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Mr. Amo goes to Washington (and Smithfield)

Rhode Island’s newest US Representative has faced hurdles large and small during his first weeks in Congress, from funding amendments to explaining how to pronounce his last name

Newly elected US Representative Gabe Amo, a Rhode Island Democrat, tours the Pleasant View Elementary School in Smithfield with Principal Terry Viera, left, and Smithfield public schools Superintendent Dawn Bartz, right.Edward Fitzpatrick

SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Three weeks have passed since Gabe Amo, a Providence Democrat, defeated Gerry W. Leonard Jr., a Jamestown Republican, in the special election to fill Rhode Island’s First Congressional District seat. And at this point, even insiders are struggling to get his name right.

East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva called him Gabe “Ammo.” Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti Jr. called him Gabe “Ay-mo.” And other speakers at Monday’s event marking the opening of the new Henderson Bridge referred to him as Gabe “Ahh-mo.”

Amo set the record straight.

“I like to say it’s like going to the dentist – Ahhh-mo,” Amo told the Globe.

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Amo has already made a name for himself after serving as a White House aide and being elected as the first Black congressman in Rhode Island history. But the 35-year-old was just sworn in on Nov. 13, and it will take time to become a household name.

In the early days of his term, Amo is aiming to tour various parts of Rhode Island’s First Congressional District, which covers the eastern half of the state. And on Monday afternoon, he stopped at the Pleasant View Elementary School in Smithfield, introducing himself to pupils, teachers, and school officials.

“In these first few weeks, I think it’s really important, as I said during the campaign, to spend time hearing the needs and priorities of every one of the 19 communities in the First Congressional District,” he said.

Amo won the Nov. 7 election convincingly, receiving 64.7 percent of the vote overall and 90.5 percent of the vote in Providence. But he lost in Woonsocket, North Smithfield, and Smithfield, where he received 47.9 percent of the vote while Leonard received 51.9 percent.

“I work for them, too,” Amo said of Smithfield residents who voted against him. “I work for everybody in the First Congressional District, and I look forward to proving that I’m capable of serving them and will do so with heart and with vigor.”

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In the early days of his tenure, Amo has been explaining not just how to pronounce his name but also why he voted against an amendment to prohibit federal funding from going to colleges that authorize, facilitate, or fund “any event promoting antisemitism on campus.”

The House voted 373-54 for the amendment, which was introduced by Representative Michael Lawler, a New York Republican. While Amo voted “no,” Rhode Island’s other Democratic congressman, Seth Magaziner, backed the amendment.

Magaziner explained his vote, saying, “The free and open exchange of ideas vital in academic settings, but this is only possible when students are safe from harassment. Criticism of government policies should always be protected speech, and the amendment does not restrict such criticism. At the same time, colleges must take responsible steps to ensure that no student is harassed based on their religion.”

But Amo said, “My initial read of the legislation was that it wasn’t clear that it would help our efforts like those that I’m supportive of to fight and combat antisemitism in institutions.”

When asked about Magaziner’s vote, Amo said, “Sometimes I think people read things slightly differently. So that’s all I would attribute it to. But I am on the record very clearly for fighting vigorously against antisemitism in all forms wherever I can.”

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As a former White House aide in the Biden and Obama administrations, Amo said he has worked on the president’s antisemitism strategy.

And he noted that joined a bipartisan group of 51 lawmakers — led by led by Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican — that signed a letter urging the US House and Senate Appropriations Committees to provide “robust funding” for the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism.

But Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Joe Powers blasted Amo for voting against the Lawler amendment.

“While Congress voted in an overwhelmingly bipartisan way to address the rise in antisemitism in college campuses across our country, @RepGabeAmo voted with the extreme members of his party,” Powers wrote on social media. “I hope #RI01 voters are paying attention to who they voted to send to DC — another extreme partisan politician. Seems as though his membership into the Extreme Squad is right on track!”

Lawler advocated for his amendment, saying, “We must ensure students are safe on campus, and Congress must continue our work to eradicate the scourge of antisemitism at every turn.”

But US Representative Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, was among those who opposed Lawler’s amendment, calling it “yet another meaningless gesture from House Republicans” that could defund colleges working against antisemitism if even a single student showed up to a single event with an antisemitic sign.

Amo spoke amid a fragile truce between Israel and Hamas, which was promising to release more hostages to delay the expected resumption of the war.

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“I think anything that serves at increasing humanitarian aid, bringing hostages back, and bringing us closer to a resolution is positive,” he said. “I am cautiously optimistic, crossing my fingers, and very hopeful that we will root out the terrorism of Hamas and also bring peace to people’s lives because that is ultimately what they deserve at this very difficult time.”

Amo faced another high-profile vote soon after being sworn in. On Nov. 14, he joined almost all Democrats and a majority of Republicans in voting for legislation to keep federal funding flowing into early 2024 and avert a government shutdown.

Amo has hired Dylan Sodaro as his chief of staff and Kate Michaud as district director. Sodaro worked as deputy chief of staff and legislative director for US Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat. Michaud worked as town manager for the Town of Warren.

Meanwhile, Amo said he has decorated his office in Washington, D.C., with prints from the Frog & Toad gift shop in Providence, including one depicting “Iconic Rhode Island Foods.”

“It’s got wieners. It’s got Del’s,” he said of the food map. “Gotta bring Rhode Island flavor wherever I go, even if it’s in a meat sauce packet.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.