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Exclusive Interview: Gabe Amo, aide to two Presidents and Governor, is running for Congress
"On paper, if I was hiring for this job and I looked at the various qualifications you need to have to be a member of Congress, I think I would be at the top of the stack."
I'll be interviewing as many candidates as I can ahead of the special election to fill the House seat vacated by David Cicilline. My fifth interview is with Democrat Gabe Amo, who has worked for Governor Gina Raimondo and Presidents Obama and Biden.
I conducted the interview at the Green Line Apothecary on North Main Street in Providence. The interview has been edited for clarity.
See my other Congressional District One race interviews here:
See my other articles on the Congressional District One race interviews here:
Steve Ahlquist: Why you and why this job?
Gabe Amo: When David Cicciline announced he was stepping down I was having a normal day. I was on my way to the White House, walking down Vermont Avenue to my workplace at 1600 Penn. And the first thought that went through my head was, “Why not me?” I've given most of my career to helping people. That's a big part of my sense of my role in this democracy. I think you need people to get into this race who, from day one, have a set of qualifications that meet the moment. That's the argument I'm making, not against other candidates, but for myself. When I thought about the experience I have in Washington, especially when we're at this historic moment where we have lots of challenges, but great opportunities, I believe I am the best candidate.
We have major pieces of legislation, $4 trillion in funding coming out. My experience, having worked for [Rhode Island] Governor [Gina] Raimondo, gives me insight into the things we need at the state level. I've worked for two Presidents of the United States. My whole family lives in Rhode Island. On top of my professional experience, with my deep roots here, and my fundamental appreciation for democracy being a participatory action that can't be passive for it to thrive, I thought I could add my voice in a meaningful way and demonstrate that I can make the contributions that people are looking for from their government. We have a lot to do in terms of restoring trust in government. Government has to go beyond rhetoric. It needs to be about service delivery. That's what I'm talking about a lot in this campaign because that's what people are expecting and that's my primary rationale.
So when you ask, “Why me?” I say, “Why not me?” On paper, if I was hiring for this job and I looked at the various qualifications you need to have to be a member of Congress, I think I would be at the top of the stack. This is a job interview - one that's very public and very visible. The way I've run this campaign is emblematic of how I would do it as a congressperson, which is to be present, be everywhere, and really connect my life to the ambitions and hopes of everybody in this great district.
Steve Ahlquist: You probably know your way around Washington better than any other candidate in the race, in a literal sense, as in where to cross the street and where the best restaurants are.
Gabe Amo: I am not running a Washington-centric campaign. I am a Rhode Islander. I would stack my Rhode Island credentials against everybody else in this field. Like eight out of 10 babies, I was born at Women and Infants Hospital. I’ve got five brothers and two sisters. I’ve got got one oddball who lives in Worcester. Everybody else is here. My mom has been in a nursing home. The number of times someone says to me on the trail or one of my staff, “Is this Gabe, whose mom worked at Rosewood Manor on Pitman Street?” or, “I think my dad sold his business to Gabe's dad.” That happened yesterday to someone in Warren.
From Warren to Woonsocket, from Newport to East Providence, my connections are deep. It's not something that I tout just to who make some case. Ultimately, those connections are my why, in terms of why I'm in this race, because I want to contribute to this community that has done so much for me and done so much for my family. That's a big part of why I'm running.
Steve Ahlquist: You said something that makes me want to take my questions out of order. You mentioned your mom worked in a nursing home. In Rhode Island right now the pay is very low for people who do that kind of work. And I would extend that. We have low pay for what has traditionally been considered women's work and care work - teachers, nurses, elder care, childcare, social work, I could go on. These jobs are the most essential and the lowest paid. What are your thoughts on that and what should we be doing?
Gabe Amo: It's such an important question. My mom worked at the Charlesgate Nursing Center, right across the street from where we are, so this is deeply personal to me. [See coverage on Charlesgate’s closure here and here] A lot of those women are women of color, a lot of them are immigrant women. My mom was born in Liberia. I think about this as personal because these are a lot of the aunties, both real and play aunties, that I have who are in service-oriented jobs that will become even more important for Rhode Island as our population grays and ages over the next few decades.
