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Don Roach: Who is Clay Pell?

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Before we try and dissect the man who would be governor, let’s first talk about the choices the Rhode Island electorate has made recently. No offense meant but in 2012, we re-elected a man who nearly brought Providence to its financial knees. If you or I had committed the same number of errors Cicilline did in Providence we would be out of a job. In 2010, we elected a man whose lawn signs read, “Trust Chafee” while the ensuing years have shown us we can do anything but.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not jumping up and down in excitement at the thought that Rhode Island may vote for a name and not a candidate with the right plan for Rhode Island. But maybe Clay Pell is both? Well, let’s see if we can find out.

I began my search by googling “Clay Pell”. I was shocked that most of the stories started with “Michelle Kwan’s husband.” Though, I was more expecting “grandson of former Senator Claiborne Pell.” Try it yourself and see what happens. Look, I’m not naïve enough to think that people won’t think of him as Michelle Kwan’s husband because of who she is and what she means to the Olympics. I get that, but just because he has a famous grandfather and a more famous wife, doesn’t make him qualified to be the next governor of Rhode Island does it?

So who is Clay Pell?

I visited his campaign site hoping to get answers to that question as well as figure out what his positions are on issues facing Rhode Island. I learned that Pell served in the Coast Guard, served as a military prosecutor, was a director of strategic planning on Obama’s national security team, and an assistant secretary at the Department of Education.

Notably missing from his curriculum vitae is any elective office experience. From dog catcher to President, Pell does not appear to have experience running for office before and most importantly serving in a position that is directly accountable to voters. Does this disqualify him for running for governor? Certainly not, but it means we need to know more about Pell’s positions because we cannot look at his track record and judge him by his past results.

What you will find on Pell’s site is that he serves in our Armed forces and has served in the Obama administration. Neither of these experiences gives us any indication he knows about creating a culture that leads to job creation in Rhode Island or how he will tackle our tax structure. His Education Department experience may be useful when addressing issues such as charter schools, raising the level of success of our students, and his perspective on Commissioner Gist and the job she is doing. However, having served as the Assistant Secretary on International and Foreign Language Education, we need ask how close he was to bread and butter state educational issues such as graduation, SAT scores, and vocational schools.

And that’s just it, the Pell website offers no insight on how he plans to address our state’s problems…but it does allow you to contribute if you’re into contributing to a campaign without having any idea of where the candidate stands on the issues. Alas, even though he has announced that he is running for governor we don’t have a handy-dandy guide telling us where he stands on the issues affecting our state. For someone who went through a process of coming to this decision, I expected a bit more from his website.

So, I’ll ask again who is Clay Pell?

I dug into a few interviews with Pell to see if they could offer insight as to what his priorities are. In an article by the Providence Journal’s Ed Fitzpatrick Pell stated that he wants to “bring a distinct set of experience, skills and values to helping solve critical problems facing the state.” While that’s a broad answer that doesn’t provide us with details, Pell further noted regarding the economy that he wants to take advantage of opportunities such as the I-195 relocation project and looking at developing Quonset Point.

That’s more specific but do any of the gubernatorial candidates oppose the I-195 relocation or Quonset Point development efforts? I can’t verify this, but I doubt any candidate opposes either project so this isn’t a differentiator.

Then-Assistant Secretary Pell did an interview with Language Magazine on his goals in his new role. As the Assistant Secretary on International and Foreign Language Education he talked about increasing the number of multi-lingual American students saying:

Our growth and competitiveness demand that we find new ways to connect with, work with, and take advantage of opportunities in the rest of the world. Foreign language and international expertise are critical skills to bridge that divide and proactively reach opportunities and cultures around the globe.

I don’t disagree that being able to speak multiple languages aides our ability to perform in the global economy. However, when I think of students at Central, Hope, & Mount Pleasant (amongst others) and their English language skills, I feel the focus must be on teaching our kids English before teaching them other languages. Pell may also feel the same as the article and his attention were focused on foreign languages, but what is his view on English education in our RI schools with a significant student population that doesn’t speak English in the home?

Last time I promise – who is Clay Pell?

The answer appears to be “blank slate”. Blank slate candidates can win in Rhode Island, look at Don Carcieri in 2002. Pell doesn’t have Carcieri’s business background to draw from but has his grandfather’s name, his wife, and what I presume is significant financial support from his own finances. That makes him a factor in the race but I’d really like to be able to answer my opening question I began with a bit more clarity before judging candidate Clay Pell.

I guess we’ll have to continue to wait.

Don can be reached at [email protected] . You can follow Don on twitter at @donroach34.


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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