Talking Politics

Gabe Amo is a practiced politico, living the American dream

By Ian Donnis
Posted 11/14/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: At the ripe old age of 35, Gabe Amo emerged this week as the bright new star among Rhode Island Democrats. While he will enter Congress as its most junior member, Amo seems poised …

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Talking Politics

Gabe Amo is a practiced politico, living the American dream

Posted

STORY OF THE WEEK: At the ripe old age of 35, Gabe Amo emerged this week as the bright new star among Rhode Island Democrats. While he will enter Congress as its most junior member, Amo seems poised to wield more than usual influence for someone in such a position. He’s buzz-worthy, due in part to his role as the first person of color to win federal election from Rhode Island.

Amo has strong DC connections from his work in the White House with two presidents (one who offered a shout-out for his victory), not to mention ties with U.S. Sen. Whitehouse’s going back to Whitehouse’s first Senate run in 2006 and Gina Raimondo, the former governor-turned-high profile U.S. Commerce secretary.

With a bit of hindsight, it’s unsurprising that Amo was the consensus choice of CD1 voters in the 11-person primary field back in September, when he scored a decisive seven-point win over second-place finisher Aaron Regunberg. The Pawtucket native combines the earnestness of someone who embodies the American dream with the sophistication of a practiced politico familiar with corridors of power.

During his victory speech at The Guild in Pawtucket, Amo vowed to work to restore trust in government, while citing the importance of such issues as retirement security, abortion rights and trying to reduce gun violence. “The journey of so many Rhode Islanders and their families is one of grit, determination, hard work and resilience, and I stand on the shoulders of so many who came before me to make this day possible,” he said. “As people in public service, we have an obligation — an obligation to make sure that journey is met by an understanding of our great responsibility.”

For now, the rep-elect, who is expected to be sworn-in in the coming week, is focused on staffing up and preparing to join the House in the run-up to a clash on a possible government shutdown.

OFFICE POLITICS: For a bit more than a year, Rep-elect Amo will get a nicer office in the Rayburn House Office Building than the one now used by senior Congressman Seth Magaziner, who was first elected last year. Because Amo will be serving the remainder of former Rep. David Cicilline’s term, he gets the use of the office previously gained by Cicilline – with considerable seniority – for the remainder of the 118th Congress. The space, 2233 Rayburn House Office Building, was once used by then-Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Magaziner’s office at 1218 Longworth House Office Building has been described as “tiny” by denizens of Capitol Hill. If Amo wins re-election next year, he would join other special election winners in a lottery to pick offices for the 119th Congress. As it stands, that would be a three-person pool, with Rep-elect Jennifer McClellan of Virginia and the winner of a Nov. 21 election in Utah.

HEALTHCARE: Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital are among the largest employers in their respective communities, so the future of the hospitals is a matter of significant importance. This week, the state Department of Health revealed that at least 19 elective surgeries didn’t happen at RWMC/OLOF last month “because the proper equipment and supplies were not available because of non-payment to vendors.” Attorney General Peter Neronha has taken a tough stance since 2021 against Prospect Medical Holdings, the controversial California-based owner of the hospitals, and he pointedly tweeted about being glad that DOH “was in the game.”

At the same time, Neronha’s office questioned why the Health Department this week issued an immediate compliance order to Prospect, and his spokesman expressed frustration about how the Health Department didn’t consult with the AG’s office. There’s a political subtext here: the run-up to 2026, with the high-profile Neronha looming as a potential candidate for governor. At the same time, Prospect has closed or downgraded hospitals across the country, even while reaping hundreds of millions in dividends for top execs and other investors, so the potential threat to Roger Williams and Fatima is quite real.

MEDIA MERGER: The Public’s Radio, which has grown significantly since it was established in 1998 as WRNI, plans to merge with Rhode Island PBS. Pending approval by state and federal regulators, the move would create a single public media entity spanning TV and radio with additional resources to develop public-interest reporting. “Both boards feel we’ll be stronger together,” Elizabeth Delude-Dix, board chair of The Public’s Radio and one of the co-founders of the radio station, told me in an interview. “Together, we can be more relevant, more trusted, more dynamic and more responsive to the needs of our community. We can make great work go even farther.”

