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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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Sadly there are unions who will endorse him and people who will support him no matter how inept he appears.

Comment #1 by Reagan Republican on 2014 04 09

God I hope so.
I had never heard of the guy, then he announces that he's running for governor. We find out he's married to Michele Quann, and the fact that he's Claiborne Pell's son....all of this is supposed to make him a viable candidate?

WTF kind of planet do we live on????????????????
And we all sit here and wonder why our state is in a constant state of confusion.

Comment #2 by pearl fanch on 2014 04 09

His campaign was in a comma from the very beginning,pulling the plug now would be the merciful thing to do now.

Comment #3 by LENNY BRUCE on 2014 04 09

"Pell said his administration would rebuild the economy through education improvement" In other words, pour more and more money into the salaries and benefits for teachers while receiving the same results.

Comment #4 by David Beagle on 2014 04 09

Pell doesn't have a shot at being gov. He's diverting votes from Taveras who needs to win against Raimondo who represents Wall St and the hedge-fund investors like her pal Enron hedge-fund investor pal John Arnold.
Pell is young, inexperinced, has not lived in the state long enough to understand the people's needs and he will be the one who will make Raimondo the next governor...She will give away the pension system money to her investment friends. The fraud Cook the Books, "Cry Crisis" Raimondo now pays the hedge fund investors who don't live in RI and don;t pay taxes here their 4.5 % fees as she took away the COLA of 3% from people who were born in RI, live here their whole lives and pay taxes here. Like her NY Wall Street hedge fund pals and her NY lawyer friends , including ex mayor billionaire pro charter pro corporate Bloomberg, she will cater to the money people...the corporates, the investment people, the banks, the investors..to the 1% who run RI...She already screwed the middle class with the pension changes and who live here and pay taxes here. It will be Clay Pell's candidacy that will make Raimondo win and so Clay, if you feel for the middle class and for those who want big changes in the state, please get out of the race and give your support to Taveras...

Comment #5 by joi fons on 2014 04 09

joi fons -

A pleasure to read your astute analysis. It does seem to be all about the use of proxies on part of Bloomberg and ENRON to take control of Rhode Island, doesn't it?

Apparently, they believe there's more to be looted and more social engineering experiments to be conducted, at the expense of citizens' possessions, liberty, and lives.

Comment #6 by paul zecchino on 2014 04 09

Maybe he misplaced his campaign in a car somewhere in Providence ...

Comment #7 by C B11 on 2014 04 09

Many of us yearning for fiscal restraint in state government and prosperity for RI's people urge Gump II to stay in the race, perhaps as an independent in the general election where he can split the Dem vote and give Block or Fung a better shot.

Comment #8 by Art West on 2014 04 09

Memo to Clay Pell:

If you want to keep your campaign for governor relevant and not more of a talk show punching bag...HIRE a driver!

Comment #9 by Thomas Kolodziejczak on 2014 04 09

Hang in there Clay hang in there. As disappointed as I am in Raimondo she's better than Taveras.

Comment #10 by Redd Ratt on 2014 04 09

As long as he takes votes away from TAVERASS I wish I could vote for you Clay. How people can blog here being critical of you then they are TAVERASS suck ups. SCREW YOU ANGEL.

Comment #11 by Jackson Teller on 2014 04 09

GOLOCAL when are you going to investigate TAVERASS family are you researching his brother you trash Pells wife what about the DRUG DEALER start digging wake the F up.

Comment #12 by Jackson Teller on 2014 04 09

With so little accomplishment and substance his campaign deserves to be dead...but this is RI. Should be an insult to the people of this state that someone so unqualified could think he has a chance, even as a Democrat. He'll be popular with unions- they love easily controlled politicians. Get a real job (i.e. private sector) first, Clay, so you know what's really going on.

Comment #13 by Jeff S on 2014 04 09

I can't understand why the unions are supporting any democrat..as sure as the sun comes up!..they're going to take your pensions.A January quote from news sources at moonbattery.com goes as follows>At a three-day conference in New York that began on Wednesday, [Jesse] Jackson discussed a proposal for increasing the availability of capital by using pension money to make loans in low-income communities. The idea is getting a prominent debut at the 16th annual Wall Street Project Economic Summit, hosted by Mr. Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the Citizenship Education Fund. (aka progressive democrats) Just wait and see..they did it in Greece and they plan on doing it here.

Comment #14 by LENNY BRUCE on 2014 04 09

They know where the money is and they will take it...there is no other place to go that has that kind of cash on hand,they've already wiped out the middle class's wealth and now they have their eyes set on union pensions.This is part of the progressive democrats playbook, it will be used,and they will grab your pension.Think it over.

Comment #15 by LENNY BRUCE on 2014 04 09

As Margaret Thatcher observed, sooner or later socialists run out of other people’s money. But the looting won’t stop until they have stolen your last penny. (Did you expect to have a secure retirement after working your whole life? Sucker:)orig. post at moonbattery

Comment #16 by LENNY BRUCE on 2014 04 09

I agree with Art West.

I fully support the candidacy of Clay Pell but only as a third party candidate. We need talent like his in this race. He is truly a shining beacon in these murky waters.

Rhode Island needs a LIBERAL third party! The Democrats have let us down.

Comment #17 by James Berling on 2014 04 09

You know Claybore when real people lose their cars whether it be stolen or vandalized it a devastating trauma. It sure must be nice to lose a car and not be the least bit concerned.
So Listen Claybore, if you really want to be nice to people of the state why not cut us a check for a couple million we could use it to make up for the graft and corruption your party has already cursed us with.

Comment #18 by Joyce Bryant on 2014 04 10

Up to this point Pell's campaign is a dud, kind of like him.
His candidacy is almost comical. He has little to no experience needed by someone aspiring to be Governor, especially considering RI' myriad problems. Add in the NEA-RI endorsement and it's clear he's GUMP "dos". Won't be getting my families votes anytime soon (or later).

Comment #19 by Walter Miller on 2014 04 10

Pell at this point can be significant in only one respect-the latest polls have Taveras and Raimondo in a dead heat and votes for him will hurt one of them.
I don't like any of them and the Republicans aren't too encouraging either.
No wonder RI is a mess.

Comment #20 by Joseph Bernstein on 2014 04 10

He'll be back on the "trail" as soon as he finds his car. Kidding aside, this is what happens when the political hack "consultants" phony up some numbers which suggest a ghost of a chance to win something to a trust fund baby. They'll be "there for him" until he gets tired of writing the checks.

Comment #21 by G Godot on 2014 04 15

Even Patrick "Patches" Kennedy, an intellectual lightweight, was intelligent enough to not attempt to start at the top. Alleged "carpetbagger," or not, Pell could be a very serious contender for state representative, or state senator. Whoever advised Pell to overshoot, by running for Governor, did him a serious disservice.

Comment #22 by Mike Rollins on 2014 04 19

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