We're going to face some structural challenges here, so how do we fix things? One of my biggest sadnesses from the first two years of the Biden administration, despite passing huge, massive, tremendous, and historic legislation, was our inability to get our friends from West Virginia and Arizona, Senators [Kyrsten] Sinema [Democrat, Arizona] and [Joe] Manchin [Democrat, West Virginia], to be there when we had an opportunity to make historic investments in the care economy.
If you look at what the president put forward, it was about raising wages for that work, but also improving the quality of home care services and keeping some of our seniors in their homes, or when they can't remain, making sure our pool of affordable housing, through HUD's 202 program for seniors, would be available. There are so many things that we have to do to make sure people are aging with dignity. I often describe it in the context of freedom, the freedom to thrive in this economy. No matter where you are in the stages of life, your professional time might be done, but you have to be able to succeed.
To go back to the larger question about how we take care of some of these issues, I think Congress needs to step up in a big way. We need to preserve Social Security and Medicare. On Medicare, we need to expand coverage to vision, dental, and hearing. Beyond that, in terms of the care workers, our reimbursement rates need to be higher and that flow starts from the top. In Rhode Island we have a lot of the people in that work who can go over the state line and make more money, and who can blame them for doing that? When we look at our teaching corps, we see challenges. Build Back Better included funding for recruitment and retention. We've got a great teaching college in Rhode Island College, so many young people come here, but our systems can't keep them. The systems that need these young people the most are in Providence.
Think of the fundamental difference you can make, in terms of scale and impact, if you're a young teacher here in Providence.
We are far beyond the time for a paid family leave at the federal level. It's necessary. I was glad that when I worked for Governor Raimondo, she was able to sign into law the expansion of family leave here in Rhode Island. And I know other folks in this field were instrumental in that.
It's about redoubling our commitments. That means we have to win some elections. I hope that we can keep the Senate. That will be tough. I look forward to the moment I get to vote for Speaker [Hakeem] Jeffries [Democrat, New York]. If those things happen, I could see a very bold second term for President Biden because one thing about him that surprised a lot of people is his lack of fear about politics. Even Bernie Sanders said Biden is the most progressive president in his lifetime. It's why, when I worked in the White House, we said Twitter is not real life. It is because these are fundamental things that the American people need and deserve.
Steve Ahlquist: Twitter seems less real life every day, to be honest.
Gabe Amo: Oh yeah. That thing is broken.
Steve Ahlquist: I miss what Twitter was even a year ago. Twitter was never great, but there's a local Twitter component that is essential to the work I and a lot of other reporters do.
Gabe Amo: Especially during covid, when we lacked connectedness, at least we found a place to stay connected. If we don't have that tool we become less connected. I worry about the collateral damage to relationships and community.
Steve Ahlquist: I wonder about that, but I also wonder if post-Twitter might not be like pre-Twitter, which wasn't the worst time. I don't know, maybe Twitter was its own problem and solution.
Gabe Amo: In my campaign, I don't assume that anybody knows what I'm posting on Twitter. You have to tell your story in multiple venues, and that's also how you hear people's stories, right?
Steve Ahlquist: One more thing on Twitter, I don't know if I miss Twitter or I miss the endorphin hit you get every time you get a retweet.
Gabe Amo: Yes. That sometimes feels good.
Steve Ahlquist: We talked about the care economy. What are two or three other issues that need attention? If you could just go into Congress and lead the way, what would you be leading on?
Gabe Amo: After the care economy, gun violence prevention is number two. For me, it's not an abstract thing. It comes from when I was the president's primary liaison to mayors across the country. I was picking up the phone every week, sometimes multiple times a week, to express condolences on behalf of the president in the aftermath of a shooting, and to see what we could do to help a community heal. And that's tough because so many times I had a mayor say to me, “Congress needs to pass some laws.”
I'm prioritizing gun violence prevention because I've seen time and time again, in communities across the country and here in Rhode Island, the devastating impact, loss, and trauma, and how it affects people for a long time. We think about deaths, but what about survivors? Last 4th of July I was calling Mayor Nancy Rotering in Highland Park, Illinois. The mayor has become a friend of mine. We bonded over tragedy and I'm grateful to her. She did a virtual press conference highlighting her support for my candidacy. Through that tragedy, she was able to get a state-level assault weapons ban done in Illinois.
