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

A night some thought might go late leads to early victory call for Democrat

By: and - September 5, 2023 11:10 pm

The crowd cheers for Gabe Amo when WPRI TV predicts he won the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District race during a results watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket on Tuesday night, Sept. 5, 2023. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Growing up in a working-class household in Pawtucket, Gabe Amo always dreamed he’d become a big name in Rhode Island — at least that’s what his father, Gabe Sr. says.

“That’s what he’s wanted for 35 years,” he said.

Now, Amo’s dreams are coming true after defeating 10 other Democrats Tuesday in the race to represent Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District.

“This primary election showed that Rhode Islanders believe in a state where one of their sons— the son of two West African immigrants from Ghana and Liberia — received the love and investment of serving the community,” he said to thunderous applause at his campaign’s party at The Guild brewery in Pawtucket.

Amo declared victory at 8:45 p.m. after preliminary, unofficial results showed the former White House aide leading the pack with 11,780 votes. By 10:30 p.m., Amo had amassed nearly 12,400 votes, a 2,800 vote lead over the no. 2 spot, with nearly one-third of votes cast in the Democratic primary, according to preliminary, unofficial results by the Rhode Island Board of Elections. 

With more than 40,000 ballots cast, including same-day, early in-person and by mail as of 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 10.8% of the district’s 343,326 registered voters participated in the primary. Results are preliminary and unofficial, with plans to continue tabulating mail ballots through at least Wednesday, according to the state elections board.

After his victory speech, Amo told a dozen reporters that he had to take a congratulations call from President Joe Biden. The call didn’t connect through so Amo said he would call Biden later.

Gabe Amo reacts 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)

Amo especially performed well in the East Bay, which along with Aquidneck Island also saw record-high turnout compared with contested primaries in recent history.

But Amo said the real key to victory was going to all communities, noting recent trips to Smithfield to congratulate its Little League team for its unforgettable season and attending the arts festival in Pawtucket that kicked off last weekend.

“No vote is worth less than another,” he said. “I’m committed to keeping that practice as I move forward in this election.”

He also credited the consistency of his campaign’s messaging.

“I said from day one that Rhode Islanders deserve someone that can be effective from day one,” he said.

Amo pledged to protect reproductive freedom, investments in Social Security and Medicare, address the climate crisis, and find ways to end gun violence.

If elected in November, Amo will be Rhode Island’s first congressman of color — something he was quick to acknowledge in his victory speech.

“It is not lost on me that I stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “So many people in the room before me — Black, brown, women — so many people who have had the opportunity to pave the path so I could stand here today,” Amo said before a gaggle of reporters.

Heading into November, Amo said he plans to call each of the other candidates to ensure the party remains unified.

“I need everybody’s help because we need to win in November,” he said. ‘I think we have firm beliefs that we share and those will override anything.”

Aaron Regunberg greets supporters at Wild Colonial Tavern in Providence after conceding the race Tuesday night (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current).

No plans for Regunberg to run next year

Minutes after conceding to Amo by phone call, Democratic rival Aaron Regunberg was greeted to thunderous applause from friends, family and supporters at Wild Colonial Tavern in Providence. Regunberg received nearly 9,500 votes, or about 25% of votes cast in the Democratic primary, as of 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, with 98% of Election Day precincts reporting, as well as some early and mail-in ballots, according to the Rhode Island Board of Elections.

Clearly still grappling with the weight of what some might consider an upset by Amo – Regunberg was regarded by many as the frontrunner to the race – he appeared emotional throughout his speech as he thanked his campaign staff, volunteers and family members. Yet he also struck an optimistic tone.

“I’ve said before, I got into this race for Congress because I am hopeful,” he said. “I want to reaffirm right now, as tough as it might feel, I remain hopeful.”

The optimism comes in part thanks to a new job he already has lined up a week from now, with plans to start as a senior climate action attorney for DC-based nonprofit Public Citizen. He’s staying in Providence, working remotely, but has no plans to try his chances again for Congress next year.

“I always said this was going to be my last run,” Regunberg said, speaking with reporters Tuesday night. He repeatedly reiterated his pride in his campaign, declining to opine on what happened to make him lose his perceived leading edge.

