Talking Politics

Rhode Islanders are still getting to know Gerry Leonard

By Ian Donnis
Posted 10/10/23

STORY OF THE WEEK: It’s an old political axiom: don’t help your opponent get a leg up in a campaign. That helps explain why CD1 Democrat Gabe Amo — who would have gone to the …

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Talking Politics

Rhode Islanders are still getting to know Gerry Leonard


STORY OF THE WEEK: It’s an old political axiom: don’t help your opponent get a leg up in a campaign. That helps explain why CD1 Democrat Gabe Amo — who would have gone to the opening of a garage during his primary run — initially agreed to only one debate with GOP rival Gerry Leonard ahead of their Nov. 7 showdown.

Challengers tend to press for numerous debates in an attempt to maximize their exposure, while front runners prefer as few as possible. Amo has charisma, a mile-wide smile, and an inspiring story as the guy likely to be the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress. He’s an overwhelming favorite in a heavily Democratic district. It’s not inconceivable that Amo might one day succeed U.S. Sens. Jack Reed or Sheldon Whitehouse.

Considering this, the Democrat’s unwillingness to participate in more than one general election debate struck close observers as parsimonious, small-minded and unsporting. (It should be noted that Leonard declined to fill out a Providence Journal questionnaire during the primary and declined to appear with his GOP primary rival for a forum at Rhode Island-PBS.)

Nonetheless, when Leonard continued to cry foul, Amo agreed to a second televised debate, while still spurning participation in other forums, including one proposed by The Public’s Radio and The Providence Journal. Both candidates have agreed to take part in longform interviews with me in the run-up to the election. Regardless, Rhode Islanders will still be getting to know Gerry Leonard by the time the election takes place. Meanwhile, in a sign of Amo’s ascent, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, the state’s congressional delegation and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, a former boss of Amo, are all part of an Oct. 18 fundraiser for him at Bellini.

MADHOUSE: The unprecedented ouster of a U.S. House speaker is the latest bonkers milestone in a stormy era in American politics. As Politico puts it, “It’s not easy to shock official Washington, but the sudden defenestration of Kevin McCarthy managed to surprise and unsettle even those who had predicted it since he was elected speaker earlier this year.” The small group of hard-right Republicans who pressed for the move, and the Democrats who lined up to support it, found some common ground in declaring McCarthy untrustworthy. In a statement, U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner cited this explanation: “I voted — along with the majority of the House of Representatives — to change the leadership of the House because I do not believe that Rhode Islanders support the agenda of deep cuts to education and health care, criminalizing abortion, and extreme partisanship that Kevin McCarthy has advanced. I came to Washington to work in a bipartisan way to support working Rhode Islanders and I hope that the House will move quickly to elect a new Speaker who will work with both parties to move our country forward.”

At minimum, McCarthy’s fall raises more questions. Lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Montana Republican, reject the idea that the GOP caucus has become ungovernable. But as NPR’s Ari Shapiro reports, some Republicans, including strategist Liam Donovan, see the situation more critically: “We always knew that there was going to be this empowered rump that had a nihilistic streak. And if joined by all Democrats, this was always going to be the case.”    

GRAND OLD PARTY: Closer to home, Democrat Daniel Wall’s victory for an open Ward 6 City Council seat in Cranston points to continued challenges for local Republicans, since he’s switching control of the ward from red to blue for the first time in about a decade. Cranston is a place where the GOP has been competitive; the city has produced such well-known politicos as former Gov. Ed DiPrete and longtime former mayor and two-time candidate for governor Allan Fung. (The RI GOP, in pursuit of candidates in various communities for 2024, is staging a candidate academy on Oct. 28.)

Now, however, Wall will fill the seat formerly held by Republican Matthew Reilly, who stepped down after he was charged with having crack cocaine in his vehicle. Former state Rep. Robert Lancia ran as an independent, in an apparent effort to counteract GOP votes. (In Republican-friendly Foster, Democrat Cheryl Hawes won a lopsided win for Town Council.)

In related news, former Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey has ended his longshot presidential campaign and he announced plans to leave the GOP after almost a half-century to become an independent. In a statement, Laffey said in part, “The Republican Party has become a laughingstock. From a celebrity-driven race for the Presidency, to disturbing events in the House of Representatives, it has become painfully apparent that the Republican Party no longer exists. What used to be a Grand Old Party is now simply a placard for anyone to say anything, no matter how hurtful, and no matter how false.”  

PRAGMATIC PROGRESSIVE: At age 25, state Rep. David Morales (D-Providence) has almost three years of legislative experience, and as a proud progressive he’s demonstrated an ability to work across the aisle, partnering with House GOP Leader Mike Chippendale (R-Foster), for example, on a measure to limit out of pocket expenses for specialty drug prescriptions. Growing up as the son of a single mom who worked multiple jobs, Morales said seeing the effect of low wages and public benefit programs made a strong impression on him. When it comes to politics, he asks, “Where is there common overlap in terms of our goals? … [H]ow can we chip away at the issue?”

Morales is a serious policy wonk and a pro wrestling enthusiast. Give a listen to our wide-ranging interview on Political Roundtable, where we talked about his views on addressing income inequality, paying for Medicare for All, whether apathy among young voters will hurt Joe Biden’s re-election hopes, and his favorite restaurant in his district: “Machu Picchu II. Peruvian food, it's delicious, especially the fried calamari, ironically enough.” 

GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Across the rotunda, state Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has announced his choice to succeed the late Maryellen Goodwin as Democratic whip, the third-ranking post in the chamber: Sen. Val Lawson of East Providence, first elected in 2018. “Senator Lawson is already a valued member of our leadership team, providing counsel on matters ranging from politics to policy,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “She has earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues in the Senate. While no one can replace our beloved Maryellen Goodwin, I know that Val Lawson will make an exceptional Majority Whip.” For proponents of Townie Pride, the elevation of Lawson, combined with the presence of RI House Whip Katherine Kazarian, would make an even bigger cross-chamber pairing than when Daniel DaPonte and Helio Melo led the respective Finance Committees in the Senate and House. Pending the outcome of the Nov. 7 election in Senate District 1, where Ruggerio’s chief of staff, Jake Bissaillon, is running for the seat formerly held by Goodwin, the president announced that the current secretary of the Senate, John E. Fleming, would become the new CoS.

GETTING UNSTUCK: About 18 months after a revitalization plan was announced for the “Superman Building” in downtown Providence, developer High Rock Westminster LLC this week unveiled the selection of a general contractor, Consigli Construction, to begin redevelopment and interior demolition at the structure. According to a news release, “Phase One will be a top-down process beginning on the upper floors of the building. An exterior elevator (hoist) will be installed on the building to aid in the removal of construction debris. Pending the approval of the City of Providence, trucks and dumpsters will be staged on the Fulton Street side of the building for truck staging and debris removal. The Westminster Street side of the building will not be impacted by the demolition process. Fulton Street will remain open to vehicle traffic during this process.” 

CITY HAUL: In a win for Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, the Providence City Council this week approved, on a 9-1 vote, a new plan for payment in lieu of taxes by four local private colleges. Despite the lopsided vote, and a separate agreement that could yield up to $46 million from Brown University, there was an undercurrent of ambivalence, due to a belief that Bruno Uno could contribute more, as my colleague Olivia Ebertz reports, and one-third of the 15-member council was absent for the vote. The only no vote came from Ward 6 Councilor Miguel Sanchez of Olneyville. “This was done between government and entities and no real community organizing or support,” Sanchez said. “That's one of the most depressing parts for me, honestly.” 

TAKES OF THE WEEK – various views from a zesty blend of Rhode Islanders.

Blogfather, lawyer and lobbyist MATT JERZYK: “For a long time, analysts have discussed the importance of shared government services and the potential benefits of achieving efficiencies at scale. Well, the governors of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts are putting their money where their mouths are. This week, they announced a historic first in the United States: an offshore wind multi-state coordination memorandum of understanding, which creates a pathway for a potential coordinated selection of offshore wind as each state solicits offshore wind energy generation through their respective state procurements. On their own, Rhode Island was prepared to seek bids for 1,200 MW while Connecticut was going to seek 1,200 MW and Massachusetts was going to procure 3,600 MW. Now, combined, the states are collectively set up for up to 6,000 MW of offshore wind.

“In coordinating, the states are smartly fostering regional economic development (think: inter-port cooperation), creating high-paying, in-demand blue jobs, and promoting environmental justice and equity. This small-state coordination couldn't come at a better time for an industry which has been challenged with escalating costs from the war in Ukraine, supply chain difficulties and stifling inflation. Hopefully, this innovative approach will continue Rhode Island's first-in-the-nation leadership on offshore wind and continue the state’s path toward carbon neutrality by 2030.”

ProJo alum, entrepreneur and community activist ALISHA PINA: “I saw a T-shirt for sale on Instagram that played off of the Dunkin’ Donuts slogan, ‘America Runs on Dunkin.’ The advertised shirt said, ‘America Runs on Racism.’ I want it, and it will go well with my mouth that consistently fights for equity and against turtle-paced progress. For those still in disbelief or claiming the Black, Brown, Indigenous and others of color are overreacting, it’s still here. It’s still a daily problem and it affects all of our quality of life and future. Let’s look at recent news. The Westerly-based Washington Trust agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement after allegations of advancing redlining and practicing racial discrimination, not decades ago, but from 2016 to 2021.

“Federal judges needed to select a new congressional line for Alabama after its Republican ‘lawmakers’ illegally diluted the voting power of Black residents this summer. We are a month into the academic year, and the Providence Public School District has more than 140 vacancies. Why? Maybe partly because leadership has failed thousands of children and families of color as well as past and current teachers in Providence (and elsewhere) for decades.

“We need everyone to step up and act. In addition to speaking up, I am now teaching a Writing for Justice class in Providence, so students can fight for what they should already have. I am doing my part to move the needle, and plan to do more. What are you doing so America, or at least your neighborhood, isn’t running on racism?”

KICKER: In China, “sponge cities” are being eyed as a way to help absorb bigger outbursts of rain. Back in R.I., an upcoming lecture series at URI will focus on how landscape architecture and urban design can foster resilience and remediation. Rhode Island has been hit with more and more flash flooding, due to increasingly dramatic storms, so this a timely topic.

Ian Donnis can be reached at



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