Gerry Leonard, left, answers a question at his first press conference since winning the Sept. 5 GOP primary. To Leonard’s right is U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), who was briefly his boss during his time in the Marine Corps. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
NORTH PROVIDENCE — When Gerry Leonard was thinking about running as a Republican for Rhode Island’s open 1st Congressional District seat last May, he knew just the person to reach out to for advice: his former boss.
That conversation with U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) convinced the retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel from Jamestown to take the plunge into politics. And it’s why Bergman — a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant general under whom Leonard worked in 2006 and 2008 — was standing next to Leonard Monday afternoon inside the dimly lit Centredale Revival restaurant while heavy rain fell outside.
“The questions he posed to me — and I think it’s important — is, ‘How do you work with other people, and how do you cooperate?’” Leonard told six members of the news media at his first press conference since winning the Republican nomination in a landslide victory in the Sept. 5 special primary.
Leonard answered Bergman’s question by explaining his beliefs. Now Bergman was happy to believe in Leonard’s campaign and give him an endorsement.
Bergman, who has represented northern Michigan and its Upper Peninsula since January 2017, serves on the House Committees on Armed Services, Budget, and Veterans Affairs. He served in the Marines from 1969 to 2009.
“As Marines, we don’t take leadership lightly,” Bergman said. “It is my honor to be here today as a member of Congress, in my fourth term, to endorse — my strongest, highest, most fervent endorsement to — Gerry Leonard.”
Leonard and Bergman appeared together for a 15-minute press conference ahead of a campaign fundraiser for 60 people at the restaurant. The press conference was originally scheduled for Monday morning in Bristol but had to be rescheduled because Bergman’s flight was delayed.
The two also stopped by Warren earlier in the day to tour the repurposed Cutler Mill complex and meet first responders and place a 9/11 wreath of remembrance at Fire Station Five on Metacom Avenue.
Before going into the subject of politics at his press conference, Leonard took time to pay his respects for the lives lost during the attacks on the World Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Much like Kennedy’s assassination, much like Pearl Harbor, I think it’s burned in each and every one of our memories,” he said.
‘A New England Yankee Republican’
Leonard wanted to set himself apart from other national Republicans, saying his goal if elected is to be “an independent thinker who never forgets who sent them there.”
“You’re not working for your party, and you’re not working for yourselves,” he said. “I labeled myself the other day as a New England Yankee Republican in the same vein as a John Chafee.”
Yet the Michigan congressman next to him endorsed former President Donald Trump and was one of more than 140 House Republicans who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election. Leonard stood by Bergman’s endorsement, adding “Donald Trump is Donald Trump, and I’m Gerry Leonard.”
Rhode Island GOP chairman Joe Powers, who watched the press conference from the front door of the restaurant, said Leonard would try to abide more by his constituents than what the national party says.
“He is definitely his own man,” Powers said in an interview. “Honestly, I can’t say enough about him.”
On the issues
Leonard and Bergman talked about the need to provide military aid to Ukraine, but they wondered what the end game for the Biden administration is.
“We don’t go to any war or participate in any war without knowing what you’re trying to get,” Leoanrd said.
Both sidestepped revealing their personal thoughts on Republican efforts stalling military nominations and promotions that critics say could pose a threat to national security. The hold on Senate confirmations, which the Pentagon says is affecting hundreds of senior military personnel, is the result of U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) exercising a senatorial privilege to protest a Department of Defense policy on reimbursing service members and their dependents who have to travel to receive abortion care.
“The House has no input,” Bergman said.
“I am always concerned about our national security and anything that affects our national security,” Leonard said.
Military rotations often occur during the summer, Leonard acknowledged. “It’s getting disruptive for people moving overseas,” he added.
Leonard’s press conference came one day after Democratic candidate Gabe Amo took part in a unity news conference including members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, Gov. Dan McKee, State House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, and former primary rivals Lt. Gov Sabina Matos and Pawtucket Sen. Sandra Cano.
Though he did not mention Amo by name, Leonard said his opponent is “a rubber stamp for the status quo.”
Leonard has received the endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz of North Smithfield ahead of the Sept. 5 primary, along with the state Republican party.
Additionally, the Guardian Fund, a political action committee that seeks to get veterans elected to Congress and is chaired by Bergman, is stepping in to support Leonard’s campaign. Guardian Fund Executive Director Carolyn Machado, who is originally from East Providence, said in an interview after the press conference, that the group will “probably provide financial support.”
“This is the one race where a Marine is running and we’re happy to support Marines,” Machado said.
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