On Thursday night, Democrat Gabe Amo and Republican Gerry Leonard Jr. participated in a debate as they compete for Rhode Island’s 1st U.S. Congressional District seat. With both candidates criticizing extremism in their respective parties, the pair found common ground on foreign policy while disagreeing on issues such as an assault weapons ban and climate change.
A special general election will be held next Tuesday, Nov. 7, to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. David Cicilline ’83, who announced his departure in February to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.
Amo is a moderate Democrat who served as a White House aide under former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden. A Pawtucket local and the son of Ghanaian and Liberian immigrants, Amo would be the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress if elected.
Amo won a surprise victory in the special Democratic primary with 32.4% of the vote, a 7.5% margin over the more progressive former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg ’12.
Polling for the general election places Amo in the lead. An Oct. 26 WPRI poll has Amo at 46%, Leonard at 35% and 15% undecided. With the poll oversampling GOP voters — 34% of its respondents were Republicans, compared to the district’s 12% registered Republican voters — Amo is the clear frontrunner.
Leonard, his challenger, is a political newcomer from Jamestown who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for over 30 years. During the Republican primary, he defeated opponent Terry Flynn with 75.7% of the vote.
Leonard, facing an uphill battle, previously challenged Amo to 12 debates, claiming Amo’s decision to commit to only two was “a partisan playbook.” Despite these tensions, the debate, hosted by WJAR-10 in Sapinsley Hall at Rhode Island College, began with a topic of common ground — the Israel-Hamas war. Both candidates condemned Hamas and expressed their solidarity with Israel.
“I unequivocally support Israel,” Amo said during the debate. “Hamas doesn’t care about the Palestinian people.”
Leonard also added that he felt “dismayed” by the demonstrations held on college campuses, and denounced the nine House Democrats who voted against a resolution to provide aid to Israel. He prodded Amo to take a similar stance against these Democrats, to which Amo replied that his declared support of Israel was “satisfactory.”
The candidates also shared overlapping views on another international conflict: the Russia-Ukraine war. While both declared their support for Ukraine and urged European powers to take greater initiative with their support, Leonard criticized the Biden administration for their lack of a “strategic goal” and “exit strategy.”
“The President of the United States needs to stand up and show leadership,” Leonard said.
The agreements continued as the debate shifted to the topic of immigration, with both candidates stressing the importance of immigration to American values while calling for stricter border control.
“I’m all about immigration — but done in a sane way,” Leonard said. “A nation-state must defend and protect its borders.” Amo said he agreed with Leonard on the need for customs agents and southwest border security, citing his parents’ legal immigration to the U.S. as a standard to follow.
Tensions began to rise when the candidates were asked whether they would support an assault weapons ban. Amo declared that he would readily sponsor such an initiative if elected to Congress.
In response to a mention of the Louisville bank shooting, where five people lost their lives April 10, Amo said, “Why in our country, a great country, would we let the same thing happen over and over again? That’s the definition of insanity.”
Leonard, a gun owner and former Marine, said he would not back any law limiting the sale of assault weapons. He said the U.S. does not have a gun problem but rather “a violence problem” stemming from a lack of mental health support. Later, he claimed that more Americans die each year from knife-related injuries than from guns. That statistic is not accurate: Last year handguns outnumbered knives as weapons used in homicide by nearly 8,000 to 1,630.
Amo also raised concerns that the new U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson would work for “national abortion bans” — a policy that Leonard said he did not support.
The final topic of the debate, climate change, proved to be the most contentious. Amo acknowledged the crisis as “clear” and “urgent,” and told voters that “the East Bay will turn into a series of islands if we don’t act.” Meanwhile, Leonard affirmed climate change’s existence and noted the flooding he has witnessed first-hand, but took issue with potential solutions which moved away from oil and natural gas.
“We’ve got middle-class and working-class families suffering in Rhode Island and we’re talking about electric cars,” Leonard said.Amo and Leonard additionally sparred on the topic of former President Donald Trump after Leonard expressed that he would support the Republican nominee for president next year regardless of who it is. Though he mentioned being “impressed” with Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, he did not explicitly endorse any candidate.
“Support for Donald Trump is disqualifying in this election. That does not reflect Rhode Island values,” Amo said. “We are talking about an insurrectionist, right?”
The candidates’ closing statements returned a cordial atmosphere to the debate. “I’m running for Congress to wage a war on extremism and bring back common sense to Washington D.C.,” Leonard said. “We need to elect somebody to represent us that puts service before self and principles above politics.”
Amo echoed these sentiments of overcoming political partisanship before restating the core principles of his platform: “We need someone who is committed to strengthening social security, fighting gun violence and working aggressively to make sure we have jobs and supply chains of the future.”