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RI POLITICS

In historic win, Gabe Amo becomes Rhode Island’s first Black congressman

Amo, a former White House aide in the Obama and Biden administrations, beat Republican Gerry W. Leonard Jr. in Tuesday’s special election to fill Rhode Island’s First Congressional District seat

Democrat Congressional candidate Gabe Amo celebrated after defeating Republican Gerry W. Leonard Jr. for the First Congressional District seat during an election watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on Nov. 7, 2023. Behind Amo is outgoing Rhode Island Democratic Party chair, Joseph M. McNamara.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Democrat Gabe Amo, the son of West African immigrants, will become the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress, according to the Associated Press.

Amo, a former White House aide in the Obama and Biden administrations, beat Republican Gerry W. Leonard Jr. in Tuesday’s special election to fill Rhode Island’s First Congressional District seat, which Democrat David N. Cicilline vacated on June 1 to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

Democrat Congressional candidate Gabe Amo, center, posed for a picture with family after defeating Republican Gerry W. Leonard Jr. for the First Congressional District seat during an election watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket, Rhode Island on Nov. 7, 2023. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

“I went to vote with my mom earlier today,” Amo told about 150 supporters at The Guild in his hometown of Pawtucket. “When I was 8 years old, helping my mother study for the citizenship test, I never could have imagined that I would go with her to cast her ballot to vote for her son for the United States Congress.”

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Speaking without a microphone, Amo said he “stands on the shoulders” of many others who made Tuesday’s victory possible.

“Whether your ancestors came to Rhode Island in search of religious freedom, or came here as enslaved peoples, or came here for economic opportunity in the 20th century, whether they were Irish or Italian, Cape Verdean or Portuguese, West African or Dominican or Colombian, or from any place in between, the journey for so many Rhode Islanders and their families is one of great hard work, determination, and resilience.”

His father hugged him as soon as he concluded his speech, and the crowd cheered.

“I am thrilled that, once again, history is being made in Rhode Island,” said Jim Vincent, a longtime Rhode Island civil rights leader and former president of the NAACP Providence branch. “The time has come. We have some representation that reflects the growing diversity of our state.”

Amo is as qualified as anyone the state has ever had entering Congress, Vincent said, and his election will provide hope to younger people of color that they, too, can be elected to top political positions. “Gabe didn’t have anyone that looked like him,” he said, “but the next generation of office holders can see that it is possible.”

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“It can’t be overstated how big this is,” Kevin Olasanoye, a former Rhode Island Democratic Party executive director who is national director of The Collective PAC, which has helped 425 Black candidates win elections nationwide, including Amo. “You are seeing a move in the Democratic Party to have folks who look like the communities they serve in Congress, to have diverse perspectives and backgrounds and opinions.”

While Rhode Island has elected people of color to statewide offices and as mayors, it had never elected a person of color to either the US House or Senate, Olasanoye noted. “This is one of the last glass ceilings in Rhode Island to break,” he said. “The question about whether Rhode Island is progressive enough to elect a person of color to Congress is asked and answered as a result of tonight’s results.”

Democrat Gabe Amo celebrates after defeating Republican Gerry W. Leonard Jr. for the First Congressional District seat during an election watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket, Tuesday.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Democratic US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse congratulated Amo, who worked on his 2006 Senate campaign. “It’s a historic and hopeful victory, and a reminder that beautiful moments can still happen in American politics,” he said. “It’s a win for every child of immigrants, for the Black community, and for a new generation of Rhode Islanders.”

Democratic US Representative Seth Magaziner congratulated Amo, saying, “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.”

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Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairwoman Suzan DelBene added her congratulations, saying, “As the first Black man to represent Rhode Island in Congress and a proven, dedicated leader, Gabe will be an important voice in the Democratic Caucus and the House of Representatives. I look forward to working alongside him to defend reproductive freedom, bolster our economy from the middle out, and fight for Rhode Island’s working families.”

At 11 p.m., Leonard posted a message on X (formerly Twitter): “Congratulations @gabeamo. Looking forward to you bettering Rhode Island.”

Amo, who grew up in Pawtucket and now lives in Providence, brought his mother, Weady Socree, a Liberian immigrant, to vote at the Kennedy Manor polling site in Pawtucket on Tuesday morning.