She was there at the bill signing for the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act with Governor [J.B.] Pritzker [Democrat, Illinois] and we chatted with the president about how they could take action because sometimes states can't wait for Washington. I don't want to wait for Washington either. I want to go to Washington and push it along. David Cicilline has been a remarkable champion on that issue. I would look to take that mantle, but there are other things in this area that we can focus on, like universal background checks. There's a path forward for that. It's popular, 85% of Americans support it, and the lead sponsor is Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania. I see a light there because, at the end of the day when you look at the statistics, you see a lot of gun violence is happening in red states.
You see it happening in the course of someone attempting suicide. A background check is critical to making an impression there. I also think about the corporate accountability aspect of this. We know that the gun industry is unique in its immunity to the harm its product causes. I know that the NRA is a powerful institution and are funding the operation, however, I've seen mayors across the country start to move the conversation forward because they're buying guns for their police departments. They should be able to use their collective purchasing power to act there. That's where a congressperson can get in the mix. It may not be to pass a law, but you can create pressure and push forward a set of arguments that move us in the right direction.
The next issue is our economy and climate change because they're intertwined. I think about it in terms of people, places, and projects. When I think about people, I think about the jobs. Where should Rhode Island be in the supply chain of clean energy? We obviously have a role because of the wind farm and we're making great progress there, but there's a lot of money out there. We've got to navigate these pieces of legislation. We've got to advocate within these federal agencies and be able to have somebody in the office who can call the assistant secretary in charge of some aspect and say, “Hey, here are all the things that I remember from our conversations at the White House around implementation.”
When I think about the places, I think about the thing that unifies a lot of Rhode Islanders is that we have a deep appreciation for our coastline and our natural treasure, Narragansett Bay. There is an embedded appreciation that I want to make central to my cause, as I make sure that we are getting more than our fair share of public funds.
When I think about projects, I think about innovation. I think about transformation and how we can be a regional leader. I think about our emerging Blue Economy. But what I see is lot of industries that might be incubated here, but end up elsewhere. There will be other wind farms, there will be other manufacturing facilities, but what are the permanent aspects that can go beyond the scaffolding that exists today?
The biggest thing, from day one, is to dig in deeper with our communities here because whoever wins this election is not going to win with the majority.
Steve Ahlquist: It seems that way. I think maybe 30% on the outside.
Gabe Amo: So 70% of people are potentially voting against you. So you're going to have to dive deep because throughout this election and the course of my career, there's no way I could know every single thing. Coming in with that awareness is something I hope that anybody in this seat, and certainly myself, is concerned with the day after the election.
Steve Ahlquist: I'm on board with the Blue Economy for the most part, but about half of that, looking at the actual numbers, is committed to military spending, which is not healthy for the environment. The United States military is the biggest polluter on the planet. It's a bigger polluter than most countries. I don't know if there's a question here, but if we want to expnd the Blue Economy and tackle climate change, something has to be done to green or shrink the military.
Gabe Amo: Rhode Island is unique because the Senate Armed Services Chairman [Senator Jack Reed, Democrat] is from here. He has been a vigorous advocate for Rhode Island. His preeminent role in shaping the future of the armed services has helped our economy. The issues of war and peace and the size of our defense department are intertwined with the strategic advantage that we have. This is an area where I want to dive deeper. You've got Newport, Middletown, big parts of the congressional district and at the end of the day, what is in the best interest of Rhode Islanders in terms of the material benefits that we get, in terms of jobs?
That's the interest I have to protect first because that's what people are sending someone to Washington to do - fight for their ability to thrive in this economy. But to your broader question, we're constantly revisiting our role in the world and what that means for the size of our armed services budget. It's a conversation to continue to have. I'm not solving it in this conversation, and as a freshman member of Congress, I'm not expecting to do that. That self-awareness is very important given our place in the world.
Steve Ahlquist: What are your thoughts on Ukraine and our involvement there?
Gabe Amo: It's necessary. It's about the broader question of where our democracy and our defense of democracy in the world stands. There's no way we can maintain our role as both a moral leader and a leader of the group of nations that has to deal with the growing threat of Russia to our global stability. You've seen Vladimir Putin threaten everything that our country has stood for, whether it's meddling in our elections or trying to rebuild a fallen empire that we were a big part of liberating. I don't think there's any circumstance under which we would not be actively involved in seeing it to its end, because if we don't, the consequences are far broader than just Ukraine. I'm proud of the president unifying the world on this one. The consensus, from our partners in Europe, is that we've taken the right steps and I would not step back from where we are right now. It doesn't fit with my worldview.