PARTY POLITICS: After David Cicilline stepped down from Congress to become president/CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, I once jokingly told him that we had a lead-lined room at the radio station (located in the RIF building) that he could use if he felt an irrepressible urge to talk about politics. As head of the foundation, Cicilline is expected to avoid partisan politics. But the longtime former state rep, Providence mayor and congressman couldn’t resist the opportunity to share some views about the war in Israel and other topics during a recent Globe RI event. And it raised eyebrows when RI Democrats announced plans to celebrate Cicilline during a Nov. 10 “True Blue” event at Bally’s Twin River in Lincoln. This week, the Democratic Party sent out a notice saying the event was postponed and that Cicilline “will not be able to attend, due to the limitations of his new position.”

WOONSOCKET: All three state representatives from Woonsocket are among those expected to take a serious look at running next year for the mayoral post that was abruptly vacated this week by Lisa Baldelli-Hunt. After a decade as mayor, Baldelli-Hunt cited health reasons, but her sudden exit follows a WPRI investigation about a controversial land deal.

State Rep. Jon Brien, a Democrat-turned-independent, former city councilor and past mayoral candidate, said he isn’t ruling anything out on a possible mayoral bid and is not prepared to announce anything. “At this time I am focused on representing District 49 to the best of my ability, supporting new Mayor Beauchamp in any way that I can, and continuing to work to cast Woonsocket in a positive light and changing the attitude towards my home city that has been less than positive for the past several years,” Brien said via email.

In an interview, state Rep. Robert Phillips, a Democrat, said he has received a lot of encouragement to run. “I am encouraged and a little bit humbled,” he said, adding that he expects to make a decision in about a month. Rep. Stephen Casey (D-Woonsocket) raised his profile and had a solid showing while running in the CD1 primary. He said he is considering a run.

TAXING MATTERS: Federal pandemic aid helped fuel years of uncharacteristic budget surpluses in Rhode Island, but 2024 could mark a return to the familiar deficits of the past. For advocates like Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies, executive director of the Economic Progress Institute, that makes the new General Assembly session the right time to advocate for higher taxes on Rhode Island’s most prosperous one percent. With the troika of top elected officials reluctant to support broad-based tax incentives, Nelson-Davies contends the benefits of more state revenue would outweigh any perceived hit to the state’s business climate.

“Some of the pushback we get is people are going to leave right out in droves if we increase taxes,” she said during an interview on Political Roundtable. “There has been no study. There has been no evidence that any of the state[s] that has [have] increased taxes have lost a good amount of people because of that. If we look at this scenario, imagine businesses and families who are invested in Rhode Island leaving because now they have to pay a little bit more of taxes.” With a potential gain of $169 million in revenue, Nelson-Davies said she doubts that would motivate people to leave the state.

DEMOCRATS: Liz Beretta-Perik of Jamestown has attracted broad support and no opponents ahead of a meeting Wednesday when she is expected to get the votes to become the next RI Democratic Party chair. With the backing of such ideologically different lawmakers as Sen. Sam Bell (D-Providence) and Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), Beretta-Perik is expected to succeed Rep. Joe McNamara of Warwick as chair. In a statement, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said, “Liz Beretta-Perik has my full faith and confidence that she will do an outstanding job as the Democratic Party’s chair — an historic moment as the first woman to be elected to that position. She enjoys widespread support among legislators and from some of the most progressive and conservative members of the party. Liz has helped Democrats get elected to office for many years at all levels of government, both in Rhode Island and in the nation. She is the ideal candidate to unite the Democratic Party.” 

BOOK CORNER: “Disproven,” the new book from two-time candidate for governor Ken Block, recounts his experience of being unable to document the stolen election narrative still embraced by Donald Trump and many of his supporters. The formal release date is next March, but as Block notes via X, pre-sales are important for authors and he highlighted a blurb in which William Barr, who served Trump as attorney general, said, “Block’s thorough fact-based account of his work and conclusions is a must-read and a great service to the country.”

