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Will Pell’s Missing Votes Matter at the Polls?

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Clay Pell

With the revelation that Rhode Island gubernatorial Clay Pell failed to vote in ten of eighteen elections he was eligible for since reaching voting age, opinions are divided as to the impact of the development in the Governor's face.

"This will be Exhibit A in the attack ads," said Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. "It's one of the ways his opponents will go after him, with this evidence; that he's not committed to Rhode Island."

Veteran political pollster Victor Profughi said, "Certainly not a plus. It will likely reinforce the image opponents will seek to paint that Pell is out of touch with Rhode Islanders and their needs."

Concerns over Civic Engagement

How will Pell's missed votes in elections play out at the polls?

On Friday, Pell expressed his regrets at having missed voting opportunities.

Pell said in a statement to GoLocal, “I believe in the importance of voting. I regret those times when I did not vote, and I take responsibility for not voting in every election.”

Rhode Island College Professor of Communication Valerie Endress noted how she thought the issue could play out during the campaign.

"Every campaign operative knows that get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drives are important. In this highly contested gubernatorial campaign, these drives are even more essential and will make the difference between winning and losing," said Endress. "I don’t know of any narrative response that can convince occasional voters to respond to an appeal that would amount to “don’t as I do, but do as I tell you.”

Endress continued, "His spotty voting record, combined with a lack of elective experience could ultimately prove to be Pell’s Achilles’ heel. While the Pell family name will have some currency as well his celebrity spouse, with this latest revelation, he’s even more vulnerable to his opponents’ attacks."

West noted that the time and energy spent addressing the issue could play a role in the direction of the campaign.

"This has happened in other races," said West. "It often creates a problem for the candidate, as they have to spend valuable time explaining whey they didn't vote, and it takes them off message."

"This is a problem for him because of the number of missed votes," West continued. "It's hard to make the argument for public service with that."

John Marion, the Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island, noted, "As a group that tries to encourage many forms of participation in the political process it's discouraging when anyone seeking to be a leader and role model in our state doesn't take advantage of a most important right as a citizen."

Role of Issue in Campaigns Questioned

Rich Holtzman, Associate Professor of Political Science at Bryant University, said that it was the reaction to the information -- especially by the other campaigns -- that would matter most.

"Like any aspect of a candidate’s personal history, Pell’s voting record is not a problem for his campaign until his opponents and/or media effectively frame it as a problem. The Pell campaign quickly acknowledged the situation and the Fung campaign has dismissed it as a non-issue—that may be enough to make it go away. Certainly one or both of Pell’s opponents in the Democratic primary race could still seek to frame this as a problem, but to successfully do so they will need to make a convincing case that it is symbolic of a deficiency in his commitment or character."

"If his opponents fail to make this case effectively, this issue will look insignificant relative to the very real challenges that Rhode Islanders are facing, and they could risk backlash for playing political games," continued Holtzman.  "In this sense, how the respective camps choose to deal with this issue can tell us a lot about the sorts of campaigns they will be running."

Rhett Wilson with Project Vote Smart saw the impact of the issue of missed votes as being largely decided by the voter. "It's up to voters whether they find a candidate for statewide office who hasn't voted in the majority of elections for which they were eligible to be an issue." 


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Pell Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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10. Pell's Base?

Where is Pell’s voter base going to come from?

It is difficult to identify Clay Pell’s base beyond a few prep school chums (in California) and the lovely people who live on Bellevue Avenue in Newport.  
Every winning candidate needs a core base to leverage to win.
Taveras is counting, in part, on the Hispanic community as his base.
Raimondo is working to solidify two core groups – women and fiscal conservative Democrats.
Pell, who is both wooing and being wooed by progressives and public sector unions (see #6), must grow beyond the group the summers in Newport.
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9. Seriously

Seriously – Another No Private Sector Experience Governor?

Voters should understand that two sources of revenue have funded Clay Pell’s adult life – the federal government and trust funds.  His public service in the Coast Guard is admirable, but Clay Pell has never had to worry about: 
Mortgage, rent, car, health insurance, groceries, credit card, electric, oil/gas, telephone, cable, cellphone, college loans, tuition, or even yacht payments.  
They were all taken care of before his own birth.
He has to convince voters that he is credible.
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8. Decision making

Has he ever had to make an executive decision?

