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Is Pell’s Campaign Dead?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014


Clay Pell is a mismanaged, weak candidate who doesn’t have a chance at the Governor’s Office, or he’s a credible candidate with strong endorsements running a respectable first-time gubernatorial campaign.

So say local and national political analysts in the academic, public and private sector.

In five months, Pell will face the founder of the state’s first venture capital firm and Providence’s first Hispanic Mayor in the Gubernatorial Democratic Primary. Local and national political experts are wondering if the untested candidate is running the kind of campaign that can defeat such seasoned professionals.

“When you do not uniquely define yourself, the people, and the media will do it for you,” said Nancy Thomas, President of Tapestry Communications.

“PR folks, like myself, might not like me saying this, but I believe he has been over-handled to the point of appearing to be immobilized in fear of saying the wrong thing, or that the wrong sound bite will get picked up on.”

Serious competition

Pell’s opponents, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, have both served in high-profile positions. The 32-year-old newcomer has not held a state office. Prior to his candidacy announcement, most of Pell’s Rhode Island time consisted of summers in his youth. His youth and (relative) outsider status could have been the cannonball he needed right out of the gate.

“Pell has gotten off to a lackluster start. His campaign announcement speech fell flat due to a lack of specifics and the story about the missing Prius took him seriously off message for the first months of the campaign,” said Darrell West of the Brookings Institutions.

“He also has not voted in a number of elections. Since he has a thinner resume than the other candidates and has spent most of his time living outside of Rhode Island, it is difficult for him to explain the rationale for his candidacy. It looks like he should have aimed at an office below governor and used a lower office as a springboard down the road to the governorship.”

Pell’s celebrity wife, his position in the Obama White House, and his beloved grandfather combined to spark national attention to his Jan. 27 video candidacy announcement. His wife, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, appears 9 seconds into his announcement video. A few beats later shows the candidate and Kwan posing with the President. Grandfather Claiborne Pell – who represented Rhode Island for 36 years in the U.S. Senate – shows up at the 1:28 mark, playing Backgammon with a tow-headed Pell.

Since the announcement, he’s had to work to keep the campaign on script. Has he succeeded?

Pell's Wife, Michelle Kwan

“Pell’s hesitancy comes across as weak. He had the opportunity at the beginning to come out strong and show new, youthful leadership, rooted in the positive identification of the Pell family name across nearly all demographics, young and old,” Thomas said.

On the issues

His campaign may not be as visible as those run by Taveras and Raimondo, but Pell has not been silent. On Monday night, Pell joined his fellow candidates, which includes Businessman Todd Giroux, for a forum in front of a packed house Monday at the Ocean State Theatre. Pell spoke to issues such as income inequality and minorities in poverty. He also said affordable housing, health care for all, and a comprehensive review of human services are among his priorities.

He also renewed his stance that gubernatorial candidates should not accept contributions from lobbyists and said he would take a “holistic approach” to tax policy.

“People who earn more should pay more.”

In a recent interview with EDGE, a network of local Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) news and entertainment portals, Pell said his campaign would include the LGBT community and all minority communities in the state. (Pell’s late aunt, Julie Pell, was a LGBT rights activist and a past president of the state’s Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights.)

Pell said he wants to create a Rhode Island where people are “getting things going, like getting a job, getting involved in education, and where people can build their lives and dreams.”

Pell said his administration would rebuild the economy through education improvement, possibly lowering the sales tax, and increasing the minimum wage to more than $10 an hour.

Hard road for “a credible candidate”

Affordable housing and increasing the minimum wage won’t burn any barns for a Rhode Island Democrat. However, Dr. Edward M. Mazze of The University of Rhode Island believes Pell has a chance to distinguish himself.

“Pell has strong endorsements. He is a credible candidate. His message is not different from the other candidates,” Mazze said.

Winning the election, however, might not be his hardest fight.

“Pell's lack of experience in local and state government, if eventually elected Governor, would make it more difficult to accomplish his platform because he would need General Assembly support. The General Assembly has a bad record of treating ‘outsiders’ who are elected Governor. At this time in the campaign, the real measures of campaign performance are candidate believability and candidate experience. Today, the best grade that Pell could get in these two areas would be a C.”

That assessment depends on the criteria for the grade. Jennifer Duffy, Senior Editor - U.S. Senate & Governors – at The Cook Political Report, said Pell’s campaign is “about where it should be.”

“He has name ID, but it is fairly shallow, so this part of the campaign is about giving that name ID some depth. That he can put some personal money into the campaign frees up time to spend meeting voters and outlining his platform,” Duffy said.

Driven to distraction

The case of Pell’s missing Toyota Prius – recently found in North Providence – quickly became an irresistible distraction for Pell’s critics and the media. Rhode Islanders have a unique relationship with cars. Low license plate numbers, high excise taxes and rage over potholes are newsworthy topics on a daily basis. So when a young candidate with a perceived charmed life misplaces a hybrid car, it’s a feeding frenzy.

“He is letting events create an impression of him. He should have immediately sent out a press release upon the discovery of the Prius thanking law enforcement and mentioning that his insurance company is dealing with the situation,” said former Attorney General Arlene Violet.

“That would have stopped the speculation that he is so rich that he could care less about the mounting storage fees and/or that he was an absentee resident. And/or that he is a scatterbrain. Take your pick.”

Pell supporters have criticized the media – including GoLocalProv – for inflating the missing Prius issue. Providence College Professor Joe Cammarano, Depts. Of Political Science, Public & Community, said the media missed out on reporting actual news while talk radio hosts pounced for ratings.

