Talking Politics

Amo is the new rising star in R.I. politics

By Ian Donnis 
Posted 9/12/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: Democratic primary voters had their say and now Gabe Amo is the new rising star in Rhode Island politics. While former state representative Aaron Regunberg was widely perceived as …

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Talking Politics

Amo is the new rising star in R.I. politics

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: Democratic primary voters had their say and now Gabe Amo is the new rising star in Rhode Island politics. While former state representative Aaron Regunberg was widely perceived as the front runner, Amo scored a decisive 7.5-point victory (a difference of 3,000 votes) over his closest rival – no small feat in a field of 11 candidates. Amo benefited from a number of factors, particularly the collapse of Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos’ campaign and how many of her former supporters broke in favor of Amo.

Also contributing to his success as a first-time candidate was his story of rising from humble Pawtucket roots to work at the White House – and TV ads that depicted him with the two most recent Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Amo emphasized retail politics and clearly had a strong ground game. Another key was the Aug. 24 release of an internal poll done by Jeffrey Pollock’s Global Strategy Group, which showed Amo as the top rival to Regunberg. The progressive former state rep started with solid name recognition, but came under sustained rhetorical fire from rival campaigns in the closing weeks of the primary campaign. Some observers believe he was hurt by running to the left, with an endorsement from AOC, and Regunberg’s response on a debt-ceiling question during the WPRI debate (saying he would vote against raising the ceiling, unless his vote would decide the outcome) probably didn’t help him.

In the end, Amo’s upbeat profile as a moderate, pro-business Democrat was a more comfortable fit for voters. Just consider the liberal bastion of Barrington, where Amo thumped Regunberg by more than 600 votes — more than twice Regunberg’s margin of victory in the only community he won, Providence. Amo demonstrated strength across the district, running up the vote in such vote-rich communities as Cumberland, East Providence, Pawtucket and Newport. The victory is historic for the 35-year-old son of immigrants from Liberia and Ghana, since he would be the first person of color elected to represent Rhode Island in Congress. But first, Amo faces a general election race against GOP nominee Gerry (pronounced “Gary”) Leonard of Jamestown, who had a long career in the Marine Corps. 

CD1 WINNERS:

Team Gina: Amo had worked for Raimondo when she was governor and his campaign got help from such TG associates as PR man Jon Duffy, who hired Amo when Duffy co-chaired Raimondo’s initial transition team, and consultant Cara Cromwell. 

Xaykham “Xay” Khamsyvoravong: The Newport mayor was the only local municipal leader official to endorse Amo.   

CD1 LOSERS:

Sabina Matos: The first Latina to serve as lieutenant governor started as the favorite in the CD1 race. But sustained coverage of a signature-gathering controversy — and her campaign’s response — undercut her appeal and she wound up placing fourth in primary voting. Matos has time to try to improve her standing, but it didn’t help a strained relationship with Gov. Dan McKee when she graded him with an “incomplete” during our Public’s Radio-ProJo-RI/PBS debate, and she is likely to face competition during the next LG race in 2026. 

Spencer Dickinson: The former state rep tried to position himself as a teller of difficult truths and ran a series of newspaper ads lambasting the pension overhaul spearheaded by Raimondo as state treasurer in 2011. In the end, though, voters were unimpressed and Dickinson got less than 1% of the vote. 

Organized labor: Teachers’ unions rallied behind State Sen. Sandra Cano, and the Laborers International Union was an early supporter of Matos. In the end, though, this backing didn’t translate into much, although Cano made a credible run with limited resources, finishing in third place. 

PROGRESSIVES: Regunberg put a brave face on his defeat while speaking to supporters at the Wild Colonial. He said his campaign fought the good fight, and he announced plans to take a job advocating against climate change for the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen. Local progressives have made gains in the General Assembly in recent years, so it’s not clear whether Regunberg’s loss is an indication of a shift in voters’ priorities. Still, after losing a narrow primary race against 

Dan McKee for lieutenant governor in 2018, and falling short this time around, Regunberg plans to pursue his future outside of electoral politics.   

