Former White House aide Gabe Amo won a special election Tuesday and will become Rhode Island’s first Black member of Congress.
Amo, who will serve the remainder of former Democratic Rep. David Cicilline’s term, has never held political office but has more than a decade of experience in government.
The Associated Press called Amo the winner over Republican nominee Gerry Leonard Jr., a Marine Corps veteran, at 8:10 p.m. Eastern time, just minutes after the polls closed. Amo had 62 percent of the vote to Leonard’s 37 percent, with 68 percent of polling places reporting according to a tally posted by the state Board of Elections.
Cicilline resigned in June to take a job as head of a Providence-based nonprofit. His departure triggered a special election, and Amo won a crowded primary to clinch the Democratic nomination in September.
The son of African immigrants comes to Congress with the goal of bolstering Social Security and Medicare, as well as working to advance gun violence prevention legislation. He left a position as deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs under President Joe Biden to run for Congress.
While at the White House, Amo was tasked with helping to build local support for the bipartisan infrastructure package and served as a liaison between the Biden administration and mayors. He has often mentioned being the first to call community leaders in the wake of mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Highland Park, Ill.
“I’ve always believed that we need real robust commonsense gun reform legislation,” Amo told CQ Roll Call in October. “And all those experiences have done is made my resolve and commitment even stronger as a member of Congress.”
Amo previously worked for former President Barack Obama, both on the campaign trail and later in the White House in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. He also spent four years working in the Rhode Island governor’s office under then-Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, who is now Biden’s Commerce secretary.
The special election capped an unpredictable campaign that featured an initial field of 15 candidates and an influx of outside spending. It was also marked by a series of controversies.
Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, the only candidate who held statewide office, was viewed as the early front-runner but became embroiled in a scandal over forged signatures to secure her place on the primary ballot. She denied any wrongdoing and blamed a contractor but ultimately finished fourth in the primary.
Aaron Regunberg, a progressive former state lawmaker who nabbed endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., came under fire over campaign finance issues. Matos filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging Regunberg had illegally coordinated with a super PAC funded mostly by his father-in-law. He also denied any wrongdoing.
Fascinated by politics
Amo was born in Providence and grew up in Pawtucket. His father, who owns a liquor store, and his mother, a nurse, immigrated to the United States separately in the 1980s. His father arrived from Ghana in his late 20s as a political refugee, according to reporting by The Providence Journal.
His mother emigrated from Liberia a few years after his father’s arrival, joining her siblings who had preceded her. Amo told the Rhode Island newspaper that he grew up in a blended family with five brothers and two sisters, shuttling back and forth between his parents as a kid.
He received his high school diploma from the prestigious Moses Brown School, a Quaker school in Providence that is one of the oldest preparatory schools in the nation. As a teenager, he read former President Bill Clinton’s memoir, which helped form his understanding of the presidency.
“I’ve always been fascinated by our politics, but also the personalities that are a big part of them,” he said.
He went on to obtain his bachelor’s degree in political science at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, a private liberal arts college, where he earned a Truman and a Marshall scholarship. With the latter, he went to Oxford University to study comparative social policy.
Amo spent more than 10 years building a career in politics, including stints as a field organizer for Sheldon Whitehouse’s 2006 Senate campaign while he was in college and as a national political coordinator for the 2012 Obama presidential campaign, which led to his first White House job.
He recalls one of his earliest forays into government was for a fifth grade research project, for which he read a kid-friendly biography about four-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“Learning about the New Deal, I sort of thought that was like the gold standard of how you help people, right?” he said. “I’ve always said the fundamental role of government is to be there for when people need you.”