Amo could become Rhode Island’s first person of color in Congress. What does that mean?

By: - September 5, 2023 10:58 pm

A joyous Gabe Amo waves to supporters after unofficial poll results showed him winning the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District race at The Guild in Pawtucket on Tuesday night, Sept. 5, 2023. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Rhode Island may be on the verge of history following the decisive victory of Gabe Amo in Tuesday’s 11-way Democratic race for the open 1st Congressional District seat.

The former White House aide who entered the race as a relative unknown is the child of a Ghanaian immigrant father and Liberian immigrant mother. But now Amo would be the most visible face of Rhode Island’s communities of color.

“It matters a lot,“ Providence College Political Science Professor Adam Myers said. “It would send a message to communities of color that they are represented in the highest rungs of power.”

Primary night belongs to Gabe Amo in 1st Congressional District race

The Ocean State has never elected a Democratic woman to Congress. Its current Congressional delegation consists of all white men. For a 10-year stint starting in 1981, Republican Claudine Schneider represented the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

Half of Amo’s rivals were candidates of color, including Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic; Pawtucket Sen. Sandra Cano, an immigrant from Colombia; Providence State Senator Ana Quezada, also an immigrant from the Dominican Republic; Providence City Councilman John Gonçalves, the son of an immigrant from Cabo Verde; and Stephanie Beauté, the daughter of a Haitian immigrant. 

“Having a Latino or African-American in Congress would reinforce for people outside Rhode Island what those of us who live here already know,” Myers said.  “This is a racially and ethnically diverse state.”

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Rhode Island’s Latino population increased almost 40% between 2010 and 2022; meaning they are currently 17.6% of the state’s population. In Providence County, they accounted for almost all population growth between 2010 and 2020, according to a Pew Research Center report released in February.

According to American Community Survey 5-year estimates from 2010 and 2021, Rhode Island’s Black population grew almost 30%; from 73,967 people to 95,695.

While sending a person of color may be a victory for diversity in Rhode Island, Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC Director Harrison Tuttle said that identity should not be the endgame when it comes to elections.

“The person who wins this should be based on the policy and not on the color of their skin,” Tuttle said. “My hope is that their victory reflects their policies.”

Shortly after the results were announced, Pawtucket State Sen. Sandra Cano said that she will support Amo and that his victory made history.

“This is amazing!” she said, fighting back tears. “It’s history, and I’m excited to work with Gabe.”

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien had endorsed Cano in the race. But he said he is sure Amo is poised to serve Rhode Island well in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Gabe has the qualities to represent District 1, and we’re looking forward to working with him,” he said, adding he thought Amo’s victory historic. “It’s been a long time coming.

Amo had put his identity as a Black man second to his policy stances when asked earlier Tuesday while campaigning outside the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Providence.

“I am running to make a difference, I am not running to make history,” he said. 

But Bob McConnell, an East Side resident who voted at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Tuesday morning, said his choice was influenced in part by race and gender.

“A lot of the candidates are very similar on issues,” he said. “I ended up going more for people who I think haven’t had the opportunity in the past.”

Opportunity meaning a woman or person of color, McConnell explained. 

“I think that’s really important, and that’s coming from a white man,” McConnell added.

With additional reporting from Nancy Lavin.


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.