THE DIFFERENCE: Regunberg had pledged to bring a more muscular form of representation to taking on corporate power and challenging climate change. We will never know how that would have panned out and whether it would have made him more vulnerable to a re-election challenge next year. Amo joined me on Political Roundtable this week and I asked how he would respond to the sense of many Americans that corporations and the super-rich get to play by different rules. His response: “Well, I think especially when it relates to federal funding, the oversight role that the federal government has is tremendous. And I think deploying a really active set of members on the right committees to make sure that we hold to account folks who are the recipients of our money through Medicare, folks who are the recipients of our taxpayer dollars through the defense budget, and holding people to account, is a big part of the role, and I think when we saw Congressman Cicilline’s leadership in that function as related to big tech, we have an example here in Rhode Island of someone who has gotten to work on those issues, and I hope to follow in his footsteps in that way.”    

RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE: Recent polls will do little to calm anxiety among Democrats about the presidential race next year. Here’s Amo’s comment on polling showing Joe Biden’s support slipping among non-white voters: “[R]ight now, particularly in this media environment, it’s sometimes hard to break through. But the president has done historic things for communities of color … for everybody. I mean, when you look at the child tax credit, for example, that has now expired because of congressional inaction, that cut child poverty by 50%, the expanded credit, but cut Black child poverty by even more. That is something that we should be celebrating. So we’ve got a lot of work as Democrats, and as people who want the president re-elected, to communicate the message, communicate the wins. We’ve got a bipartisan infrastructure law that is going to create so many jobs. We have the inflation reduction act that is going to create so many jobs and also combat some of the challenges that we have with environmental justice. So the communities that are affected by this president’s agenda need to hear not just from the president, but people like me, people like me who are running for office. And if elected, I’m going to be an active surrogate to make sure that we continue the progress of this administration.”   

CITY HAUL: The most important issue facing Providence Mayor Brett Smiley is enhancing the city’s financial standing. Smiley followed up on one aspect of that by announcing a new proposed payment in lieu of taxes plan with such nonprofits as Brown, RISD, Johnson & Wales, and Providence College. As City Council President Rachel Miller said, “There is a financial cost associated with being home to top institutions. This agreement sets up a new era of contributions to the city.” Pushing for this kind of deal gets a lot less attention than when Angel Taveras pursued a similar path years ago. Still, the city’s financial challenges include its underfunded pension plan, and that puzzle has defied years of attempted solutions. 

RI SENATE: Jake Bissaillon, chief of staff in the Senate, won the Democratic primary in the race for the seat formerly held by Maryellen Goodwin, and he’s celebrating by getting married. Bissaillon faces Republican Niyoka Powell in the November election. 

TAKES OF THE WEEK – a mix of views from various Rhode Islanders. 

Via blogfather, lawyer and lobbyist MATT JERZYK: “A sprinkling of thoughts on the CD-1 results:

* If someone had asked the Regunberg campaign if they would win the election with over 9,000 votes and 25% of the vote, I bet they would have said ‘yes.’  

* When Amo and Matos were the only candidates to go up on TV on July 25, voters had already been exposed to more than a week of negative media coverage regarding the Matos campaign signature scandal. The indecisive and wandering response of the Sabina Matos campaign to the controversy cancelled any positive effects of those TV ads. Many voters who were watching both TV ads clearly moved their support from Matos to Amo, evidenced by the fact that Amo won more than double the amount of mail ballots than Matos (Amo actually won the most mail ballots of all candidates). Indeed, Amo also won the early vote by a wider margin than on election day, showing that Amo’s base was strong throughout the summer. 

* There was a lot of discussion about women of color in this race, but little about Amo campaign manager Lauren Garrett, who won another impressive victory with U.S. Rep. Sharice David, the only Democrat in Kansas’ delegation. Also, campaign consultant Mindy Myers once again proved that she is one of the top political talents in the nation. 

