CD1 candidates debate Israel, assault rifles, SCOTUS term limits

GABE AMO, right, Democratic congressional candidate, makes a statement while Republican congressional candidate Gerry W. Leonard Jr. looks on during Friday's debate at WPRI-TV CBS 12. / COURTESY JAMES BARTONE/WPRI-TV CBS 12
GABE AMO, right, Democratic congressional candidate, makes a statement while Republican congressional candidate Gerry W. Leonard Jr. looks on during Friday's debate at WPRI-TV CBS 12. / COURTESY JAMES BARTONE/WPRI-TV CBS 12

EAST PROVIDENCE – The conflict in Gaza, abortion, assault rifles and term limits on the U.S. Supreme Court were among the topics debated Friday at WPRI-TV CBS 12 between Gabe Amo and Gerry W. Leonard Jr., the Democrat and Republican, respectively, who are vying for the 1st Congressional District seat in the U.S. House.

Friday’s soon-to-be televised sparring between the two candidates seeking elective office for the first time was the last such debate held before voters in the 1st District go to the polls Nov. 7. David N. Cicilline, who served 11 years in the U.S. House, resigned back in the spring to become the Rhode Island Foundation’s CEO and president.

In their opening answers, Amo, a former White House staffer, described the current Republican majority in the U.S. House as “dysfunctional” and “not focused” on the values that Rhode Island has. He also is against policies and views of current House Speaker Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., who is against abortion and same-sex marriages. Amo said he would fight “tooth and nail” to bring resources back to Rhode Island and run an “effective constituent services operation.”

Leonard, a former U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said Rhode Island “historically” votes 40% Republican and a balanced delegation “would be good for Rhode Island.” He also stated the Democrats “voted for chaos” by joining eight Republicans to oust then-House Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from the position.

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“The world is on fire right now and we’re worried about spending. That’s partisanship and I’m going to Washington to fight that,” Leonard said. “I’m running to fight extremism on both sides of the political aisle. We need to get back to the middle.”

On the current conflict in Gaza, both Amo and Leonard agree that support for Israel is needed. However, the Republicans’ Israel conflict funding proposal involves cuts to the Internal Revenue Service, while the Democrats’ proposal includes funding supporting Ukraine in its separate conflict with Russia.

Amo said Senate Republicans are “OK” tying that Israel funding with funding for Ukraine, plus said Republicans “should not add conditions” on defunding the IRS if they fully support Israel in this crisis. Leonard, while falling short of saying when asked if it was a mistake for Republicans to cut IRS funding to fund Israel, said “we need to fund Israel.”

Both candidates differ on the legislation recently proposed by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., putting an 18-year term limit on those serving on the U.S. Supreme Court. Leonard opposes it, while Amo said he would support it.

They also differed on a federal ban on abortion. Amo said it should be codified both at the state and federal level so that a woman “should not have to skip three states” to get a medical procedure. He also said abortion is a “medical decision” and that no lawmaker “should be in the room” on the abortion decision. Leonard, meanwhile, would not support a federal ban and leave it up to the states to make their own legislation. He noted that Rhode Island in 2019 codified the right to an abortion.

The two candidates also contrasted on a possible ban on AR-style assault rifles, in the wake of the recent mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine. Leonard said he would not support a ban against “law-abiding citizens.” He said he would work with both parties to find common-sense solutions that fits “the mental health crisis we have.”

Amo would support a ban, responding that this is not a “both-sides issue.” He said if families have loved ones gunned down by those with assault rifles, then “Congress has to act.”

On supporting federal law to allow marijuana use for those ages 21 and older, both Leonard and Amo said they would have to discuss that fully, including looking at the social issues behind marijuana use. But, Amo said he would support such a measure. Leonard said he would support it also, but “with some exceptions” based on those who work in certain industries, such as an airline pilot.

Amo and Leonard agree that the fiscal deficit the U.S. is facing needs to be addressed but have different approaches on getting there. Amo feels there needs to be a mix of spending and tax cuts. He also said the values were “misaligned” when the Trump administration “gave away tax breaks to the wealthy.”

“The effective tax rate is double that of very wealthy people,” Amo said. “We also have to look at waste, fraud and abuse within our agencies. We should do it in a bipartisan fashion.”

Amo also noted that the deficit has increased because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic collapse it triggered.

Leonard said he rolled out a plan setting up a bipartisan fiscal commission to look at the fiscal debt. He said Congress viewed such a plan in 2010, but “didn’t put teeth into it” by asking both congressional chambers to vote on it. That needs to change, he said.

Unsurprisingly, Amo and Leonard differed on supporting Joe Biden for another term as president – Amo said he would. However Leonard fell short of saying he would support Trump, noting that he would support “a Republican.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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