There is no indication that Clay Pell has ever had to make a significant management decision in his life. We all saw how David Cicilline struggled with managing Providence’s budget – Mayor’s offices and Governor’s offices are tough places for on-the-job learning.
Like their decision making or not, both Taveras and Raimondo have had to make executive decisions – Pell is going to need to assure voter he can make management decisions (See tough decisions below).
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7. Ordinary RIers

Can Pell connect to Rhode Islanders?

Most of the places Clay Pell spent his formative years, Rhode Islanders have not experienced.  The reason why – they are private clubs, top-flight private schools and colleges. The Thacher School to Harvard to Georgetown Law School.  Each of these premier schools has an annual tuition of more than $50,000 a year.
While Pell may claim to be committed to “ordinary” people (as he said in a WJAR interview), he needs to demonstrate that he is can understand the plight of unemployed and underemployed Rhode Islanders.
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6. Progressives

Progressives and Unions are in Love with Pell, is that good for RI?

Two powerful and influential groups in the Democratic primary are progressives and public service unions. With Rhode Island’s unemployment the worst in the United States and the economy, de facto, still in the recession, the next Governor will have many difficult decisions. 
The decisions will include difficult budget choices – not likely to be popular with public sector unions and progressives.
As the Wall Street Journal wrote this week, "...makes him attractive to public unions who are likely to spend heavily in the primary. Robert Walsh, the executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, has already welcomed Mr. Pell's entry into the race. "Suddenly, an opportunity appears."
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5. Kwan Factor

Is he more than Michelle Kwan’s husband?

Rhode Islanders love a good celebrity and Clay Pell’s wife Michelle Kwan is certainly a celebrity. She won her first ice-skating World Championship in 1996 when she was just 15 years old. And had qualified for the Olympics in 1994 at age 13 only to be bumped by the recovering Nancy Kerrigan.
The two-time Olympian Kwan will wow Rhode Island during the campaign, but will she overshadow her husband?
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4. Claiborne Factor

Is he more than Claiborne Pell’s Grandson?

The venerable Claiborne de Borna Pell retired from the United States Senate nearly two decades ago. While older voters may be fond of the deceased Senator’s legacy – many Rhode Islanders were not old enough to vote or did not live in the state when Pell was in office.
While the Pell family name may have some limited impact and young Clay Pell’s campaign will dredge up lots of legacy stories (so many you may think Clay was the author of the legislation creating the Pell grants).
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3. GOP Factor

Can Pell beat a Republican?

Pell’s ability to skate between Raimondo and Taveras to win the Democratic primary in a coalition of union and progressive’s support will force him to win from the left.
Coming out of the primary will have defined him to the general election voter as a liberal of the highest degree. Brookings Institute Vice President Darrell West recently told an audience during a speech at the Newport Art Museum that progressives are back in vogue (citing the recent election of ultra progressive Bill deBlasio as Mayor of New York), but with Rhode Island’s economy stuck in a recession, Pell may have a difficult time convincing voters in the General Election that he is viable.
Remember in the past five elections – Rhode Islanders have elected Republicans to the Governor’s office four times (Almond twice, Carcieri twice) and in the last election while a liberal Lincoln Chafee won, more than 60% of the voters cast a ballot for the conservative Frank Caprio (D), GOP candidate John Robitaille or the business leaning Moderate Party candidate Ken Block.
Either GOP candidate will be able to paint Pell as too liberal for the challenges facing Rhode Island’s stagnant economy (9.1% unemployment).
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2. Experience, any?

Does Pell have any experience?

Pell graduated from law school in 2008. That is right; Clay Pell has only been out of school for 5 plus years.
It is hard to believe that his experience in Coast Guard as a junior officer and his White House Fellowship qualifies him to be the chief executive of a state – he has never managed senior staff (he has never been senior staff), never managed employees of any significant scale, he has never managed a major budget, and he has zero economic development experience – a trait that some voters might look for after Chafee’s term.
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1. Tough Enough?

Is Pell tough enough?

Both Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras demonstrated in the past three plus years in office the ability to make “tough” decisions.  
Taveras had to clean up the Cicilline budget mess that had nearly bankrupted the City of Providence and Taveras even fired all the teachers in the Capital City. Of course, he walked that dog backwards during the following months ensuring a lack of trust with both teachers and fiscal conservatives.  
Raimondo’s pension reform effort has drawn passionate support and venomous scorn.  Regardless, it has demonstrated Raimondo is battle tested.
Pell’s professional career is not only short (5 plus years), but also been advisory – the buck has never stopped at Clay Pell’s cubicle.

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