Mark Patinkin hits the CD1 campaign trail with Gerry Leonard. What he found out.

EAST PROVIDENCE – The first thing that strikes you about congressional candidate Gerry Leonard Jr. is you’re not surprised he was career military.

At age 58, he’s tall, with the bearing of the colonel he retired as in 2019, and his handshake redefines the word “firm.” His vehicle is also a reflection; Leonard drives a Ford 350 pickup.

But maybe you’d call it modern military, because as I watched Leonard campaign last week as the Republican taking on Democrat Gabe Amo, I also found a courteous listener.

It’s 4:30 p.m. as he begins to walk through a crowded Halloween block party on Don Avenue in Rumford, shaking hands. Leonard seems a natural at politics, even though he’s new to it, this being his first run for any office after 30 years in the Marines and a few as a construction executive.

“My name’s Gerry,” he says as he approaches folks, “running for U.S. Congress, I hope to earn your vote on Nov. 7, but either way, have a great Halloween.”

Gerry Leonard, Republican candidate in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District, shakes hands on the campaign trail last week.
Gerry Leonard, Republican candidate in Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District, shakes hands on the campaign trail last week.

It's a week before Tuesday’s 1st Congressional District election and Leonard was up early in his Jamestown home to get to an 8 a.m. radio appearance in Woonsocket. Next, it was a senior center in Greenville, then back to the Patriot Diner in Woonsocket, followed by another home for the elderly, where the ex-Marine line-danced with 20 older ladies – it’s called campaigning in Rhode Island.

Here at the outdoor Halloween party, Leonard is met by Edward Wencis, East Providence Republican Committee chair. Both Gerry and Eddie traveled similar journeys, former independents who grew disenchanted with the hard-left turn of Democrats and chose a new home as moderate Republicans.

“A lot of people are fed up with the usual,” says Wencis, whose day job is running group homes for adults with disabilities. He also spent 10 years as a Navy Seabee, and calls Leonard’s military background good prep for a congressman – he’s “battle tested” and knows how to “reach across the aisle.”

I thought colonels mostly just give orders, but Gerry Leonard – that’s Gerry with a hard G - explained it’s not always like that. In 2010, for example, his job was to work with Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan coordinating a war plan with Afghan allies. It was all about building consensus.

It’s the kind of posting he mentions casually, but it was a very big deal.

Polls show Leonard trailing in Tuesday’s special election in the 1st Congressional District, which has gone Democratic for over 25 years. Then again, his opponent, Gabe Amo, was also a newcomer and underdog before his September primary, and won, so there’s always hope.

“Look at our economy,” said Wencis, “look at inflation, the border. People are done with the same old, same old.” He predicts Leonard will be a Nov. 7 surprise.

Gerry Leonard, second from right, campaigns in Rumford next to Eddie Wencis, East Providence Republican Committee chair, flanked by Leonard aides Linda Jamison and Mark Garmon.
Gerry Leonard, second from right, campaigns in Rumford next to Eddie Wencis, East Providence Republican Committee chair, flanked by Leonard aides Linda Jamison and Mark Garmon.

Gerry Leonard grew up in South County, where his mom taught elementary math in North Kingstown, at one point – small world – having as a student David Cicilline, the district’s former rep who stepped down to head the Rhode Island Foundation.

That’s what got Leonard thinking of running last spring. At the time, he’d spent a few years with Bentley Companies, a construction firm, prospecting new business.

But as a military guy, he liked serving others – the main value his folks taught – so he called a fellow officer, a retired general named Jack Bergman who’s now a Michigan congressman. Bergman told him Congress is about collaborating, which was Leonard’s focus in the ranks. Leonard is aware these are divisive times, but sees a mission in that, being a moderate Republican like former Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee.

Leonard told me it’s not good for the state to be so dominated by Democrats.

“One-party rule doesn’t work,” he says. “There needs to be more friction in government.”

At first, Leonard held back from declaring because Arlene Violet, Rhode Island’s beloved former attorney general, was weighing a run. When she decided not to, Leonard was in.

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Gerry Leonard’s dad was also an educator, finishing his career as an elementary school principal in Scituate. His sister, Julie Maguire, is a longtime teacher at North Kingstown High, and Leonard calls her the family’s real star, being the winningest high school field hockey coach in the state, with 12 championships.

Leonard joined the Marines in 1989, serving in Afghanistan twice and Iraq once, taking him away for two years when his son, Rex, was in high school. As a dad, it was hard for him to miss that, so he timed his 2019 retirement with Rex’s graduation from the College of Charleston, and spent the next five months on a father-son adventure walking the Appalachian Trail while raising money for disabled vets.

He also has three daughters, one a nurse in Rhode Island, another getting her Ph.D. in epidemiology and the youngest an architect in New York.

Even as it got dark, Leonard lingered at the Halloween event, shaking hands and chatting. You can tell he likes it, and indeed, Leonard says meeting folks has been his favorite part of running. The worst part – not enough sleep, and missing out on morning jogs and Planet Fitness workouts.

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Any other hobbies that have been put on hold?

He smiled - fishing and golfing have had to wait, too.

Sometimes in Rhode Island, Republicans have had to reach to find candidates willing to take on uphill races in a deep blue state. Indeed, there hasn’t been much national party money coming Leonard’s way because beating Amo seems tough. But after taking Leonard’s measure, I can tell you he’s sharp and engaging, an adversary both able and courteous, with a solid public-service background.

Finally, as it got close to 6 p.m., it was time for him to move on to the next event.

The retired colonel got behind the wheel of his pickup and headed to a social at Rumford Towers apartments, where he would scoop ice cream and answer questions until after 8 p.m.

After five months on the trail and 2,200 miles logged, another day of running for Congress wasn’t over yet.


This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Mark Patinkin goes on the campaign trail with Gerry Leonard