Clay Pell Unveils Campaign; Proposes $10M Fund for Entrepreneurs

Jan 28, 2014

Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Then there were three*.

Before a crowd of more than 200 supporters at the Rhode Island Convention Center, Clay Pell on Tuesday morning formally declared his candidacy in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, joining Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and state Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Pell's announcement came after he made his plans clear in a video released the night before.

Pell's speech focused on two things: 1) his biography; and 2) a pledge to focus on improving the economy in Rhode Island, a state that now has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. There were relatively few specifics, although Pell vowed to not accept contributions from state lobbyists or PACs, and he proposed creating a $10 million fund to award grants ranging from $2500 to $25,000 to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

"Imagine the economic growth this could create," Pell said. "Four hundred grants of 25,000 thousand dollars, I believe, is a much better investment than spending 12 and a half million dollars to bail out someone else’s mistake."

Pell was non-committal, however, when asked by reporters if Rhode Island should withhold a $12.5 million payment to investors in failed video-game maker 38 Studios this year; More information, he says, is needed to make an informed decision.

Pell was introduced by a string of speakers reflecting different slices of the electorate: Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena; educator and activist Victor Capellan, a former supporter of Taveras; Nuala Pell, Pell's grandmother and the widow of his venerable late grandfather, former US Senator Claiborne Pell; and Michelle Kwan, the former Olympic skater who is married to Pell.

Pell launched his speech by citing the importance of family -- his grandfather and how his parents met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design. While the Pells are wealthy -- a strong asset for a somewhat late entry in the governor's race -- Pell offered a contrasting image, asserting that the S&L crisis drove his parents' into bankruptcy for several years.

Pell then turned his attention to the economy, sounding a Kennedyesque note in saying, "I believe we must rise to the challenge of our generation." To those who question how the first-time candidate stacks up against Raimondo, 42, and Taveras, 43, the 32-year-old Pell said, "I believe I can offer a fresh perspective and new approach to solving our problems. And I believe I have the skills, values and experience to lead our state to a better future." He repeated similar notes when asked by reporters about his potential ability to lead Rhode Island.

Pell, a graduate of Harvard and Georgetown University law school, served in the Coast Guard. He later worked as director of strategic planning for President Obama's security team and served as a deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Education.

Devin Driscoll, who signed on as Pell's campaign coordinator, will manage his campaign. His fundraiser is Democratic veteran Amy Gabarra. The Checkmate Consulting Group, the firm led by Brad Dufault and former state rep Ray Sullivan, is also working on the campaign.

Those on hand for Pell's announcement included Robert Walsh, Larry Purtill and Patrick Crowley of the National Education Association Rhode Island teachers union, who've made clear their fondness for Pell. A handful of state reps were also present, including Spencer Dickinson, Ken Marshall, Joseph Carnevale, and Dennis Canario.

Pell vowed if elected to make the economy his top priority. He said he would create a comprehensive approach to build on Rhode Island's strengths, "aligning our efforts, energy and budget to our greatest areas of need and opportunity." Pell pledged to invest in schools, increase internship and apprenticeship programs, "respect our teachers," "make higher education affordable again," and to offer more support for the state's cities and towns.

Although Pell began his speech by referencing Claiborne Pell and the education grant program named for him, he closed it by invoking the last Democrat to win election as governor in Rhode Island, Bruce Sundun, who won his last term in 1992. While Sundlun "may have been a little louder than my grandfather, he and my grandfather shared a common principle. To move Rhode Island forward, you had to build trust and bring the whole state together."

Despite his well-known family name, celebrity wife, and considerable personal resources, Pell could face a considerable challenge in a three-way race with the two best-approved politicians in Rhode Island. Taveras and Raimondo unveiled their runs for governor last year, although their preparations began much earlier. One clue of the level of support for Pell will come when candidates file their Q4 reports for 2013 on Friday.

Raimondo's team wasted little team in responding. Her campaign released the second in a series of videos meant to personalize the candidate and it also called for a tough "People's Pledge" -- an issue first raised by Taveras.

Taveras' campaign sent an email asking supporters to sign onto an online petition calling for raising the minimum wage to $10.10.

*Todd Giroux of Bristol, a token candidate, is also running as a Democrat.