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Rhode Island could elect its first Black representative to Congress

Rhode Island voters could make history Tuesday by electing the state’s first Black representative to Congress or return the seat last held by Republicans in the 1990s to a GOP candidate.

Democrat Gabe Amo and Republican Gerry Leonard are vying for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District seat. The winner will fill the office left vacant when former Democratic Rep. David Cicilline stepped down this summer to become president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

Amo, 35, grew up in Pawtucket as the son of Ghanaian and Liberian immigrants. He emerged victorious from a crowded Democratic field in the September primary, claiming more than 32% of the vote.

The former White House aide served in the Obama and Biden administrations, most recently as deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. He also served in the administration of former Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo.

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Gabe Amo smiles at an election results party after his win in the Democratic primary for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in Pawtucket, R.I. (David Delpoio/Providence Journal via AP)AP Election Brief | What to expect in Rhode Island’s special electionsGabe Amo meets with members of the press at an election results party after his win in the Democratic primary for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in Pawtucket, R.I. (David Delpoio/Providence Journal via AP)Democrat Amo could be 1st person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress after primary win

Amo, who went to Wheaton College and studied public policy at Oxford University, has said he was inspired by his parents. His mother studied nursing and his father opened a liquor store in part to be his own boss.

Amo said he would fight against what he described as “extremist” Republican attempts to slash funding for Social Security and Medicare, work to legalize abortion rights nationwide and support legislation at the federal level to combat climate change. He also said he would push to ban assault-style firearms, support funding for research into gun violence prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and implement universal background checks.

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Gabe Amo, Rhode Island Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, speaks with people during a campaign stop at a cafe, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Providence, R.I. Amo and Republican Gerry Leonard face off in a special congressional election in Rhode Island on Tuesday, Nov. 7, to complete the term of former Democratic U.S. Rep. David Cicilline. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Gabe Amo, Rhode Island Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, speaks with people during a campaign stop at a cafe, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Providence, R.I. Amo and Republican Gerry Leonard face off in a special congressional election in Rhode Island on Tuesday, Nov. 7, to complete the term of former Democratic U.S. Rep. David Cicilline. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

His win would mark an ongoing transition from the state’s Italian-American political hierarchy, embodied by the late Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Providence’s charismatic longtime mayor who went to prison for corruption.

Leonard, a Marine veteran and political newcomer, is hoping to reclaim the seat for the GOP in the heavily Democratic state. The last Republican to represent the district was Ron Machtley, who served from 1989-1995.

Leonard has said he believes Americans know how to live their lives better than bureaucrats and professional politicians do.

He has criticized “Bidenomics,” saying Democratic President Joe Biden’s economic plan hasn’t helped ordinary citizens, and said he favors a more limited government. He has also said he would back U.S. efforts to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia but he thinks there should be clear goals and an exit strategy.

FILE - Republican Gerry Leonard, center, a U.S. Marine veteran and candidate for the U.S. House in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District special election, speaks with Nick Acquaviva, of Johnston, R.I., right, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, during a campaign stop during a Halloween party at Smithfield Senior Center, in Smithfield, R.I. Leonard and Democrat Gabe Amo face off in a special congressional election in Rhode Island, Tuesday, Nov. 7, to complete the term of former Democratic U.S. Rep. David Cicilline. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

FILE – Republican Gerry Leonard, center, a U.S. Marine veteran and candidate for the U.S. House in Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District special election, speaks with Nick Acquaviva, of Johnston, R.I., right, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, during a campaign stop during a Halloween party at Smithfield Senior Center, in Smithfield, R.I. Leonard and Democrat Gabe Amo face off in a special congressional election in Rhode Island, Tuesday, Nov. 7, to complete the term of former Democratic U.S. Rep. David Cicilline. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

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Leonard also said he believes states should be responsible for making laws on abortion, in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year that overturned constitutional protections for abortion established in Roe v. Wade.

Leonard describes himself as a 13th-generation Rhode Islander whose ancestors fled England to escape religious persecution. He attended public schools and graduated from North Kingstown High in 1983.

He moved on to a 30-year career in the Marine Corps that included multiple overseas deployments — including combat tours in Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan — as an infantry and reconnaissance officer, Leonard said. He lives in Jamestown and graduated from the Naval War College.