PROVIDENCE — Gabe Amo is persistently optimistic, the son of West African immigrants who has enjoyed nothing but success in his still-blossoming political career.
He got his start in 2006 knocking on doors and setting up chairs at events for Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat who would go on to win a seat in the US Senate that year. Along the way, he’s added working for the last two Democratic presidents to his resume, as well as work for former Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, who is now the US secretary of commerce.
On Tuesday, the 35-year-old officially transitioned from talented behind-the-scenes staffer to history-making politician when he won the Democratic nomination in Rhode Island’s First Congressional District. In this deeply blue district, he stands as a heavy favorite to become the first person of color from the state to hold federal office, following the Nov. 7 general election.
“I am so, so excited to be representing the people who made me who I am, in this next part of the journey,” Amo told supporters at the Guild in Pawtucket as the results came in Tuesday night. “We still have November to go.”
“This primary election showed that Rhode Islanders believe in a state where one of their sons, the son of two West African immigrants from Ghana and Liberia, could receive the love and the investments of the community,” he told the crowd, which included his parents. “It is not lost on me that I stand on the shoulders of giants who paved the road before me . . . so I can stand here today.”
“It’s always helpful when the public image of the campaign matches who you are,” Whitehouse told the Globe Wednesday, acknowledging that he voted for Amo in the 12-way Democratic primary. “Gabe is not some jerk who had to be nice for the duration of the campaign.”
Amo was raised in Pawtucket, a former mill city bordering Providence. His mother, Weady Socree, is a Liberian immigrant who became a nurse and member of the Service Employees International Union, and his father, Gabriel Amo, is an immigrant from Ghana who earned $2.10 an hour in his first job in Rhode Island before opening a liquor store that he still runs.
Amo’s father said he worked so many hours at the liquor store that he was unaware his son had applied to the prestigious Moses Brown School for high school. He earned an academic scholarship that helped with tuition, and went on to win a Truman Scholarship for public service at Wheaton College, and a Marshall Scholarship to do his graduate studies at Oxford.
Gabe Amo caught the political bug as a teenager, his parents said.
“He told me, ‘I just want to help people, Daddy,’ ” Amo’s father said, recalling when he questioned why his teenage son was so committed to getting Whitehouse elected to the Senate.
“He really stood out in a really busy campaign for diligence and likability,” Whitehouse said of Amo’s work in the 2006 campaign. “People just loved him.”
Like many political staffers, Amo transitioned between campaigns and formal government jobs throughout his 20s, working on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 before joining the Obama administration’s intergovernmental affairs office as a staff assistant. Raimondo convinced him to move home to oversee community relations for her, and then he returned to the White House to be President Biden’s deputy director on intergovernmental affairs.
That job meant working as the Biden administration’s liaison to mayors and governors across the country, often following natural disasters or mass shootings. Although he’s a lifelong Democrat, Amo likes to point out that tragedy strikes blue and red communities alike, and there’s no time in those moments to think about party affiliation.
Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who was Amo’s boss in the White House and is now running Biden’s national reelection campaign, told The Washington Post earlier this year that Amo was “the heart and soul of our operation who approached every task, big or small, with the attitude of, ‘Give me a shovel and show me where to dig.’ ”
Amo considered running for Congress last year after former representative James Langevin announced that he would not run for reelection; Seth Magaziner won that Second Congressional District seat in November 2022. But Amo jumped at the opportunity to run following former representative David Cicilline’s surprise announcement in February that he was retiring to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
Amo proved to be a prolific fund-raiser, but he acknowledged that he started the race with virtually zero name recognition in a field that included the sitting lieutenant governor, several members of the General Assembly, and former state representative J. Aaron Regunberg, a well-known progressive who counted Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as supporters.
In the end, he beat his opponents fairly easily, winning 32.5 percent of the vote. Regunberg garnered 24.9 percent, and state Senator Sandra Cano had 13.8 percent.
Running a traditional campaign that focused on a heavy rotation of television advertising to introduce himself to voters in a low-turnout special election, Amo painted himself as a center-left defender of Biden who, unlike Regunberg, wouldn’t seek to disrupt Rhode Island’s tiny, but unusually in sync, congressional delegation.
One point of contrast between Amo and Regunberg came in the final weeks of the race, just as voters started paying attention. Amo said he would have voted in favor of the June debt ceiling deal, while Regunberg said he would have voted against it unless he was the deciding vote.
“That is saying he knows better than Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, David Cicilline, and Seth Magaziner,” Amo said during the only primetime televised debate. “I would have voted to stand with Rhode Islanders, not vote against Rhode Islanders.”
Mike Raia, an Amo supporter and a former communications director for Raimondo when she was governor, said Amo’s campaign took “a page right out of the Biden playbook.”
“Gabe took Twitter off his phone, focused on the task at hand, and never wavered from the plan he and his team put together,” said Raia, now the president of Half Street Group, a Providence-based communications firm. “In Rhode Island politics, strategy and discipline beat hashtags and retweets.”
At his primary night headquarters in Pawtucket, Amo told reporters that he was overwhelmed. “But I am so energized . . . because we have so much work to do for Rhode Islanders,” he said. “I know this is a momentous occasion.”