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Gabe Amo could be the new face of Rhode Island politics

Democrat congressional candidate Gabe Amo addressed his supporters during an election watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket, R.I., after defeating Republican Gerry W. Leonard Jr. for the First Congressional District seat.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

When Gabe Amo entered the race to represent Rhode Island’s First Congressional District nearly seven months ago, he started off with a seemingly unhelpful base of supporters from outside the state who couldn’t vote for him and local political insiders who weren’t sure how a first-time candidate would fare in a crowded field of Democrats who had previously run for office.

Amo proved himself by using a national network tied to his stints working for Presidents Biden and Obama and former governor Gina Raimondo to raise more than $1 million for his campaign, while his relentlessly positive message here at home proved to be stickier than know-it-alls like me were predicting.

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The strategy worked perfectly, and Amo ran away from the 12-candidate primary field to win the Democratic nomination in September. He finished the job Tuesday when he easily dispatched Republican Gerry W. Leonard Jr., according to the Associated Press, to win the special election to succeed David Cicilline, who resigned from Congress on May 31 to run the Rhode Island Foundation.

The victory is historic because Amo is the first person of color from Rhode Island to be elected to Congress. It also means Amo, who won’t turn 36 until Dec. 11, has the chance to become the new face of the Democratic Party in a state that for too long has been dominated by older white men who were already well defined by the time they were elected to a major office.

His supporters are already taking notice.

“There’s an unspoken protocol for how to get elected: work your way up the ranks of government, politely raise money to build a war chest, and round up endorsements,” said Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong, one of the few currently elected officials who backed Amo before the primary. “Gabe redefined the model as a first-time candidate who banked on voters valuing intelligence, hard work and a good attitude. He’s headed to Washington with the power of being beholden only to the voters who elected him to deliver for Rhode Island.”

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Rich Luchette, a former spokesman for Cicilline who now works as an associate vice president at Precision Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm, said Amo accomplished something that presidents Obama, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush couldn’t: he won during his first run for Congress.

“He’s not even 40 years old, and he outpaced a slew of seasoned politicians who have been at this for years,” Luchette said.

Luchette said Amo was laser-focused on issues Rhode Islanders actually care about, and separated himself by aligning with the pragmatic progressive principles of Biden, Obama, and Raimondo.

Indeed, Amo’s signature moment of the primary campaign came during a debate when he took Aaron Regunberg to task for saying he’d have voted against the June debt ceiling deal, unlike every member of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation. Regunberg, who had the support of Senator Bernie Sanders, never recovered.

So what’s next for Amo?

“I don’t pretend to know what the future holds, but I do know that Gabe’s future is incredibly bright,” Luchette said. “And if someday he decides he wants to run for governor or senator, he’ll be one of the strongest contenders. No doubt about it.”

Of course, Amo needs to be sworn in first, and he could immediately face the prospect of a government shutdown if Democrats and Republicans can’t come to terms on a temporary funding deal by Nov. 17.

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As the most junior member of Congress who also happens to represent the minority party (and also has to run for reelection next year), it’s safe to say Amo isn’t immediately going to wield massive amounts of influence in his early days in the House.

But if there’s one thing to learn from former representatives like Cicilline or Jim Langevin, it’s to find a key issue that you can own. Cicilline became one of the nation’s leading antitrust experts and Langevin was cybersecurity hawk.

To his credit, Representative Seth Magaziner, who is still in his first year representing Rhode Island’s Second District, appears to be carving out a niche when it comes to offshore wind policy.

There are plenty of issues to choose from, but if Amo wants to stand out nationally and locally, he should consider making housing his top priority.

He could start out simple by advocating for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to change its definition of Category 1 homelessness, which requires you to be literally homeless with nowhere to crash to be considered for the most support from the federal government. He should call Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, whom he beat in the Democratic primary, because this was one of her top priorities as a candidate.

“The best members of Congress are the ones who decide early on where their focus will lie,” Luchette said. “For some, it’s local issues. Others become policy wonks. And then there are those who climb the leadership ranks. You can’t do all three — you have to choose and prioritize where you spend your time.”

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It’s not inconceivable that Amo could be a member of Congress from Rhode Island for the next 40 years. He has already made history. Now he has a chance to make a generational impact on our state.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him @danmcgowan.