Scott MacKay Commentary: The Clay Pell Dilemma In RI Governor's Race

Jan 24, 2014

Political pundits love to emphasize that campaigns matter.  Clay Pell better hope that adage rings true if he hopes to be Rhode Island’s next governor, says our resident pundit, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay.

Will Clay Pell be sitting in the Governor's office in 2015?

Herbert Claiborne `Clay’ Pell  IV is the grandson of a legendary Rhode Island U.S. Senator, a Harvard University graduate  and at just 32 years old, possessor of a resume that would be the envy of many a decade or two older.

Clay Pell, as he is known, has worked in the Obama White House and in the federal Department of Education. He is married to figure skating icon Michelle Kwan, who has traveled the world both as a skater and a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department.

Now, he wants to be Rhode Island’s next governor. He has no record in state politics. So Pell’s campaign is going to make or break him. Depending on how  it goes on the hustings, Pell will either crash or be seen as a young man of great promise.

Hailing from a well-born or  celebrity family has never been a disadvantage in Rhode Island politics. On the plus side for Pell is his grandfather’s improbable rise in 1960 from never having held any elective office to winning a U.S. Senate seat. John F. Kennedy called the elder Pell, a friend, ``the most unelectable man in American’’ but Claiborne Pell never lost an election in a Senate career that spanned 36 years.

The elder Pell is that rare exception.  Most Rhode Islanders elected to high office, regardless of lineage, have paid some dues. Patrick Kennedy served three terms as a state representative before running for Congress. John Chafee was also a state representative before being elected governor. His son, Lincoln Chafee, was a city council member and Warwick mayor before he became a U.S. senator, and later, governor.  Sheldon Whitehouse served as an assistant attorney general, legal counsel to a governor, U.S. Attorney and state attorney general before running for governor and later being elected senator.  Theodore Francis Green was a state representative before he was elected governor and U.S. senator. Bruce Sundlun, a mentor of Clay Pell, was chairman of the Providence School Board and was elected to the state Constitutional Convention before he was elected governor on his third try in 1990. 

Those from modest roots, such as John Pastore and Jack Reed, were state legislators before running for statewide office. And the two politicians Pell will face in a Democratic primary for the gubernatorial  nomination may be young but have both won important offices – Angel Taveras as the mayor of Providence, New England’s second largest city and Gina Raimondo as state general treasurer.

So political professionals are obviously wondering why Clay Pell didn't run for, say lieutenant governor or another down ballot slot and give state voters an idea of how he handles public office before trying for governor.

In a political world where the bloodless numbers of a pollster and a consultant’s slick t.v. ads are paramount, Rhode Island is a throwback. It’s still a retail state, especially in a primary. Pell is going to have to slurp coffee at the elderly high-rises, shake the callused hands of workers in union halls and grip and grin while marching in the ethnic parades and festivals.

If he doesn’t match up in these venues, Harvard, the Georgetown law degree and the five languages he speaks won’t matter. Maybe he ought to start dropping his r’s and learn the PawSawx line-up instead of boasting that he speaks Arabic and Chinese.

So far, Pell has done little more than play meet and greet with Democratic insiders and consent to a few interviews with political reporters. The insiders, including Gov. Chafee, all come away with good impressions of a man they describe as earnest and very smart. Yet his interview performances were underwhelming.

Pell will have to very quickly demonstrate a deep knowledge of state issues or he will not be taken seriously. This means getting beyond   platitudes about fixing the state’s foundering economy, yapping about `working families’ and taking the usual liberal stances that resonate with primary voters.

He needs to talk about such sticky issues as whether to pay off the 38 Studios bonds and  how to finance the state’s Obamacare initiative after the federal money spigot runs dry. And address such polarizing topics as taxpayer support for public higher education for the children of illegal immigrants and whether undocumented citizens have the right to drivers’ licenses. Would he have signed the 2011 state pension overhaul? A yes or no answer please,  and why.

Campaign money shouldn’t be a problem. In a celebrity-drenched culture, his spouse will be an asset. So will his grandmother, Nuala Pell, the grand dame of the state’s Democratic Party and a revered figure in our cozy state, as at home at a Portuguese Club as with the Bailey’s Beach swells.

Pell is lucky that neither Raimondo nor Taveras has made the sale with the Democratic primary base yet. Taveras hasn’t raised enough money to wage a winning campaign and has had defections among several key young liberal staffers. Raimondo is trying to shed an image as an anti-union,  blue-dog Democrat and morph into a progressive liberal as quickly as Jacoby Ellsbury changed into a N.Y. Yankee uniform after walking out of the Red Sox World Series winning clubhouse. Organized labor, a crucial Democratic primary electorate, has not embraced either the mayor or treasurer.

So Clay Pell has an opening, however narrow. He has none of the usual Rhody political baggage; nobody can't stand him yet. He has nine months to prove he has the vision, smarts and gravitas to be governor of a state in serious need of a strong leader. Or to bomb, showing his candidacy sprouted from the hubris of a privileged man child.

The one thing we all know: pedigree won’t matter on primary day in September, for the voting booth is the last place left where all Rhode Islanders are equal.

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 our `On Politics' blog at