointed to his work over the course of his campaign.

“We have shown we can do hard things,” he said.

The state elections board is tentatively slated to vote to certify election results on Nov. 15. At a meeting on Tuesday, board members stressed the urgency of finalizing results in order to have a winner sworn in by Speaker Mike Johnson in time to participate in a vote on the looming federal government shutdown.



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.