Amo won the CD1 race. Now, he’s racing against the clock to D.C.

What onboarding process? Rhode Island’s congressman-elect starts his new job ahead of a looming federal shutdown.

By: - November 8, 2023 2:25 pm

Rhode Island Congressman-Elect Gabe Amo waves to supporters at The Guild in Pawtucket after unofficial results proclaimed his victory over Republican Gerry Leonard Jr. in the race for the 1st Congressional District on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

The race to pick a replacement for former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline ended Tuesday with Democrat Gabe Amo trouncing Republican Gerry Leonard Jr. in the 1st Congressional District.

Now, it’s a race against the clock to certify election results and send Amo to D.C. to be sworn in ahead of a looming federal government shutdown. A temporary spending law approved by Congress in September expires at midnight on Nov. 17, giving federal lawmakers just over a week to agree upon a new spending plan or else enter a partial government shutdown.

And with a slim Republican majority in the House, Amo’s presence – and vote – could be the deciding factor, even as a member of the minority party.

“One additional member of the House changes the math just a little bit in terms of what you need for a majority of sworn members,” said Adam Myers, an associate professor of political science at Providence College. “It might seem small, but a single vote could, in some circumstances, change the outcome.”

So much so that the U.S. House Clerk Kevin McCumber sent a letter to Rhode Island Secretary of State Gregg Amore asking the state to certify results of the election “as soon as possible.”

The pressure is on not only for state election officials to finish counting ballots, but also for Amo to assemble a skeleton staff and set up shop in Washington.

One thing is certain: Amo plans to vote to avoid a shutdown at all costs, he said in an interview after his Election Day victory. 

“Compromise is something that is important, but Democrats have agreed to a deal on funding the government,” he said. “We have to make sure we keep the government open.”

As for the rest of his transition plans, those were still being ironed out.

“Some of the thinking that’s been in my head is going to now have to come out in terms of hiring a staff, identifying some legislative priorities and the essential work of keeping the government operating,” Amo said Tuesday.

Supporters of Gabe Amo celebrate his win in the 1st Congressional District special election on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, at The Guild in Pawtucket. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

His campaign did not return calls for comment Wednesday seeking more information.

Rich Luchette, a political strategist who worked for Cicciline for almost a decade in Washington, wasn’t worried despite the steep learning curve Amo will face as the most freshman member of Congress.

“Keep in mind, this is a guy who worked for two presidents and also worked for Gov. Gina Raimondo,” Luchette said in an interview on Wednesday. “There’s a lot he knows that somebody else coming into this job would not know. And for the things he has to learn, I think he will be a quick study.”

Friends and former colleagues of Amo’s from past jobs at the State House and White House have overwhelmingly stressed the depth of Amo’s intellect and political know-how. 

Still, Amo won’t get the six weeks of preparation, including an orientation to Congress, afforded to most freshman congresspeople.

It’s not atypical to fill openings from death or resignation as fast as possible, though. Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, pointed to the haste with which California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed a replacement to fill the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat after Feinstein died. Feinstein’s successor, Laphonza Butler, was sworn in on Oct. 3 in the midst of a federal indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, which prompted some senators to call for Menendez’ ouster.

The political environment Amo will be thrust into is not a calm one, either. From the looming federal shutdown to the newly elected and controversial House speaker Mike Johnson, it’s an atmosphere of “chaos and pandemonium,” in Myers’ words.

“It’s going to be a quick and pretty brutal few months,” Myers said of Amo’s House debut.  

Not to mention, Amo will soon begin campaigning since the two-year position is up for reelection next fall. 

After his decisive win on Election Day, as well as a strong showing in a 12-way Democratic primary in September, Luchette didn’t expect Amo to face a competitive reelection.

“The district is reliably blue, and nobody is talking about primary-ing him,” Luchette said, echoing Myers’ sentiment.

What is not-so-blue: the House, which under Republican control will make it difficult for a Democrat like Amo to accomplish much. Luchette would know; he spent the first seven years of his work with Ciccilline in a Republican-led House.

“That was the biggest surprise I had,” Luchette recalled of his entrance on Capitol Hill. “I knew the majority ran things in the House, but it is really striking how absolute that control is.”

Myers agreed.

“We can’t expect him to notch any legislative accomplishments in this Congress given his position as a junior member of the minority party,” he said.

Still, Amo is likely to benefit from national party support, especially because his personal story as a Black son of immigrants aligns well with the message the Democratic Party is trying to send.

It’s going to be a quick and pretty brutal few months.

– Adam Myers, an associate professor of political science at Providence College

“They are going to showcase him,” said Myers. “There’s people both in this state and in D.C. who are already thinking about his future political prospects beyond the House.”

Amo, for now, is squarely focused on his current job, using his victory speech Tuesday as an opportunity to stress a “get to work” message.”

As are state election officials, who must certify results before Amo can be sworn into office.

Board of Elections under pressure

The Rhode Island Board of Elections is scheduled to meet to certify results from the special congressional election on Nov. 15. Board members during a meeting Tuesday afternoon discussed delaying the vote until Nov. 16 to accommodate members’ schedules, but decided to go ahead with the earlier day due to the pressure to get Amo to D.C.

There are still outstanding mail ballots from military and overseas ballots and residents whose original mail ballots were disqualified due to errors. Those voters have until Nov. 14 to turn in their ballots to the state elections board.

Ninety-one overseas and military voters requested ballots for the election, 61 of which had been returned the day before Election Day, according to Miguel Nunez, the board’s deputy elections director. There are also seven originally disqualified mail-in ballots that still have to be fixed.

It’s not unusual for the state elections board to certify results quickly after ballots are due, especially in local races where winners sometimes take office immediately after certification, John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island said.

“This is largely just a ministerial act,” Marion said of the certification voting process.

Nov. 14 is also the deadline to request a recount, though Leonard does not meet the state requirements to ask for one because of the wide margin with which he lost to Amo.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the deadline for averting a government shutdown. The temporary spending law expires at midnight on Nov. 17.


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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.