Steve Ahlquist: The consequences of a wrong step seem pretty severe though. Nuclear war is what we're talking about.
Gabe Amo: We're not on the doorstep of nuclear war, not yet, but we certainly risk that and more if we don't make our support for Ukraine clear.
Steve Ahlquist: What are your thoughts on Israel, the two-state solution, Palestine, and the right-wing populism in Israel that seems similar to what happened here under Trump?
Gabe Amo: I am not diving deep into the domestic politics over there, but I will say I am supportive of a two-state solution. I would like there to be, without conditions, a set of direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine. But you watch the news and know that's not something that is going to happen right away. So I hope that we can find some peace and arrive at some form of an extended ceasefire that creates an opportunity to proceed toward a two-state solution.
Steve Ahlquist: We talked a little about climate change, but let's talk more about it because there's a lot more to be done. This is the hottest summer on record. Some people are saying it might already be over, that’s too late to prevent the worst effects of climate change. What do we do?
Gabe Amo: We're not past the moment to turn things back, but we have to move quickly. We lost a lot of years to politics.The IRA [Inflatyion Reduction Act] gives us a humongous opportunity. I hope that we can get more states moving as aggressively as Rhode Island. I'm very proud of the work that we've done here. It's not too late. I think people are already changing the rhetoric from where it was just five years ago. Climate change is not a question anymore. The economic harms are real.
I worked on a lot of the wildfire response when I was at the White House. Our storms are getting more intense than they've ever been. Climate change is here, it is real, and there is still time to act.
On the mitigation side, we can hold to agreements across the global, federal, state, and local levels. We've got to continue to invest in resilience because things are happening. We can't slow down here in Rhode Island. The Department of Commerce has put out funding for coastal resilience. We’ve got to get on top of that as soon as possible. We have to deal with the issues that we're facing immediately, especially on the environmental justice end.
Something folks don't talk about is extreme heat in urban areas. Many of our seniors live in high-rises in Pawtucket and Providence. My grandmother lives a high-rise in Pawtucket. I think about her on the days we experience record heat and wonder, “Is this the day that the AC is not going to work?” Heat is a leading cause of death for our seniors in the summer months. It is not sufficient to hope that broad climate agreements will save us. We have to move swiftly to address the things that are right in front of us.
Steve Ahlquist: Abortion rights in Rhode Is;and are secured for now, but nationally we seem years away from re-establishing the legal protections that ensure reproductive choice.
Gabe Amo: One of the sadder parts of our politics is the set of elected officials who have decided to double down on what I, growing up, felt like we had moved past in terms of of choice. I'm not being naive about the big conservative operation to ultimately gut Roe v Wade. They've been trying for 50 years and they got to where they want. Certainly, codifying Roe in Congress is going to be a tough thing to get, especially if we don't keep both houses of Congress or don't get the desired outcome in the presidential race. But we have to continue to fight and agitate and figure out a way to help our friends across the country, even if they don't have the privilege of living in the State of Rhode Island.
The Mayor of St. Louis, Tishaura Jones, is a friend of mine. She used local funds from her state budget to help to women travel to other states to get abortions. Certainly, there are lots of groups on the ground doing this work, but I use that example because it means we're just going to have to think outside of the box a little bit. I'm saddened by the current state of things because I know that we're better than this. But I’m an optimistic person. That's why I'm in politics because I believe things can be better. But it's hard on days like this.
I stand in allyship in every way that I'm able to. I look forward to doing more work to support everyone. Not only women, but the LGBTQ+ community writ large. When people are not being allowed to live their authentic selves because of an ecosystem of indiscriminate hate it gets you sad, but it keeps you rolling because now you have something to fight for
Steve Ahlquist: Trans people here in the state and across the country are under attack. I've had conversations with political leaders who tell me that anti-trans bills have no chance here in Rhode Island, but nationally more needs to be done. I know that if you win you're only going to be the junior congressman from Rhode Island and the lowest-ranked member of Congress…
Gabe Amo: Don't remind me. Look, it starts with advocacy. We can certainly pass things like the Equality Act that Congressman Ciciclline championed and enshrine protections into law, regardless of your identification. But it starts with making noise. Where Congress comes in and where I have what I would view as unique experience, is my range of relationships across the country. I will use - not the bully pulpit maybe, as the most junior person, but the baby pulpit - to go into those states, help organize, and build allyship in the halls of Congress. It's not just going on cable news and all of that. I've spent a lot of time getting the mayors of America to come together across issues.
