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Clay Pell's Winter Olympics

Can the neophyte pol surpass Taveras and Raimondo in the Dems' primary race?
By PHILIP EIL  |  February 23, 2014

"STANDING UP FOR OTHER PEOPLE" Pell, with the State House in the distance. [Photo by Natalja Kent]

Clay Pell is just a regular 32-year-old Rhode Island guy. He speaks Spanish, Chinese, and a bit of Arabic. His personal Facebook page includes photos of him riding a horse in Kyrgyzstan and standing alongside President Barack Obama — plus a sunset shot of the bridge between Jamestown and Newport that bears his family name. Before attending Harvard and Georgetown Law, he graduated from a California boarding school that, for 2013-’14, costs $50,550 for tuition and fees. His favorite book is Adam Smith’s 1759 treatise The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He’s been a White House Fellow and Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security staff, a Coast Guard judge advocate general (JAG), and US Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Foreign Language Education, a post sometimes called the nation’s “language czar.” He also recently married a woman named Michelle who, according to a December tweet from the US Olympic Team, is the “most decorated figure skater in US history.” The People magazine “exclusive” describing their January 2013 nuptials in Providence was “Liked” more than 4200 times on Facebook.

OK, so maybe Clay Pell — full name: Herbert Claiborne Pell IV — isn’t such a regular guy after all. This much was evident when he loaned his nascent gubernatorial campaign $1 million a month before he officially announced at the Rhode Island Convention Center on January 28. (“I inherited money from my family,” he tells us. “The idea of any benefit I always had was that it was there in order to go into public service.”)

But if Clay Pell does share one thing with the average Rhody 32-year-old, it’s this: he’s never held elected office. This is perhaps the defining characteristic of his candidacy, six and a half months before he faces Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo in the September 9 Democratic primary. Both Pell’s strongest critics and most fervent supporters point to his age and professional experience when making their case about him.

You can add “youth” and “his resume” to the lengthy list of factors making his candidacy fascinating. Clay Pell is both a household name and a nobody. He is both a political outsider and the consummate insider. (Google him and you’ll find a “Newport Seen” article headlined “Gracious High Tea at Mrs. Pell’s Oceanfront Home,” describing a schmoozefest from a few years ago attended by Clay Pell, Sheldon Whitehouse, Teresa Paiva Weed, and others, where “Champagne was served, along with scones with jam and whipped cream, and tea sandwiches cut in the shape of dog bones.”) He’s a Rhode Island resident who owns a house on Providence’s East Side, yet he hasn’t lived a full calendar year here since 2009. “This is my home. This is the place I’m fighting for,” he said, when pressed on this residency issue by Tim White and Ted Nesi on WPRI’s Newsmakers.

At this early stage in the campaign, though, one thing is certain: Pell has enlisted an impressive roster of supporters. Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena emceed Pell’s campaign kickoff event. Victor Capellan, a Central Falls school deputy superintendent who served as deputy campaign manager for Angel Taveras’s 2010 Providence mayoral run, is also in Pell’s corner. So is Bob Walsh, the executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, who says he’ll encourage his organization’s nearly 12,000 members to consider endorsing Pell when the time comes. Former state rep and political man-on-the-scene Ray Rickman tells us he’ll be taking “a real leadership role in the African American community and . . . on the East Side of Providence” in pushing for Pell. Rhode Island Progressive Democrats coordinator Sam Bell adds that, while his group is months from an official endorsement, members were “extremely impressed” when Pell met with them in late 2013. “It’s often hard to put these things in words,” he says. “But you can meet people and you get a sense that you know this is going to be someone, when you look back in 20 years, you’re very happy to have met before they became such a prominent figure.” In Pell, Bell sees a man who might ride the same Northeast progressive wave that helped secure 2013 mayoral victories for Bill de Blasio in New York City and Marty Walsh in Boston.

And then, of course, there is Michelle Kwan. It’s hardly surprising she would voice support for her husband. But when she does it — say, tweeting a selfie from Sochi (where she’s working as an Olympic correspondent for Fox Sports), holding a “Pell” pin; or filming a campaign spot where she says, “Clay has the strength to get things done in government. I know from my own skating career, you have to be strong, determined, and focused, if you want to succeed at the highest level” — well, it garners a bit more attention than the average political spouse’s message. The day after Pell made his official campaign announcement, the celebrity gossip site ran a photo of the couple above a breathless post: “Michelle Kwan might not be doing the ice skating thing anymore for the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean her life is boring! Her husband, Clay Pell, has decided to run for the Governor of Rhode Island! He’s been considering it for months and he finally sacked up and officially put his hat in!” The headline read, “Remember Figure Skating Goddess Michelle Kwan?? She Could be Rhode Island’s First Lady!”

What’s in a name?

To fully understand the Pell name in Rhode Island, you have to look past the Pell Grants, Pell Awards, Pell Bridge, Pell Elementary School in Newport, and Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University. In fact, you could go all the way back to the early 1600s, when the Pell clan first arrived in the New World. But it makes most sense to focus on the window between 1961 and 1997, when Clay Pell’s grandfather served six terms as a US Senator from Rhode Island.

