Democrat Gabe Amo, a former White House aide during the Obama and Biden administrations, won the special election for Rhode Island’s 1st U.S. Congressional District seat against Republican opponent Gerry Leonard Jr. Tuesday night. Amo’s win makes him the first person of color elected to represent Rhode Island in Congress.
The Associated Press called the race at 8:10 p.m., just ten minutes after polls closed in Rhode Island. As of 10:03 p.m., Amo had garnered 64.8% of votes to Leonard’s 35.2% with more than 95% of votes in. Around 19.3% of eligible Rhode Islanders had voted in the election.
Amo, a moderate Democrat, defeated progressive challengers like former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg ’12 and more established politicians like Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos in a crowded September Democratic primary.
Amo, a Pawtucket native and the son of Ghanaian and Liberian immigrants, focused his campaign on gun control legislation, protections for Medicare and Social Security, reproductive health care, climate change action and support for middle-class Americans.
While Amo’s primary win was perceived by some as a setback for progressive politics in the state, others saw it as of the popularity of President Biden’s policies in Rhode Island. Amo also benefited from a scandal-free background — a contrast to some opponents.
Edward Ruehle, a 66-year-old semi-retiree and ghostwriter, said he voted for Amo in both Tuesday’s election and in the primary. Ruehle, a Democrat, supported Amo because of his matching party affiliation, which he says has “become much more important” recently in today’s divided political climate.
Amo is “fairly liberal,” Ruehle said, “but he’s not progressive in an unrealistic sense.”
Kevin Proft, a 38-year-old city employee who lives in Fox Point, said he voted for Amo because of his belief that Amo’s experience in government will help him effectively write and implement public policy.
Leonard, a new face in the political field, entered the election after more than three decades of service in the U.S. Marine Corps. A Jamestown native, Leonard won a sweeping victory in the Republican primary with 75.7% of the vote, The Herald previously reported.
Early polling suggested Leonard’s campaign would be an uphill battle. According to a Salve Regina University poll conducted on Oct. 26, which oversampled GOP voters, Amo led 46% to Leonard’s 35%.
The 1st Congressional District has historically voted for Democrats. Cicilline secured his initial election victory in 2010 and maintained his seat through five consecutive reelections, consistently achieving 60% of the vote or more. The last Republican to hold the seat was Ronald Machtley, who served from 1989 to 1995.
Thomas Wesley, a 68-year-old retiree who said he’s always been active in politics, told The Herald he voted for Leonard because he thought Leonard could bring balance to the political arena, citing what he saw as Leonard’s commitment to lead “from the middle.” Leonard previously stated that he is opposed to extremism on both sides of the political spectrum.
As a military veteran, Wesley said that Leonard’s service resonated with him.
Democrat Jacob Bissaillon, the former chief of staff to the Rhode Island state Senate president, won a special election also held Tuesday to fill a seat in Rhode Island Senate District 1 after the death of Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin. Bissaillon beat Niyoka Powell, the Republican nominee, who ran unopposed for her party’s nomination.
Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.