For generations, the political face of Rhode Island was often Italian or Irish American. But that is changing.
The latest shift came Tuesday when Gabe Amo, who grew up in Pawtucket the son of Ghanaian and Liberian immigrants, topped a crowded Democratic primary field for the state’s 1st Congressional District special election.
A win in the general election in the heavily Democratic state in November would make Amo the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress.
The 35-year-old sees his win as less of a shift than an affirmation of what he called his “Rhode Island story.”
“Just because my parents were born in two different West African countries doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit that narrative of how Rhode Island has been a haven for so many people from so many different places to thrive and build their families,” Amo said in an interview Wednesday.
The primary win caught the attention of the White House, with President Joe Biden calling Amo to congratulate him.
Amo served in both the Obama and Biden administrations, most recently as the deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. In the interim, he served in the administration of former Democratic Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo,
“I certainly believe I am part of a generational shift that has been underway before me,” Amo added, “But politics is cyclical in lots of ways and government requires new people to step up, and I decided to step up on behalf of a community that I love.”
Amo, who went to Wheaton College and studied public policy at Oxford University, said he was inspired by the drive of his parents: both his mother who studied nursing and his father who opened a liquor store in part so he could be his own boss.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, said Amo was able to capitalize on the fact that other presumed front-runners on the Democratic side in Tuesday’s primary were busy targeting each other, which left an opening for Amo.
“He had no scandal, and he wasn’t the subject of a negative campaign because no one thought he had a chance,” she said. “He kept himself above the fray, so he stayed a very attractive candidate.”
His win also marks an ongoing transition away from the state’s Italian political hierarchy — embodied famously by the late Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, loved for his charisma but loathed for his corruption — and is a model of the kind of candidate who can do well in diverse districts and that the national party will likely invest in for future contests, Schiller said.
Amo also won the endorsement of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who represented the district from 1995 to 2011.
Amo said he will fight to ban assault-style weapons, support funding for research into gun violence prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and implement universal background checks.
He said he would fight against what he described as extremist Republican attempts to slash funding for Social Security and Medicare, work to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law, and fight for more legislation at the federal level to combat climate change.
Before he can head back to Washington, Amo still must win the Nov. 7 general election.
Amo will square off against Republican Gerry Leonard, a U.S. Marine veteran who won the two-candidate GOP primary.
Leonard said his campaign will focus on the people of Rhode Island and not what he called partisan political agendas.
“While talking heads and political operatives seek to divide, my mission is to unite Rhode Islanders no matter their political persuasion. In DC my mission is clear, put Rhode Islanders first and stop extremism from both sides of the aisle,” he said Wednesday.
The Republican has criticized “Bidenomics,” saying Democratic President Joe Biden’s economic plan hasn’t helped ordinary citizens and said he supports U.S. efforts to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia.
The last Republican to represent the 1st Congressional District was Ron Machtley, who served from 1989-1995.
Both candidates are hoping to succeed former Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, who stepped down earlier this summer to become the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
Whoever wins will have to turn around and run for reelection next year.
Steve Leblanc, The Associated Press