I got 200+ mayors to sign up against hate in their communities. Whether it was antisemitism or Islamophobia we committed to concrete actions like community education and response. There's that work that we can do that doesn't need a bill to be passed, but that can be build upon the ties that I have. Agitating is one part of it, but the other is being strategic with our strengths. For me, those strengths include every mayor in America knowing my name. I want to make sure that I use that for good.
Steve Ahlquist: You see yourself standing on a stage in St. Louis supporting efforts toward equity and against hate, or something like that?
Gabe Amo: If they let me go, I will. It’s less about drawing attention to myself and more about bringing support wherever I can.
Steve Ahlquist: We didn't touch on homelessness, evictions, or housing yet…
Gabe Amo: One of the most impactful things in the American Rescue Plan was the rental assistance. I was proud to be part of that, helping communities across the country keep people in their homes. That was the first time, at the federal level, we had an eviction prevention program.
It worked. Is that something a federal agency could continue to administer? It was complicated and standing that up in a couple of months was hard. But it made such a big difference because a lot of people are experiencing homelessness in short spurts in reaction to economic reality.
Steve Ahlquist: Well, more and more people are experiencing more permanent homelessness.
Gabe Amo: It is getting worse and worse. Rhode Island has passed a host of supply-side policies as it relates to housing and one of my bigger disappointments at the federal level is that there wasn't enough support to get housing as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. When you look at the drivers of inflation, housing cost is one of them and that is supply-driven. I want to focus on housing because it's connected to everything else. When we're talking about the care economy and older Americans, older Americans are being driven into homelessness every day at higher rates than they've ever been.
I’m focused on keeping people in their homes. If I had a top five proudest things that I was part of, Rent Relief would be one of them.
Steve Ahlquist: Rent relief was good and had an impact, but that gets me to the demand side of the equation. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
Gabe Amo: That’s got to go up.
Steve Ahlquist: It needs to double or triple. Another demand side problem is means testing, a set of hoops to jump through to qualify for benefits. These hoops add cost to programs, but provide no benefits.
Gabe Amo: You saw that in the deal for the debt limit. I wish that wasn't a reality, but we needed to raise the debt limit. I wasn't happy with the work requirements on public assistance but luckily that’s only for a short period. If Democrats can get back Congress, we can get rid of that sooner.
These are largely bad faith impositions on people who need help. That’s not who we are, except there are some people who want to steer us away from those principles, mostly because it's a rhetorical point they're trying to achieve more than a valid concern of the people on the other side. That's why I sometimes get agitated when I'm trying to have a civil conversation with people who want to put those things in because I think people forget the objective that we're trying to achieve.
A lot of the MAGA Republicans, in this particular instance, were just looking for things to attach to the bill. It's disheartening, but we have to keep fighting.
Steve Ahlquist: They believe government doesn't work, so they put things into these bills that make sure they don't work.
Gabe Amo: My fundamental belief about government is that it is supposed to be there for the people who need it most. If you can't be there for the people you were elected to protect, it causes a breakdown in trust, people's faith, the democratic process, and our system. We need to focus on how we increase and improve service delivery on these bedrock programs and the things are we able to add over the coming years to improve people's lives.
Steve Ahlquist: Last question. What's your pitch when you're out there campaigning and you want to convince people to vote for you?
Gabe Amo: I tell them that this is a job interview. If you are looking for somebody to fill your congressional seat, you deserve someone with the experience to be effective from day one. I am connected to this state because of an accident of birth that put me here in Rhode Island when my two West African parents could have been anywhere else, through the success I've had because of the community that built me up, and because of a passion to be there on the big fights that we have coming ahead. If I were hiring for this job, my mix of qualifications at both the national and state level, and my commitment to people here and to the best of our values is what I would want to see.
By and large people respond to that. I just need to talk to as many people as possible. I truly believe that everybody running is a good person. I think the distinguishing factor of my experience is important and I hope people consider it as they make their selection. Early voting begins on August 16th and the last day of the voting period is September 5th.
Steve Ahlquist: Thank you so much.
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