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John Perilli: Pell’s Path Forward

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Clay Pell's best hope is to take an issue and make it the centerpiece of his campaign, believes John Perilli

It's official. We will not have a duel for the Democratic nomination for Governor, but a battle royal.

Clay Pell, following his announcement yesterday, becomes the third contender to enter the Democratic fray for Rhode Island's highest office. Though only 32, he comes with a last name that precedes him and a sterling resume in public service.

But he is not a frontrunner.

Pell enters a race already staked out by two veteran politicians who have proven they can win in Rhode Island. To shine in such a crowded field, Pell will have to run a flawless campaign, one which never embraces the status quo and is always on the leading edge of the news cycle. Even then, he will face a steep climb; however, it is by no means an impossible one.

Take an Issue and Run

Angel Taveras and Gina Raimondo have each served four years in a major Rhode Island elected office. Right out of the gate, this gives them both a running start. While neither have avoided criticism from some group of constituents––Raimondo from unions, Taveras from liberal Democrats––their records of elected service are ultimately an advantage. It establishes with voters a basic floor of credibility, as well as a past record of electoral support.

Clay Pell, despite his impressive credentials, has never been elected to anything. This means that he enters the race with a significant gap in credibility and familiarity. His reputation (and last name) will help him scale a good part of this gap, but not nearly enough to put him on par with Taveras and Raimondo.

So Pell must turn to his next best hope at pulling to the front of the pack: taking a popular stand on an important, universal issue.

In campaign politics, issues are the great equalizers. You do not need prior elected experience nor a shining slate of endorsements to take a stance on an issue. You only need the wherewithal to promote your views, which Pell certainly has. If Pell selects one issue, or even a small suite of issues, takes popular stances on them, and emphasizes them until they ring in Raimondo and Taveras's ears, then he has a fighting chance.

However, these cannot just be any issues. The issues have to be universal enough to unite the nearly one hundred thousand likely Democratic primary voters, and important enough to make them all care.

Then there is the matter of popular support. Electorally, Rhode Island is a relatively liberal state, running well to the left of the national average in every presidential election in the past 50 years. And as a rule, Democratic primary voters also skew leftward.

So I'd call it a safe bet that if Pell plants a strong liberal flag on an important issue, he will see his star and his poll numbers rise in a hurry.

Pell has a number of choices about what he wants to make his trademark issue. One obvious candidate is that dreaded necessity of civilized society: the tax issue. As it stands, Rhode Island's state income tax brackets are not so progressive, running from 3.75 percent in the lowest bracket up to 5.99 percent on all income above $133,250. This is an opening for Pell. Neither Taveras nor Raimondo have been particularly outspoken on this issue yet. If Pell were to take a vocal stand for making Rhode Island's tax rates more progressive––say, by adding an upper bracket for incomes over $250,000 and lowering the others––he would suddenly become the liberal champion in the race. Taveras and Raimondo would be forced to play defense, and Pell's credit among primary voters would soar.

Another choice for Pell is to oppose the repayment of the 38 Studios bonds. A poll by WPRI and the Providence Journal this past November showed that Rhode Island voters oppose repaying the infamous bonds 50 percent to 38. Pell could boost his liberal credentials by framing it as a courageous stand against Wall Street that will save taxpayers money. Additionally, Gina Raimondo has gone on the record in support of repayment, so this would be a good way for Pell to drive a wedge between himself and the General Treasurer. However, going for this issue involves wading into a mess of financial and legal complications, which could potentially hurt Pell further on down the campaign trail.

Whichever issue Pell goes for, he must go for it aggressively, and he must go for it quickly. Taveras and Raimondo will surely try to beat him to the punch if they sense a possible advantage.

Yes, Pell will also have to play identity politics and target constituencies. But nothing quite unites primary voters like a strong partisan standing his ground. And if Pell takes a strong stand on an issue that affects every identity and constituency, he might just succeed.

But his work would not end there.

Surviving the Showdown

Time-wise, the general election season in Rhode Island is but a brief coda, lasting only two months after the September 9 statewide primary. But it is at this stage where the election will truly become an endurance test. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates will be emerging from brutal primaries, drained of funds and scarred by opposition research.

Should Pell reach this stage, he will be facing a fractured Democratic Party and little time for mobilization. His message must pivot to one of unity, and he must usher the defeated armies of Taveras and Raimondo back into the Democratic camp.

He must then turn his attention to mustering all the Democratic and left-leaning independent votes he possibly can. If every registered Democrat in Rhode Island went out and voted for Pell in November, he would win in a landslide. Not that he should not leave himself unguarded––Pell must still defend himself against Republican attacks, but he cannot overreach in retaliation. It will be Pell's election to lose at this point, but it will be close. At no point can he take victory for granted.

Clay Pell has a long and uncertain year ahead of him, but not a hopeless one. He will have to play his campaign cards just right, and one small error could be his downfall. But if Pell takes an important issue and makes it his own, he could possibly take it all the way to the State House.


John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats. The opinions presented in this article do not necessarily represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member.


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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