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

Blogfather, lawyer and lobbyist MATT JERZYK: “Civil rights activist Myles Horton once said that you can accomplish a lot if you don’t care who gets the credit. That, for me, summarizes how a young 35-year-old man named Gabe Amo got to this moment. I saw glimpses of his political future in the 2006 Sheldon Whitehouse campaign in Pawtucket and then the Obama for America campaign in 2008 and then the great group of young Democrats who came together to support Chris Blazejewski’s first campaign for state Representative in 2010.

“Gabe was fresh out of college and had all the smarts: book smart, street smart and politico smart. It was early 2012, though, when you could start to see the magic. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and I walked into President Barack Obama’s re-election headquarters in a Chicago skyscraper, with hundreds of operatives scrambling in an open floor layout, and there was Gabe, leading from the front, lining up all campaign communications with governors, mayors and the movers and shakers.

“He continued his growth in the office of Gov. Gina Raimondo and on her re-election campaign. He was (and still is) a code breaker and a border crosser: able to be as comfortable in a room of CEOs or governors as he is at the Annual African Summer Bash or the Southside Boys and Girls Club. He was a critical conductor of all things governmental and political for the future secretary of Commerce.

“Then, he came to do the same thing, except this time for the President of the United States, Joe Biden. At the pinnacle of his career, would he then leave his job at the White House to become the 434th and least senior member of Congress?! And would he have the chops to transform from the ultimate staffer to the ultimate candidate? Well, we all know the answer now.

“The fire in the belly of the son of Liberian and Ghanaian parents burned stronger and he overwhelmed a field of 11 candidates. Finally, a young man who never sought out credit for his achievements was validated with 13,000 votes of confidence. The amazing thing is that his story is only beginning.  Because of his work for Presidents Obama and Biden, Gabe has tremendous relationships across Congress and in the White House and, in this current viper den of DC politics, expect big things from Rhode Island’s Congressman-elect!”

State Sen-elect JAKE BISSAILLON: “Maryellen Goodwin was an indomitable force in Rhode Island politics, serving the residents of Providence’s Smith Hill, Elmhurst, and North End neighborhoods in the state Senate for nearly four decades. That district – Senate District One – is home to a vibrant constituency that includes the last vestiges of Tammany Hall-type ward bosses, retired city employees, empty nesters, elderly folks from the Greatest Generation, first-generation immigrants, war refugees, college students, and seemingly everyone from everywhere in between. It is beautifully diverse. But, even in this diversity of lived experience, I found time and time again throughout my campaign that the issues we feel we face alone as individuals are ubiquitous to our society.

“Housing insecurity, gun violence, and public education are big issues that can often feel beyond our comprehension, but I believe that in Lil’ Rhody any issue that is not beyond our measure is not beyond our control. For example, we know that several hundred folks will be experiencing homelessness this winter. Here in Providence, we know their faces and names.

“Let’s work steadfastly to eradicate homelessness in Rhode Island. Just like the recent slew of laws passed by the General Assembly will make it easier to build new units and the creation of a stand-alone state housing agency will harness the housing resources of our state in a focused and intentional manner, the state’s purchase of the Charlesgate Nursing Facility for use as temporary housing is a strong step forward in confronting Rhode Island’s housing crisis. No matter whether you are struggling to pay your rent, make your mortgage, or find a place to crash for the night, let’s all recognize that these feelings of angst are derivative of the common problem of housing insecurity and work together earnestly to address it.”

KEN NAYLOR, comms director for Gerry Leonard’s CD1 campaign: “Despite facing formidable odds in one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, Gerry was able to secure wins in pivotal areas of Rhode Island. Notably, Woonsocket underscored potential legislative pick-up opportunities for the Republican Party in Rhode Island. Gerry’s accomplishments thus laid the groundwork for the party to capitalize on these gains, positioning Woonsocket as [a] crucial battleground for future legislative victories.”

KICKER: A recent NYT poll found Donald Trump leading Joe Biden in five critical states. But Democrats had a pretty good election day on last Tuesday. What emerges when voters’ concerns about Biden’s age and anxiety and GOP-backed moves against abortion rights get thrown in a blender? Get ready for a very unpredictable 2024. 

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

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