If he wins the November general election, Amo will become the first black lawmaker to represent Rhode Island in the United States House of Representatives.
Representative David N. Cicilline took the Democratic Party by surprise when he announced in February that he would step down from his House seat to lead Rhode Island’s largest philanthropic organization.
Soon after, more than 20 Democrats ran for his seat. On Tuesday, 12 of them were on the ballot in what became a turbulent special primary in the 1st Congressional District. Among them, three managed to get the most attention during the race: Amo, Lt. Governor Sabina Matos and former State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who lost a close race for Lt. Governor in 2018.
In deep blue Rhode Island, the race in this district has become a case study in factions within the Democratic Party — and how controversies can make or break a campaign.
Live Results: Rhode Island 1st District Special Primary Election
Matos, the first Dominican American elected to statewide office in the country and the first black woman to hold statewide office in Rhode Island, ran with the support of the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Amo ran with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, former Biden chief of staff Ron Klain, and, most notably, former Rhode Island congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, who held this seat for 16 years.
And Regunberg ran as a progressive candidate with the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.), stalwarts of the party’s left wing.
While Regunberg edged out Amo in the race, the former White House staffer is expected to clinch the nomination just an hour after polls close.
Rhode Island was not the only state to hold a special off-cycle House primary on Tuesday. Voters in Utah headed to the Republican primaries to replace Rep. Chris Stewart, who will step down Sept. 15 due to his wife’s health. The ballot includes former state Rep. Becky Edwards, former state party chairman Bruce Hough and attorney and former Stewart aide Celeste Maloy. Edwards, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in 2022, acknowledged she voted for Biden in 2020.
Democrat Kathleen Riebe, who was nominated at her party’s district convention in June, will face the winner of the Republican primary in a special general election on Nov. 21.
A Rhode Island native who worked for Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo when she was governor of the state, Amo most recently served as Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, a role in which he has focused on working with local leaders across the country. He left the White House in April to launch his candidacy for Congress.
In the Biden administration, Amo served as a point person to local leaders to implement Biden’s legislative efforts, while also coordinating responses to national disasters and mass shootings. Julie Chavez Rodriguez, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, praised Amo’s work for the Biden administration.
Amo, the son of immigrants from Ghana and Liberia, also worked on President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, in the Obama White House, and on Biden’s 2020 campaign. He also worked on the campaign 2006 by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
In a Tuesday night post sharing on X, formerly known as Twitter, Amo thanked the Rhode Islanders for supporting him.
“It’s time for us to come together and make sure this seat stays in the hands of the Democrats come November,” he said.
While Matos appeared to be the early favorite in the race, that changed in July when his campaign came under scrutiny after he filed nomination papers that featured the signatures of deceased residents and residents who said they never signed the paperwork.
The question drew rebukes from fellow candidates and sparked an ongoing investigation by the state Board of Elections. Matos nonetheless qualified to appear on the ballot after the board determined that 728 of the signatures on the nomination papers were valid out of 1,256 submitted. According to Rhode Island law, candidates need 500 signatures to appear on the ballot.
Speaking to reporters in July, the lieutenant governor said she would not give up the race and blamed the solicitation issues on a third-party vendor.
Meanwhile, Regunberg’s and Amo’s campaigns grew in popularity, to the point that Democratic political strategist Rich Luchette, a veteran Rhode Island politician who worked for Cicilline for nearly a decade, predicted that the race would be between the two of them.
Luchette said he did not expect a large turnout on Tuesday, given that the election comes in an off-cycle year and is held the day after Labor Day. Most Rhode Islanders, he said, were likely distracted.
“The timing of the election, with David stepping down, really created an environment where there were a lot of candidates, but they were all having a really hard time getting their messages across, and you really saw that because I don’t think there are many applicants. It’s a story that really stood out all summer, except for the lieutenant governor’s problems with petition signatures,” he said.
Regunberg sparked some controversy after WPRI, a Rhode Island news channel, reported that her father-in-law, a fund manager at an investment firm, had started a super PAC to help his campaign, even if Regunberg had said early in the campaign that candidates shouldn’t accept money from corporate PACs.
Last month, according to WPRI, Matos filed a complaint with federal regulators about the super PAC, arguing that Regunberg violated campaign finance laws by coordinating with his in-laws. Amo also asked in a press release if Regunberg had coordinated with his family on the super PAC.
Regunberg’s campaign dismissed the charges, telling WPRI that Matos’ complaint is a “ridiculous and not serious attack.”
Matos’ flagship question and the predicament of Regunberg’s super PAC were at the center of a heated debate between the candidates last month.
Matos said his campaign was “cheated” by the third-party vendor responsible for collecting signatures. Asked about the super PAC, Regunberg said he “would happily join the other candidates on this stage who have super PACs working on their behalf in saying we want an end to all super PACs.”
Joe Caiazzo, a Democratic strategist who has worked on numerous campaigns in Rhode Island, said the hotspots in the race are largely the result of “unforced errors.”
“It’s not like another campaign dropping a bombshell on someone,” he said.
Caiazzo said he expected Kennedy’s endorsement of Amo to improve his chances in the race because of the former congressman’s ties to the district. And because Amo is an alumnus of the Obama and Biden administrations, Caiazzo argued he has a better chance of capturing those Rhode Islanders who he says are “hungry for a Democrat Biden.”
Luchette argued that the race would not be decided on a political ideological basis, given the blue character of the state. Instead, he said, voters would turn to the candidate who was able to convince them – in the short time they had to mount a campaign – that they would be able to replace Cicilline and be in constant communication with their constituents.
“He was just as efficient as either of the two senators,” Luchette said of Cicilline. “Voters have benefited from that, from his influence in Washington DC and from the work he’s done on the ground in Rhode Island, and they’re looking for someone who – no one will be able to replace him right away – but someone one who will be able to run an office competently, to lead the matters that are important in their life.
Michael Scherer contributed to this report.