Divide between Amo and Leonard sharpens in final TV debate before Nov. 7 election

1st Congressional District candidates talk Israel, immigration and political extremism

By: - November 3, 2023 3:06 pm

Republican Gerry Leonard (left) and Democrat Gabe Amo (right) participated in a pre-taped debate at WPRI-12 studios Friday morning. (Courtesy James Bartone/WPRI 12 News)

Less than 24 hours after Democrat Gabe Amo and Republican Gerry Leonard Jr. faced off in their inaugural televised debate, the congressional candidates met again to talk assault weapons, abortion and Israel.

The 1st Congressional District rivals reiterated their prior stances on hot-button topics in a pre-taped debate Friday morning at WPRI-12’s East Providence studios, moderated by Target 12’s Tim White and Ted Nesi. The debate will air on Fox Providence at 6:30 p.m. Friday and again at 10:30 p.m.

Amo and Leonard finally face off in live television debate

Much of the conversation echoed sentiments expressed during the previous debate, which aired Thursday night on WJAR NBC 10, but with an even sharper contrast between the rivals in the final toe-to-toe before the Nov. 7 election.

While both Amo and Leonard have pledged support for Israel in the wake of the deadly Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, they disagreed over the terms of providing additional U.S. aid to Israel. 

Leonard was evasive when asked whether he supported the U.S. House Republicans’ bill, which ties $14.3 billion in aid to Israel to cuts to the Internal Revenue Service.

“I will fight to fund Israel,” Leonard responded.

Amo, meanwhile, criticized the Republicans for setting conditions on U.S. aid to its ally, yet expressed support for President Biden’s request for $106 billion in emergency spending including aid to Israel and Ukraine.

“Standing with Israel is essential as is funding the battle in Ukraine,” Amo, a former White House staffer, said. 

Amo repeatedly criticized House Republicans, led by newly elected speaker Mike Johnson, as a “caucus of chaos” that Leonard, if elected, would only add to.

Leonard, a former U.S. Marine Corps colonel, in turn sought to separate himself from extremists on either side, framing his candidacy as one of moderation informed by his more than three-decade military career.

Yet Leonard waffled on many pointed questions, such as whether he would support Donald Trump as the next Republican presidential nominee, instead answering that he will support whoever wins the party’s nomination.

Leonard also did not directly answer a question about support for federal legalization of recreational marijuana, though he expressed concern with implications for the military. He also did not weigh in on the Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse-backed bill to make daylight saving time permanent, saying “we have bigger fish to fry.”

WPRI-12 Target 12’s Ted Nesi, left, and Tim White, right, moderated the Congressional District 1 debate Friday. (Courtesy James Bartone/WPRI 12 News)

Leonard’s answers were more definitive when it came to abortion and assault weapons; he opposed national bans on both. Amo, in contrast, expressed support for both measures, adding that the need for stricter gun regulation, including a ban on assault-style weapons, was “not a both sides issue.”

The pair agreed on the need for a combination of tax increases and spending cuts to address the $1.7 trillion fiscal 2023 budget deficit. Both also stressed the importance of taking action on the increase in migrant crossings across the country’s southern border, though Amo defended Biden’s border policies, pointing to the role of Congress in providing funding for a more robust border patrol and immigration court system.

Action isn’t about militarization, it’s about making our obligation to the communities at the southwest border, to our citizens in cities across the country…whole,” said Amo, whose parents are West African immigrants.

Leonard, in contrast, charged Biden as leader of the executive branch with failure to enforce the law.

“We can’t handle the mess that’s been created,” he said.

Another point of disagreement: the best Thanksgiving side dish. Amo didn’t hesitate before backing stuffing, while Leonard was a cranberry sauce enthusiast. 

The special election is Nov. 7. Early voting continues through Nov. 6.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

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