* Barrington was to Gabe Amo what Edgewood and Pawtuxet Village were to Seth Magaziner. Last year, Magaziner topped former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung by more than 1,000 votes at the single precinct of Scottish Rite Masonic Lodge in Cranston’s liberal neighborhoods of Edgewood and Pawtuxet Village. Similarly, Amo won the town of Barrington by nearly 700 votes, with 51% of the vote.  Providence’s East Side is no longer the sole liberal bellwether. 

* If elected in November, as expected, Amo will most certainly be a rising star in the Democratic caucus because of his networks with the Biden, Obama and Raimondo administrations and his knowledge and experience of getting things done in D.C.  

* Credit to Sen. Sandra Cano, who ran an impressive race and tallied 14% of the vote without significant resources and without a big turnout from Pawtucket. Her future is incredibly bright. 

* Voter turnout of about 38,000 was two-thirds of the tally of the same precincts in the 2022 Democratic Primary; a pretty impressive number considering election day was the day after Labor Day. Good job, Rhode Island voters!” 

State Rep. BRIAN C. NEWBERRY (R-North Smithfield): “The comments made by NYC mayor Eric Adams about illegal aliens causing problems in New York are as unexpected as they are clarifying. Ditto the spectacle of Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healy begging people to open their homes to take in ‘migrants.’ For years people living outside border states have waxed poetic about our nation’s history of welcoming immigrants, decrying any attempt to control our borders or enforce our immigration laws, and calling anyone who disagreed with them bigots and racists. All this while burying their heads in the sand as to the real problems this rhetoric and corresponding policy choices have caused. But as a wise man once said, you can have open borders or a welfare state, but you can’t have both.

“It would be funny if the issue were not so serious and the pain to these immigrants not so real, to watch all these virtue-signaling politicians suddenly wake up to how open borders and illegal immigration are real problems for everyone, not just those hicks in Texas. Maybe, finally, we can begin rationally addressing this problem as a united nation.”  

State Sen. DAWN EUER (D-Newport): “Huge congratulations to Gabe Amo on his victory in the Democratic primary. We should celebrate his historic victory as well as the accomplishments of the most diverse slate of candidates in the state’s history. Diversity is our strength, and representation matters. I’m proud of my friend, Sen. Sandra Cano, who ran a positive campaign, highlighting her decade of experience in public service as well as her financial expertise and her moving personal story. She didn’t shy away from talking about her role as a caretaker in her family, and I know how powerful that was for so many women who do the bulk of the visible and invisible labor in their families. She was underestimated in her efforts and her abilities early on by the consultant class — she had young children at home, there were other women in the race and they were going to pull votes from each other, she spoke with an accent, she didn’t have money.

“While the bias and structural barriers working against her did unfortunately impact her ability to keep pace with other candidates’ fundraising, she finished solidly in third place after spending only a fraction of what the other campaigns spent. We need to continue to dismantle the structures and biases that prevent well-qualified and amazing candidates from running for office and getting the support and resources they need to succeed. I look forward to a day when the presence of multiple women on the ballot is roundly celebrated instead of met with hand-wringing.”  

LOYAL OPPOSITION: The RI House GOP is out with a report on the 2023 legislative session. In a statement, House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale (R-Foster) said it identifies key initiatives: “The 2023 Minority Report showcases our efforts and the impact we have in shaping the conversation on important issues addressed at the State House. This year, early on, we kept constant, collaborative communication lines open with the Speaker and his leadership team — enabling us to successfully shepherd through important, good government legislation.

“Conversely, we were also impactful in preventing policies we felt were harmful and that we wouldn’t support from moving forward – including no new taxes being implemented.  For example, the RIGOP has been a longtime champion of reforming the Tangible Tax on small businesses and it is now law, as well as restoration of funding to the Conservation Districts and restored funding for two forest ranger positions removed from the budget by the governor. Seventeen of our thoughtful amendment proposals were incorporated directly into the budget, including expansion of the Business Scholarship Tax Credit for School Choice, funding for an English as a Second Language position, and major reforms to Medicaid — saving taxpayers and the state hundreds of millions in wasted dollars.” 

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@thepublicsradio.org.

2023 by East Bay Media Group

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.