“It feels great,” Socree said of the possibility that her son was about to become Rhode Island’s first Black member of Congress. “It’s amazing.”

She said that when he was young, Amo talked of “big money.” He said he now talks of doing “big things.” She said, “President.” He said, “Well, I’m not running for president.” She said, “One day.”

The First Congressional District includes the eastern half of the state, reaching from Woonsocket to Newport. Cicilline represented the district for 12 years, and Democrat Patrick J. Kennedy represented it the previous 16 years. The last Republican to represent the district was Ronald K. Machtley, from 1989 to 1995.

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Earlier Tuesday, the state Board of Elections set a meeting for Nov. 15 so it can certify the results of the congressional race as soon as possible in light of a possible government shutdown. “There is some concern the federal government may run out of money and they may close the business of the government down on Nov. 17,” board legal counsel Raymond A. Marcaccio said. “So we would want to have our new congressperson seated before then.”

Deputy Secretary of State Rob Rock said the House asked the governor’s office and the secretary of state’s office to certify the results on Nov. 15 if possible. “I know there is a concern with the timing to make sure the person can fly down, get sworn in, and then be able to vote on Friday,” he said.

On Monday, US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse issued a joint statement urging Israel to pause military operations against Hamas in Gaza to allow more humanitarian aid to reach the Palestinian people.

At the Pawtucket polling site Tuesday, Amo said he, too, supports an humanitarian pause. “I think we have to be mindful of a strong humanitarian imperative as it relates to Palestinians who are innocent civilians,” he said. “In addition, we need to make the process for getting hostages back work for maximum recovery of people who, again, are innocent. That has to be a priority in addition to rooting out Hamas.”

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When asked which House committees he would like to serve on, Amo first mentioned the powerful Appropriations Committee, while acknowledging it will be difficult for a new legislator to land that assignment. He said he’d also be interested in the Foreign Affairs Committee that Cicilline served on, or the Science, Space and Technology Committee.

During the Rhode Island Report podcast and on televised debates, Amo and Leonard, a retired US Marine Corps colonel who lives in Jamestown, disagreed on issues such as an assault weapons ban and President Biden’s economic policies.

For example, Leonard said he would oppose a federal ban on assault weapons, saying, “I will not support a ban on any firearms of any sort.” He said the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, clearly involved a “mentally ill individual,” and “We need to make sure that weapons and firearms don’t end up in the hands of people that should not have them.”

But Amo said he served as the president’s liaison to mayors in cities that had experienced mass shootings involving assault weapons. “Why in our country, a great country, would we let the same thing happen over and over again?” he asked. “It is about time, and I would be a sponsor in Congress of an assault weapons ban.”

A Democratic victory in Rhode Island’s First Congressional District comes as no surprise. The district gave Democrat Joe Biden a 29-percentage point victory over Republican Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race. And 46 percent of registered voters in the district are Democrats, while 42 percent are unaffiliated, and 12 percent are Republicans, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Amo emerged victorious from a 11-person Democratic primary field in September, receiving 32.5 percent of the vote, while former state representative J. Aaron Regunberg finished second with 24.9 percent, and state Senator Sandra C. Cano finished third with 13.9 percent. Seven of the initial 12 Democratic candidates were Black and/or Latina, making it the most diverse field of congressional candidates in Rhode Island history.

Leonard, 58, cruised to victory in the two-person Republican primary, receiving 75.7 percent of the vote, while former Middletown Town Council member Terri Flynn received 24.3 percent.

Amo, 35, graduated from Moses Brown School, a private school in Providence, in 2005. He went on to graduate from Wheaton College, in Norton, Mass. He received a Truman Scholarship for public service and a Marshall Scholarship to study public policy at Oxford.

In the Obama administration, Amo worked in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. During then-governor Gina M. Raimondo’s administration, he was director of public engagement and community affairs. And in the Biden administration, he was deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Amo raised nearly four times as much campaign cash as Leonard, raking in $1.05 million and spending more than $760,000, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. By comparison, Leonard raised $265,500 and spent $104,000.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv. Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her @AmandaMilkovits.