Pell and Kwan's Prius became a source of mockery after it was reported that the car had gone missing, twice.

“The missing Prius has kept the media away from paying attention to Pell's campaign, but there is little evidence that it has hurt Pell or the campaign. The media tend to overestimate the positive or negative effects of such minor, trivial instances like the Prius mystery. These things help radio talk show hosts most, as they provide something new and irrelevant to obsess over in their quest to retain their listeners and, consequently, their ad revenues.”

However, one public relations expert believes a candidate’s treatment of a small issue – such as a missing Hybrid – is indicative of larger things to come.

“Issuing sparse public statements, or no statements at all, or saying the issue doesn’t warrant conversation, is not a strategy. When candidates or business leaders have personal issues that in the spotlight take on a life of their own, then only that person can speak about it – spokespeople don’t have a public role at that time other than to advise,” Thomas said.

“How a candidate handles small, gnat-like issues now, speaks to how he may handle most important issues at another time,” Thomas said.

What’s next?

Not one of the sources included in this piece ruled out the possibility of a successful Pell campaign. At the same time, none of them said it would be easy.

“He needs to spend the million dollars he has on hand wisely to work on his favorable ratings. Receiving the endorsement of the NEA-RI is an important boost, but it remains to be seen whether this endorsement leads to an increase in campaign volunteers from the ranks of teachers,” Cammarano said.

Five months is a long time for any campaign. Even longer, some say, if it’s a Rhode Island campaign.

“Although it seems as though the Governor's race in the Democratic party started four years ago between Raimondo and Taveras, recent developments such as the pension vote upset and the Fox matter could give Pell some hope he could gain momentum and win the election. There is still a lot of time before the Democratic primary with many opportunities for Raimondo and Taveras to make mistakes,” Mazze said.

“One thing we know is that Rhode Island will have more bad news before September - whether it be high unemployment, a pension court case or more criminal investigations. This will help Pell as long as he does not ‘lose’ another vehicle,” Mazze said.


Related Slideshow: Is Clay Pell the Next Lincoln Chafee?

Privileged bloodlines, prestigious prep schools, lofty political ambitions.  Is Clay Pell the next Lincoln Chafee?  

Below is a look at the similarities -- and differences -- between Governor Lincoln Chafee  and likely gubernatorial aspirant Clay Pell.  

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Family Legacy - Chafee

Lincoln Chafee is the son of John Chafee, the former Governor of Rhode Island, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of the Navy, who was a decorated WWII and Korean War Veteran, and posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Named in his honor include the USS Chafee (DDG-90), the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor and the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge.

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Family Legacy - Pell

Grandfather Claiborne Pell was Rhode Island's longest serving Senator, having served six terms from 1961 to 1997, whose legacy includes the Pell Grant, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  

A decorated coast guard lieutenant in WWII and foreign service officer, Pell's Rhode Island legacy includes the Newport Bridge being renamed the Claiborne Pell Bridge, as well as the Pell Center of International Relations and Public Policy established at Salve Regina University.

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Money - Chafee

Both Chafees and Senator Pell had to disclose as members of the U.S. Senate personal financial information -- and both a considerable net worth.  

The U.S. Senate is known as the U.S. Millionaires Club -- in 2005, while Chafee was still in the Senate, Open Secrets pegged Chafee's wealth at between $40 and $63 million dollars.  

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Money - Pell

In a Time piece entitled "The New Limousine Liberals", the magazine pegged grandfather Pell's net worth at $12.7 million -- in 1992.  

The website Celebrity Net Worth puts wife Michelle Kwan's personal wealth at $8 million. 

While Pell's first campaign finance report has yet to be made public, records show Pell gave Democratic challenger Gina Raimondo $250 during her bid for General Treasurer in 2010.  

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Education - Chafee

Chafee was educated public schools in Warwick, and attended private schools Providence Country Day, and Phillips Academy before graduating from Brown University.  

Chafee then attended the Montana State University in the horseshoeing school.

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Education - Pell

Pell attended the private boarding Thacher School in California for high school, graduating in 2000.  The school's noted equestrian and outdoor programs require that students ride and care for a horse during their first year.  Current tuition is over $50,000
Pell, a JAG who graduated first in his class from Coast Guard Direct Commission Officer School, has a JD from Georgetown University and graduated from Harvard University with high honors in Social Studies and a Citation in Modern Standard Arabic. 
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Early Career -- Chafee

Chafee served as a delegate to the Rhode Island Constitutional Convention in 1985, and was elected to the Warwick City Council the following year.  

He was Warwick's mayor in 1992 until 1999, when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1999 when his father passed away while in office.

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Early Career -- Pell

Named to the 2011-2012 class of White House Fellows, Pell served as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Staff prior to his appointment by President Obama as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Foreign Language Education last April.

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Wife - Chafee

Chafee's wife, Stephanie Danforth Chafee, holds a B.S. in Nursing from Boston University, an MBA from the University of Connecticut, and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Rhode Island, helped found the Rhode Island Free Clinic in South Providence, and was featured as one of the ‘25 Models of Promise’ in Shirley Sagawa’s The American Way to Change. 
Mrs. Chafee was a co-founder of Women Ending Hunger and has served on advisory boards for Miriam Hospital, Rhode Island Hospital, the Rhode Island Zoological Society and the Rhode Island Foundation.  Last April, she was recognized as one of the YWCA Rhode Island's Women of Achievement.
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Wife - Pell

A decorated Olympic figure skater and world champion, Michelle Kwan went on to pursue a career in public service, serving as an American Public Diplomacy Envoy as well as on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports -- and was recently inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.


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