9 takeaways from 2 Congressional District 1 debates between Gabe Amo and Gerry Leonard

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The two candidates running to bring congressional representation back to Rhode Island's 1st District made their final pitches to voters in back-to-back television debates less than a week before Election Day.

Democrat Gabe Amo and Republican Gerry Leonard Jr. traded views on Israel, immigration, inflation, gun control, the presidential election, climate change and other topics in a pair of mostly cordial debates Thursday night on WJAR-TV and Friday morning at WPRI-TV.

The two debates this week are the only two before the Nov. 5 special election to replace David Cicilline in Congress that Amo would agree to. (Leonard called for an unusual dozen debates.)

Here are nine takeaways:

No big punches landed

Unlike last year's battle between Republican Allan Fung and Democrat Seth Magaziner for the 2nd Congressional District seat, Leonard and Amo have largely refrained from attacking each other, and the campaigns have not sparked any notable controversies or flashpoints.

As the underdog, Leonard had every incentive to attack Amo on television and was the aggressor in most exchanges, particularly in the WJAR clash.

He attacked President Joe Biden, Amo's former boss, for inflation and the number of migrants arriving in New York and Boston.

"Since this current administration came to office, they've created an open-door policy," Leonard said. "I'm all about immigration, but done in a sane way. And I will tell you from my time at the Naval War College teaching, the definition of a nation-state is one that can protect and defends its borders. We are not doing that right now."

But that was about as stinging as it got, and there were no memorable zingers delivered.

Leonard – true to his message of moderate Yankee bipartisanship – turned down the opportunity to go on the offensive about Biden's age or the Hunter Biden investigation.

Israel is popular

The Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks and Israel's military response have resulted in protests and heated debates across the country, but Amo has worked hard to make sure Leonard cannot connect him to progressive critics of Israeli policy.

On Thursday he again backed "unconditional" support for open-ended Israeli military action in Gaza and did not call for a cease-fire or "humanitarian pause" there as some Democrats have.

"I've been very resolute about my support for Israel and saying anything other than that is unfounded," Amo said. "I've been standing with the Jewish community here in our state for a long time, from the time that I was in the governor's office to the people right here in Rhode Island. So I stand with the Jewish people."

Leonard called on Amo to denounce nine Democrats who voted against a resolution passed in the GOP House declaring solidarity with Israel and condemning Hamas.

Amo did not criticize any potential future Democratic colleagues but said "I would've voted in support of Israel, and that is clear."

On Friday, Amo and Leonard were asked to square their unconditional support for Israel with their respective parties' attempts to link Israeli aid to other priorities − Ukraine funding for Democrats and IRS de-funding for Republicans.

Neither candidate questioned the approach of their respective caucus leaders.

Biden vs. Trump

Next year's presidential election looms over national politics, but neither candidate is eager to talk too much about it.

Amo unsurprisingly supports Biden's reelection and says support for former president Donald Trump should be disqualifying for service in Congress based on Trump's denial of the 2020 election results.

Leonard, who has declined to say who he is backing in the GOP primary, said on Thursday he will support whomever the Republican nominee is, but that "if Donald Trump is convicted, he has to hang it up, bail out."

Supreme Court term limits

Amo said Friday he supports Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's proposal to rotate out each Supreme Court justice after 18 years.

Leonard said if it's not broken, don't fix it.

"We haven't had a problem with our Supreme Court," he said.

Fact checks

In a discussion of climate change Thursday, Leonard criticized Biden for blocking the Keystone XL gas pipeline and for pursuing offshore wind projects, which he described as "industrializing our oceans."

"Domestic oil production has grown in the Biden administration," Amo countered.

Leonard: "We're not a net exporter, though, and we need to get back to be a place where we are a net exporter to around the world."

Who is right?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States became a "total petroleum net exporter" in 2020 and continued as such through last year, when the country exported more petroleum than ever.

Asked to clarify, the Leonard campaign Friday morning said the candidate was referring only to crude oil exports, even if he didn't say that on air.

"It is true that the U.S. is a net exporter if all petroleum products are counted including refined products and hydrocarbon gas liquids, but that isn't the question here," campaign manager Brandon Bell wrote in an email.

During discussion on gun control Thursday, Leonard said that "more people die by knives every year" than guns.

According to FBI crime statistics, last year there were 5,803 homicides by handgun, 4,584 by firearm and 1,216 by knife.


Marijuana use is legal in Rhode Island, but not on the federal level. Where do the candidates stand on national cannabis legalization?

Leonard is skeptical.

"I would focus on taking a look at both sides of this thing and specifically what I mean is, I'm not sure I want soldiers that I led in the Marines with marijuana – or airline pilots," he said in Friday's debate.

Amo supports legalization "provided we do our due diligence on the public-health concerns that are real, and on the real social-equity concerns about how people have been prosecuted in the past, and the impacts on critical industries."

What do they drive?

Both candidates said on Thursday they believe climate change is real and caused by man, to which WJAR host Gene Valicenti asked if they drive electric vehicles or own solar panels.

Neither candidate has an electric car or solar panels at home.

Leonard said he drives a Ford pickup truck.

Amo said he drives a Toyota Rav4 compact SUV, but hopes his next vehicle purchase is electric.

On Friday WPRI host Tim White asked for their favorite Thanksgiving side.

Amo: Stuffing, "of course."

Leonard: Cranberry sauce

Closing statements

Leonard: "I'm running for Congress to wage a war on extremism and bring back common sense to Washington, D.C. For far too long we've seen the far left and the far right take a country away from us. I'm going to Washington, D.C. to take that back. I've served in the military for 30 years. I've led Marines in every climb in place. Never in that time did I look at the man on my right and left and said, 'What is your political party?' We worked together. We came up with common solutions to solve problems and that is what I plan on doing in Washington, D.C., across party lines."

Amo: "I'm the son of a liquor store owner and a nursing home nurse who has had the opportunity to serve two friends at the White House and a governor right here in Rhode Island.

"And I know that we share values of hard work, determination and resilience to make sure our communities are strong. We cannot afford to send someone to join the 'Caucus of Chaos' in Washington Extreme House Republican Majority led by this new speaker, Mike Johnson. What we need is someone who is committed to strengthening Social Security, fighting gun violence, working aggressively to make sure we have jobs in the supply chains of the future."


If they had been in Congress this week, neither Leonard nor Amo would have voted to expel Republican Rep. George Santos of New York, despite him being under investigation for fraud.

The expulsion resolution failed on Wednesday when 31 Democrats joined 182 Republicans opposed to kicking Santos out.

Both Amo and Leonard said they "believe in due process."

Rhode Island Rep. Seth Magaziner was one of the expulsion no votes, arguing that the criminal legal process should play out before any action is taken on Santos.

Over in the Senate, Rhode Island Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have declined to join colleagues seeking to ouster indicted Sen. Bob Menendez before he has had his day in court.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Gabe Amo and Gerry Leonard showed mostly partisan contrasts in debates