Schaper: Clay Pell for RI Gov: Doesn’t Ring a Bell

Friday, February 07, 2014


You can ring my bell! – Anita Ward

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Besides a familiar name and fame, there’s not much about Clay Pell that rings a bell, believes Arthur Schaper.

Taveras, Raimonda, Pell: the Democrats running for Rhode Island’s next governor give no jingle to their political jangle, so to speak. Despite the Providence Mayor’s ethnic background, and the General Treasurer’s efforts (or lack thereof) to save the state’s retirement funds, Rhode Islanders voters have little to dance with.

Now a third name just stepped into the race last month, and already voices are calling on whether he can be the outlier to win the Democratic primary and the governorship.

From Diane Fitzgibbons:

"nions are out to pummel Gina; Taveras going nowhere; Clay will skate home with this."

So, who is Pell, and how well will he run for the office?

The Legacy

A political outsider with an insider legacy behind him, Pell was born in Arizona , but visited Rhode Island every summer. Harvard educated, he knows his state, but more importantly his grandfather’s legacy: US Senator Claiborne Pell (1918-2009). Grandson Clay has so much to draw from. Grandpa was also born out of state (NYC), lived in Newport, studied Ivy League, joined the US Coast Guard. Unlike his grandson, Claiborne worked in government, with stints in diplomatic relations. When he ran for US Senate in 1960 (the same year as Ted Kennedy: immoral not crazy), Democrat John F. Kennedy called Pell “unwinnable”, but he won six times to represent Rhode Island.

And Grandpa was strange (what man running for office in New England isn’t?) Wearing threadbare suits and driving old cars, despite his immense wealth, and dabbling in the paranormal, he sounds more like a softer retread of California Governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown. A patrician who connected with the plebian Providentials, and the husband of a wealthy heiress, Pell spoke the languages of the people, even if his politics then and now didn’t make much sense. He also believed in aliens. Mr. Spock goes to Washington?

As Senator, Grandpa Pell chaired the Foreign Relations Committee (read his thoughts on Iran-Contra), but he is best known for his ongoing legacy, the Pell Grant. Providing direct aid to low-income college students, these federal subsidies have inadvertently made college all the more unaffordable for today’s college students. More money in the system, means more spending, higher tuition, debt, and on and on. Perhaps Grandson Pell should revisit this unpleasant consequence of Grandpa’s legacy.

The Now

But I digress. I’m writing about the younger, still-alive Clay Pell, the 2014 gubernatorial candidate for Rhode Island.

People Magazine mentioned the newly-announced candidate very nicely: “The husband of Michelle Kwan.” She graced the ice and Danced with the Stars. And Clay? Every good man has a strong woman standing behind him, but what can one say when the only reason people know you has to do with your grandfather or your wife? At least the national weekly didn’t blast him for selling out his state to Wall Street (General Treasurer Raimondo was a big hit with National Review, but Rolling Stone rolled all over her pension reforms last year). Perhaps Michelle could ring Clay’s bell with voters, and be the powerful first lady.

The Washington Post also identified Pell as “the husband of”, but showcased his announcement for governor. How does he plan to get elected?

"Over the past few months, I have traveled across our state. . ."

Stop there. That’s not accomplishing much, Clay. Why not talk about why so many taxpayers and small businesses are leaving the state, not to return?

"I decided to run for governor because I believe that I can restore hope and economic growth in our state."

Been there, done that. Yeah, yeah, “Hope” is the motto of the Ocean State. Very clever (*yawn*). . .

After a extended montage of his US Coast Guard days, Clay continues:

"There are no easy ways to create jobs and get Rhode Island’s economy back on track."

No kidding. Did Clay use Grandpa’s ESP skills to figure that one out?

"But we can begin by getting rid of the cronyism and insider politics that have held back our state economy."

He won’t take money from PACs or lobbyists. Sounds moral. But where did Pell get his well of money? From his family fortune, of course. Does he think that he can buy this election?

Then more of the obvious:

"While many of you may not know me. . ."

Yep. Then the touching scenes of Grandpa Pell and Grandson playing games, and then Claiborne sailing. . . Awww.

But this line was too much not to ignore:

"Hope is the motto of our state. And that motto is probably inspired by a verse from the Bible. We have hope as an anchor for the soul."

Probably? Hebrews 6:19, to be exact, but Providence has been rated the least Bible-minded city in the Union, so candidate Clay’s ignorance on the subject should come as no surprise. But as for governing, besides a familiar name and fame (Grandpa and the college grants), there’s not much about Clay Pell that rings a bell. Will he resonate with voters? At least Anita Ward rose to fame on more than a name.


Arthur Christopher Schaper is a teacher-turned-writer on topics both timeless and timely; political, cultural, and eternal. A life-long Southern California resident, Arthur currently lives in Torrance.


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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