Democrat Amo could be 1st person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress after primary win

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In this photo provided by the Cano Campaign, State Sen. Sandra Cano, a Democratic candidate for Rhode Island House District 1, poses on Aug. 30, 2023. Primaries will be held Sept. 5 for the seat vacated by Democratic Rep. David Cicilline's resignation.. (Checkmate Consulting Group/Cano Campaign via AP)

Former White House aide Gabe Amo could become the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress after his win Tuesday in the crowded Democratic primary for the state's 1st Congressional District special election sent him on to the general election in the heavily Democratic state.

Amo, who grew up in Pawtucket the son of Ghanaian and Liberian immigrants, hopes to succeed former Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, who stepped down earlier this summer to become the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

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“This primary election shows 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 investment of a community and go from serving the president of the United States … to being the Democratic nominee for Congress for the 1st Congressional District,” Amo told cheering supporters.

If elected, Amo said he would address “some of the critical needs of this country,” whether it be preventing gun violence, addressing the climate crisis, strengthening Social Security or protecting reproductive freedom.

“At the end of the day, protecting people so that everyone has opportunity,” he added.

Amo will square off against Gerry Leonard, a U.S. Marine veteran and political newcomer who defeated fellow Republican candidate Terri Flynn, a former town council member, to win the GOP primary Tuesday.

"We’re excited here,” Leonard told The Associated Press after winning.

“I’m looking forward with great anticipation of getting out and continuing to move around District 1 and meet Rhode Islanders. Tell them my message. Tell them my story and tell them what I intend to do for the state,” he said. “We need to start sending leaders to Washington, D.C. that put principles before politics and service before self. That message will resonate.”

Leonard faces a significant challenge in the general election in a state that has traditionally favored Democratic candidates.

Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who had hoped to become the first Latina elected to Congress from the state, congratulated Amo on his primary win.

“While I was hoping for a different outcome, tonight’s results show that Rhode Islanders are ready for more diverse representation in Congress for the first time. We can all celebrate and take pride in this historic milestone for our state,” she said in a statement.

During the campaign, Amo said he would fight to ban assault-style weapons, support funding for research into gun violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and implement universal background checks.

Amo also 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.

Amo worked in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs under President Barack Obama, acting as a liaison to governors and other state elected officials. After serving in the administration of former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, Amo later returned to the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, acting as a liaison for President Joe Biden to mayors and local officials.

Amo won the endorsement of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who represented the district from 1995 to 2011.

The prospect of an open seat in Congress initially drew the attention of dozens of possible candidates, particularly among Democrats.

Other Democrats on the ballot included former secretary of state candidate Stephanie Beaute, former U.S. Navy intelligence officer Walter Berbrick, Pawtucket state Sen. Sandra Cano, state Rep. Stephen Casey, and Spencer Dickinson.

The Democratic field also included Providence City Council member John Goncalves, state Democratic state senator Ana Quezada, former two-term state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, and Allen Waters, who challenged Ciciline in the general election as a Republican last year.

Regunberg had tried to position himself as the most progressive of the front-runners, winning the backing of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and actress Jane Fonda.

Leonard has said he believes that Americans know how to live their lives better than government bureaucrats and professional politicians do.

The Republican has criticized “Bidenomics,” saying Democratic President Joe Biden’s economic plan hasn’t helped ordinary citizens. He also said he favors a more limited government and supports U.S. efforts to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia, but said the U.S. also needs clear goals and an exit strategy.

Leonard also said he believes abortion should remain a state issue. He also said he is a strong proponent of term limits.

Leonard is a resident of Jamestown and a graduate of the Naval War College. He served for three decades in the Marines.

If elected, Leonard would become the first Republican to represent the 1st Congressional District since former Congressman Ron Machtley, who served from 1989-1995.

The general election will be held Nov. 7.