Rhode Island Democrat looks to parlay high-profile connections towards a seat in Congress
Former White House staffer Gabe Amo has been described as one to watch in the special election to replace David Cicilline. But he’s just one of 15 candidates
When seven-term Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) announced that he was retiring from Congress in the middle of his term — he formally stepped down last week to run the Rhode Island Foundation — politicians and activists from across his heavily blue district pounced.
A special election for an open congressional district in an odd year means local elected officials can run for Congress while holding onto their current positions — a once-in-a-generation political opportunity. And more than a dozen Democratic politicos from the Ocean State have jumped at the chance to try to rally voters ahead of the September primary.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of pent-up political ambition in the state,” said Adam Myers, an associate professor of political science at Providence College. “A lot of state legislators and other officeholders have reasoned that there’s really no harm in throwing one’s hat in the race.”
Of the 15 declared candidates in the race, seven currently hold office in Rhode Island, and three others have run for office in the past. But one of the newcomers to watch, according to political insiders in Rhode Island, is Gabe Amo, a first-time candidate who resigned from a position in the Biden White House to return to his home state and run for Congress.
“There’s not a constituency [for Amo],” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, who noted that Amo lacks a base of voters who would recognize his name from prior elections. But, he added, “working in the White House has its benefits, and if those benefits are, ‘Well, I have White House power contacts, and I can raise a ton of money,’ well, that’s one way to separate yourself from the others.”
This week, former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot hosted Amo for a fundraiser in Chicago, a notable show of support in a race where there have been few national and even local endorsements.
Other potential frontrunners for the 1st Congressional District seat include Lt. Gov. Sabina Mato and former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a progressive who is running with the backing of the Rhode Island Working Families Party and Our Revolution.
Amo, 35, grew up in working-class Pawtucket and has worked in politics — both in Rhode Island and Washington — his whole career. The son of Ghanaian and Liberian immigrants, he traces his passion for civics to helping his mother study for her citizenship test when he was a child. From there, it was a relatively straight line from high school student government to campaign staffer, and now from White House aide to congressional candidate.
“That’s all been part of my commitment to helping people,” Amo told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “Politics and government are an opportunity to help people at their core.”
Before he went to college, Amo worked on now-Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-RI) first Senate campaign in 2006. In the years since, he earned the Truman and Marshall Scholarships, and he cycled between other state positions — such as working for now-Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo when she was governor — and gigs in the White House. Most recently, he worked with U.S. mayors as the White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs.
Amo’s pitch to voters leans heavily on his ties to the Biden administration. In part, he is arguing that President Joe Biden has good ideas and a strong track record — and that Amo was a part of that success in his role as a special assistant to the president, and that he knows how to bring similar successes to Rhode Island.
“When I look at President Biden’s approach to politics, I look at someone who leads with compassion, but ultimately wants effectiveness and wants people of this country to know that we’ve worked as hard as we can to solve actual problems,” said Amo, who then rattled off a list of Biden administration policies: the American Rescue Plan, the Inflation Reduction Act and others.
“I want to use that experience that I’ve had, both at the state level and at the White House, to be an effective congressperson for the people of Rhode Island from day one,” he continued.
This is Amo’s message on foreign policy, too: Look to the Biden White House and let the administration take the lead.
“We should speak with one voice and and support the president and the administration as they lead our engagement in the region,” Amo said, when asked what role he thinks Congress should play with respect to the U.S.-Israel relationship. “I think that it’s especially important, especially as we see tensions rising, that we, as Americans, in our actions in the region come through with a united voice.”
The tensions, he said, include “rocket attacks” and “general instability” in the Middle East.
“I think that we have a role in this country to play, but certainly, as I look at Congress, I am deferential to the administration’s leadership,” Amo added.
He declined to elaborate on how Congress should approach Israel, but when asked whether he would support U.S. military assistance to Israel, Amo said yes. He also said he is “not supportive” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. Amo traveled to Israel several years ago on a Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies-sponsored trip for alumni of several national scholarhips, such as the Truman and Marshall.
“It was an incredibly moving experience, and I look forward to going back,” said Amo. “The one thing that was particularly notable was just the context of safety being in the backdrop,” which he said “colors some of my thinking about the region as a whole.”
His two major national security priorities are promoting democracy worldwide — here, he pointed to the Summit for Democracy that the Biden administration hosted in 2022 and 2023 — and countering domestic violent extremism at home in the U.S.
“We’ve seen continued attacks on people, whether it’s the rise in antisemitism, to growing white supremacy, to anti-LGBT attacks. All of those pose significant risks to our country,” Amo said.
One way Congress can counter antisemitism is to play “the role of advocate, and communicate out the fact that the country cannot stand for antisemitism broadly,” Amo said, adding that he “would look forward to leading with that as a member of Congress.” Before last fall’s White House-hosted United Against Hate summit, Amo worked with more than 150 mayors on a pledge to combat hate and extremism.
Amo’s biggest day-one priority is to work on measures that will help prevent gun violence, which he described as “continuing the legacy of David Cicilline.”
Paleologos, the Suffolk University pollster, said he expects all the candidates in the race to try to tie themselves to Cicilline, who left office as a popular political figure. But he has not yet endorsed anyone in the race. Whether voters are paying attention — or even know there is a special primary taking place later this year — remains to be seen.
“My obligation as a pollster would be to read you the names of the candidates without any bias, not to group them in any way, not to give a candidate an advantage over another candidate. By the time I get to the ninth or 10th name, you’re pretty much tuned out,” Paleologos said. “We’re basically looking at running for class president, and it’s a popularity contest.”