The Clay Pell factor in 2014 RI Governor campaign

Nov 22, 2013

Just when we thought we knew that next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary field was set, it suddenly was not. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay talks about the Clay Pell factor.

Herbert Claiborne `Clay’ Pell  IV is a scion of a storied Rhode Island political family. He’s the grandson of U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, a quirky, even eccentric politician who nonetheless never lost an election in six terms, despite facing the toughest opponents our small state could muster.

The elder Pell came from nowhere – he had never been elected to any office – in 1960 to win the Democratic primary over two former Rhode Island governors, Dennis Roberts and J. Howard McGrath.

Now his 32-year old grandson Clay is seriously considering running for governor. As was the case with his grandfather, Pell is a newcomer with no experience in Rhode Island government or politics. Yet he has an impressive resume for a young man – service as a military officer, a stint in the Obama White House and a job at the Department of Education.

As is the case with the two other putative Democrats in the campaign so far, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Pell holds a degree from Harvard. Taveras likes to boast of his Latino immigrant up-by-the-bootstraps background by saying he went from the Head Start program for poor children to Harvard.

Pell had a different head start. He’s a son of wealth, WASP privilege and summers in Newport. He hasn’t made a decision yet, insist confidantes who have met with him privately. But if he decided to go, raising the money he would need – about $2 million or so – would be easier than it has been for Taveras, who lags significantly behind Raimondo, a daughter of middle-class Rhode Island who worked in the venture capital business and has cultivated money connections from banking, hedge funds and national figures who admire her state pension overhaul campaign.

Pell may seem from too an elite a background to appeal to Rhode Island voters. But history shows that the Ocean State has never shied from well-born pols; for years the state sent John Chafee and Claiborne Pell to senate. Rhode Island was known in those days as the blue-collar state that elected blue bloods.

Rhode Island political hands who have met with Pell come away impressed. Gov. Lincoln Chafee cites Pell’s resume and says he is ``thoughtful, smart and dedicated to public service.’’ Chafee also said that the political landscape may be favorable in a way that echoes his grandfather’s 1960 quest – an outsider running for an open seat where there will be no incumbent.

The downside, says Chafee, is the obvious lack of experience in Rhode Island and no record of showing that he can deal with ``the monster that is state government.’’

Yet, 2014 is not 1960. Claiborne Pell ran in a primary against two aging Democratic pols who had been bruised and bloodied by the intense battles of our small state’s political wars. Clay Pell would face two young politicians in Taveras and Raimondo who are well-regarded, according to public opinion polls, and both are in their early 40s.

Clay Pell is married to Michelle Kwan, the Olympic figure skating star. A well-known figure in a world of media swirl and celebrity politics, Kwan has been a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department and is regarded as a dynamic personality, always an asset in a campaign.

Others who have met with the young Pell say his political views are in synch with his grandfather’s liberalism, which also could be an asset in a primary where Raimondo is viewed by some Democrats from the progressive and organized labor side of the party as too conservative. Some of those same liberal activists are less keen on Taveras  since his recent purge from his inner circle of young activists Matt Jeryzk and Arianne Lynch.

The WPRI-Channel 12/ ProJo public opinion poll released this week showed both Raimondo and Taveras are well-regarded, with job approval ratings of better than 50 percent. But it also shows some challenges for Raimondo, particularly among labor union members who vote heavily in Democratic primaries. For example, Raimondo is at a 51 percent approval  score among Democrats, while Taveras is at 67 percent. And Raimondo actually had a higher approval rating with Republicans (52 percent) in the poll than she has among Democrats. But a Pell entrance would probably hurt Taveras more by splitting the progressive vote and leaving Raimondo as the lone serious woman aspirant.

Pell has met with such Rhode Island political mavens as consultant Tad Devine, Tom Hughes, a top aide to his grandfather and public relations executive Bill Fischer. All three of them say Pell is taking things slowly and has made no final decision.

Yet, why would Pell and his wife leave the Obama Administration and the bright political lights of the nation’s capital and move to Providence if they were not going to run?

At just 32, Pell is very young by the standards of a winning campaign for a governorship in New England. Yet it isn’t without precedent; In the 1960s, Philip Hoff became a very successful Vermont   governor who was only several years older than Pell when elected.

Pell and his coterie know he can’t wait much longer to make up his mind – 2014 will be here in a month or so. The state’s political chattering class is watching and waiting. Especially,  mayor Taveras and treasurer Raimondo. As the Chinese fortune cookie says, may you live in interesting times.

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics' blog at