Russell Moore: Will the Real Clay Pell Please Stand Up?

Monday, September 08, 2014


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So if Clay Pell wins the Democrat Primary for Governor tomorrow, does that mean the Rhode Island Republican Party will have two candidates running in the general election?

That's not snark---it's a valid question considering the fact that Bob Plain over at brought to light the fact that Pell was a registered Republican in Arizona for roughly 10 years. And for those scoring at home, the vast majority of those years were reportedly during the Bush years. Those were the years that we were led into war in Iraq that quickly turned into a quagmire and suffered economic policies caused the housing crisis.

Mr. Honest and Upfront

But don't think for one second that I hold anything against Pell for being a Republican. Neither political party has a monopoly on truth, and many of my friends are Republicans, and the belief that government spending shouldn't be more than the taxpayers can afford is one of my most fundamental.

Here's what I do hold against Mr. Pell: he's perpetuated a fraud against his own supporters. Pell and his merry band of advocates have been going around our beautiful state with his wife (who was also a Republican until 2011) claiming that he's the "real" Democrat in the race--whatever the heck that means. All the while failing to disclose that he, in fact, was once a, gasp!, Republican.

Above the fray?

Perhaps what makes this situation most nauseating is the fact that Pell has acted as if he were the the above the fray, honest candidate in the race. While he hasn't run any "negative" ads, he's often mocked his opponents for their public service during the debates by calling them "politicians".

Pell claims that he's Mr. Honest and is therefore deserving of our trust is perhaps the hallmark of his campaign. And his supporters are making similiar arguments. Just read to what prominent Pell supporter, lobbyist, and political operative Jonathan Jacobs had to say in a column for GoLocalProv.

Jacobs' spin falls down

"How does one with no experience in elected office, earn the trust of Rhode Island voters in such a short time? The answer is by not earning their distrust. Rhode Islanders show a level of distrust in government surpassed only by Illinois. Illinois, mind you, has had four of the last seven governors serve time in prison. All Clay Pell has to do is avoid earning the distrust that has infected the state like a virus of political cynicism and anger."

By failing to disclose the fact that Pell was a Republican during the Bush years while gallivanting around the state criticizing his opponents for not being "real Democrats" is probably not the best way to convince anyone that you're trustworthy. If that was "all" Pell had to do, he's clearly failed.

Special interest connections

That's not the first disingenuous thing he's said or done either. Pell continually claims that he's not tied to special interest groups because he's not accepting money from their political action committees or lobbyists. But what he hasn't told people is that the National Education Association--one of the state's two teachers' unions, is actively running his campaign.

The fact that Pell was a Republican for 10 years, under normal circumstances, would probably be the least harmful demerit on his resume. We're talking about a guy who had 9 jobs in 8 years, lost his car twice last winter, and hasn't even held a single press conference.

Yet when considering that his argument seems to be that he's the most trustworthy, the fact that he failed to disclose his GOP street cred is much more important.

Lack of credentials

Let's face it: if Clay Pell's name was Clay Smith, and he didn't have an unlimited bankroll, and his wife was unknown, and had no family in politics, Pell wouldn't have garnered a second glance.

But given the fact that he's been able to pump more than $3 million of his own personal fortune in the race to produce slick television commercials and parade around his celebrity wife, he's been able to propel himself into the race as a serious contender by acting as if he's something he's really not--a liberal Democrat. His handlers from the National Education Association have given him a script to memorize, and he's recited the lines and tried to never deviate from what they've taught him to say.

And he's leveraged his grandfather's name and goodwill to the best of his ability in a desperate attempt to appeal to the nostalgia of Rhode Islanders.

In a way, you almost have to feel bad for Clay Pell. Like the bad guy in a movie, he almost got away with his scheme. Recent polling, both public and private, had the candidate surging and posing a threat to topple both General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras--the other two major candidates.

Whether or not Rhode Island's Democrats want to send Clay Pell into the general election clearly is their purview. But fortunately for the state's voters, they now know that Pell isn't the lifelong, dedicated Democrat that he's portrayed himself as.

The Democrats who vote in the primary deserve to know that while Pell claimed to be a stalwart Democrat, he was a Republican for a decade.

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A native Rhode Islander, Russell J. Moore is a graduate of Providence College and St. Raphael Academy. He worked as a news reporter for 7 years (2004-2010), 5 of which with The Warwick Beacon, focusing on government. He continues to keep a close eye on the inner workings of Rhode Islands state and local governments.


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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