“There was a lot incoming,” he said, referring to the many attacks by rival candidates, with much of the heat focused on the family-funded Super PAC that sent out mailers on his behalf. “We stayed above the fray and we stayed focused on the issues.”

He continued, “I think we did everything we could.”

Rep. Megan Cotter, an Exeter Democrat and Regunberg backer, was quick to point the finger. Her blame landed squarely on the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, a progressive group whose leaders criticized Regunberg early in the race.

“The Coop is ruining the left for Rhode Island,” Cotter said. “They are letting their egos get in the way. I am really upset right now. This is really raw.”

Regunberg’s 92-year-old grandfather, Ralph Preiss, also said he felt “terrible” at his grandson’s loss.

A Holocaust survivor whose life story has featured prominently in Regunberg’s campaign, Preiss’s wide smile earlier in the night quickly turned somber as results flooded in for Amo.

“They lost a good man,” Preiss said. But, an optimist like Regunberg, he also pointed to the silver lining. “He made a lot of connections in this running that will help him in the future with his next career.”

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos chills with supporters at Chelo”s in Providence Tuesday after the polls showed her trailing in fourth place in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

Matos says she will focus on current job

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos who trailed in fourth place with 8.1% of the vote gathered with 50 supporters at Chelo’s in Providence to watch returns and eat chicken tenders and chicken wings and fruit from a platter.

“We’re celebrating you as a lieutenant governor,” shouted a supporter from the crowd.

Matos said she will not run for the 1st Congressional District seat in 2024 and will focus instead on the next three years of her term as lieutenant governor.

Matos said she believed controversy over allegedly forged signatures on her nomination papers impacted the results of the race.

Her campaign remains under investigation by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General after fake signatures, including those of dead people, were flagged by municipal election workers in Jamestown, Newport and East Providence. The Rhode Island Board of Elections may also open its own investigation into her papers, having decided to postpone a quasi-judicial hearing process until after the primary so as not to interfere with the results.

Tonight’s results show that Rhode Islanders are ready for more diverse representation,” said Matos in a statement issued by her campaign Tuesday night, “I congratulate Mr. Amo for his hard-fought victory in this crowded field.”

Pawtucket State Sen. Sandra Cano embraces her spouse, Rhode Island State Treasurer James Diossa, shortly after delivering her concession speech during the 1st Congressional District Democratic Primary on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, at the Atrium on Main in Pawtucket. Former White House Aid Gabriel Amo will go on to the November election and may very well be the first person of color Rhode Island has ever sent to Washington, D.C. (Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

Cano concedes with grace

Pawtucket State Sen. Sandra Cano conceded the election shortly after 9 p.m. during her watch party at the Atrium on Main in Pawtucket.

“Today, democracy won,” Cano told supporters. “Although this is not the result that we hoped for, we are super super proud of the campaign that we ran.”

Gonzalo Cuervo, chief of staff to state treasurer James Diossa, Cano’s husband, said that he is confident Rhode Island will have strong representation in Congress with Amo.

“Gabe’s a good guy,” Cuervo said. “I think it was a good campaign.”

Cano said she will continue to work in politics at the state level.

“We know that we need to protect our marginalized communities from hatred and violence because no one should be targeted for who they are, the color of their skin, their country of origin, how they identify or who they love,” she said. “Although I will not be going to Congress right now, I am committed to continuing this work in the Rhode Island Senate.”

Republican 1st Congressional District race winner Gerry Leonard gives his victory speech to supporters who gathered at a Bay View Drive home in Jamestown Tuesday after the polls closed. (Dave Hansen/Rhode Island Current)

Leonard sails to easy GOP primary victory

Meanwhile, Amo’s Republican opponent said he is already prepping for the next phase of the campaign. Gerry Leonard, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, gave his victory speech soon after the polls closed, showing him with more than 75% of the Republican congressional district vote over opponent Terri Flynn.

“For far too long we’ve accepted the status quo in Rhode Island,” Leonard told about 30 people gathered for a watch party in Jamestown. “The results on our economy, education.”

The winner of November’s special general election will fill the vacancy left when Rhode Island Democrat U.S. Rep David Cicilline resigned at the end of May to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. Of the 434 House members now in office, 222 are Republicans and 212 are Democrats.

With additional reporting by Kevin G. Andrade, Jocelyn Jackson and Janine L. Weisman.


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.

Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.