Claiborne Pell was a “legend,” according to biographer and Providence Journal staff writer G. Wayne Miller. He was a man who won national recognition for his opposition of the Vietnam War, an instrumental role in founding the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, service as chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in the 1980s and, of course, his deft and dogged political footwork to secure federal funding for Americans attending college. Back in the Ocean State, despite his pronounced quirks — jogging in a blazer, assigning a member of his staff to research UFOs — he was beloved and trusted by constituents, many of whom he met on hand-shaking, doorbell-ringing jaunts he called “walkabouts.” “I cannot think of a political name from this state that would be the equal of the Pell name,” Miller says.

But a name is just a name. And, to his credit, the Clay Pell we see campaigning Rhode Island in 2014 shows commendable restraint when asked what “Pell” means to him. “It means to me speaking up for other people who need the opportunities to flourish,” he says. “It means standing up for other people and being a voice for them.”

Which leaves us to talk about his plans for Rhode Island. What are his ideas?

They start with the number $10 million. Thus far in the governor’s race we’ve seen every high-profile candidate attach his or her name to a number. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung has vowed to create 20,000 jobs. Fung’s Republican primary opponent, Barrington businessman Ken Block, boasts on his campaign homepage, “I will find and save Rhode Island $1 BILLION in wasteful spending.” Angel Taveras and Gina Raimondo have both vowed to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10, though they’ve offered different timelines for doing so. (He wants to do it by 2018; she wants it done by next year.)

In Pell’s case, $10 million is the amount he says he’ll carve out of the state budget, once elected, for a special development fund. “Imagine the economic growth this could create,” he said in his kickoff speech. “Four hundred grants of $25,000 is a much better investment of taxpayer money than spending $12.5 million dollars bailing out someone else’s mistake.” When we asked him for further details, he said he’ll have to figure out the exact mechanics, but this program will likely consist of a combination of grants and loans accessible via a simple application process that will contain certain built-in conditions, like the necessity of keeping funded projects in Rhode Island. “We should help people who have an idea, whether it’s a business idea or an artistic idea, to be able to go actually get it done,” he says. He points to a recent visit to a small business in South Providence as an example of the boost this would bring. “They were telling me they are on the cusp of hiring several employees but they don’t have the access just to the working capital.”

Other policy stances?

Pell doesn’t believe NECAP tests should be a graduation requirement for Rhode Island public school students. He agrees that the minimum wage should be raised to $10.10, but he wants this change to happen as soon as possible. When asked about legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana, he says, “I think it’s prudent to wait and see what happens [in Washington and Colorado].” He has also made a vow (though it means decidedly less coming from a candidate with his financial means, compared to other candidates) that he will not be accepting campaign donations from political action committees (PACs) and state lobbyists.

Oh, and he also said in his campaign kickoff speech that he’s interested in “restoring faith in state government.”

It’s a nice idea, and one that we at the Phoenix support wholeheartedly, whether it comes from Pell or anyone else. But it makes us want to remind Pell of a few things about our state government — and the state, in general — that he’ll face, if elected.

Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. We have an iconic skyscraper sitting vacant in the heart of the state’s capital. We have seen 38 people die from overdoses so far this year, a trend our Department of Health Director has dubbed an “epidemic.” We have beaches that are eroding at alarming rates and seas hungrily lapping closer to our two prized cities, Providence and Newport. We have a state where, according of recent stats, one in five children lives below the federal poverty level and nearly four in five of college graduates are saddled with debt that averages more than $30,000. We have a state where the capital city streets are, objectively speaking, a disaster, and where, in the East Bay, folks are so pissed about proposed (and partially enacted) tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge that they haven’t just assembled in large numbers to protest them, but, in one instance, someone literally tried to light the bridge on fire. We have a legislature that can’t seem to escape the never-ending crises of 38 Studios and the state pension overhaul long enough to make substantive, forward-looking changes. And we can already hear gears grinding across the border in Massachusetts to construct casinos that will suck away millions in revenue from Twin River and Newport Grand and, thus, Rhode Island state tax coffers.

So, is Clay Pell ready to take the helm of this ship recently described in a Providence Journal op-ed by former RIEDC director Michael McMahon as “hit by a tsunami. . . The wind is driving the ship toward the rocks, the engines are dead, the hull is gashed, water is pouring in, the pumps aren’t working and the rudder has been torn off”?

We asked him this while sitting in a book-lined study, under the watchful eye of an oil painting of his grandfather, on the second floor of his College Hill home in Providence. “Yes,” he said. “And I’m not going to start on Day One. I’m going to start on the day of the election.”

Speaking of that election, Providence College political science professor Tony Affigne describes a Pell primary victory as an Olympian task. “He only has a few weeks to convince 40,000 active Democrats he deserves their support,” Affigne says. “That’s harder than it might look, to someone who’s never done it before. When is the last time a complete newcomer was successful in a gubernatorial race?”

As you ponder that, we’ll leave you with a couple of facts. Currently, the youngest governor in the United States is South Carolina’s chief executive, 42-year-old Nikki Haley. At age 32, if Clay Pell wins both the September and November elections, he’ll be the same age as a young lawyer named William Jefferson Clinton, when he was elected to Arkansas’ top office in 1978.

Philip Eil can be reached Follow him on Twitter @phileil.

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