Scott MacKay Commentary
9:50 am
Mon March 17, 2014

Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For Clay Pell To Step Away From The Car

What does "Dude where's my car?" have to do with Clay Pell's campaign for governor? Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay has some thoughts.

How do you know your campaign is in trouble: when your car is getting more attention than your ideas.

That’s what’s happening to the infant campaign of Clay Pell, who would like to be our next governor.

The whereabouts of Pell’s Toyota Prius has overshadowed everything else in his quest to win the Democratic nomination for governor. It turns out that on two separate occasions within the past few months that Pell and his wife, champion figure skater Michelle Kwan, have reported their Prius missing.

A week before Christmas, Pell called Providence police to report that the couple’s car was gone. He told a cop he had last seen his 2010 automobile the night before when he parked it outside his home on the city’s East Side. After he filed a stolen car report, Pell found the Prius that afternoon in the parking lot of a CVS a few blocks from his house.

Police said Pell’s car exhibited no signs of the damage or tampering usually linked to a vehicle theft.

Then, on Feburary 25, Pell and Kwan again told police their Prius was gone. Kwan told police she and her husband were slated to go to a campaign event and that others were waiting for them. Pell apparently dropped the keys in the car’s interior and they fell between the seats.  So he left them in the vehicle and didn’t lock the car doors.

The next morning, Kwan left the couple’s home on Barnes Street and she noticed the Prius wasn’t there. Police say Pell and Kwan spent nine hours searching for the car before reporting it missing, a fact disputed by Pell’s campaign spokesman.

Whether this is much ado about not much doesn’t really matter. At this point in the campaign, it has garnered outsized media coverage and driven talk radio chatter. It’s about all the Rhode Island Gang of 500 – you know, the politicians, political insiders and reporters – are chatting about over their beverages at the local watering dens. And average Rhode Islanders have noticed.

You can blame a myopic and silly media for focusing on such piffle. Yet this is the way things always go in the early stages of a campaign, when reporters have pages and newscasts to fill but little on the radar screen except endorsements, the bloodless numbers of pollsters and fund-raising harvests.

The sad truth is that political coverage by trivial pursuit is a factor all campaigns face. Candidates have different ways of dealing with it. Some, like one of Pell’s opponents, State General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, simply play along, and feed the silliness with, well, silliness. She touts her Italian meatloaf recipes and Greenville roots, as she asks for yet more campaign cash in her relentless fund-raising emails.

Others try to change the conversation, a la Republican gubernatorial aspirants Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, with 10-point programs on this or that. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, another Democratic candidate, seeks to link his job in the capital city with programs he vows to advocate if he wins the Statehouse, such as early childhood education.

Pell’s campaign has disputed some of the details of the Providence police reports on the Prius. What matters here aren’t the details. It’s about a campaign that should be talking about how a promising young man plans to make this a better state for Rhode Islanders. Instead it has been put in a defensive crouch over a car.

Pell’s car episodes have been magnified because he has never run for office and doesn’t have a template to guide the media or voters. Fung, for example, has faced a parking ticket scandal in his police department. When he discovered it, he quickly ordered a state police investigation. The move gave Rhode Islanders a window into how he would act if he faced such a difficulty as governor.

The other problem for Pell is that most voters really don’t understand unfunded pension liabilities.  And their eyes glaze over at the mention of private-public partnerships. Yet they wonder about how a guy who doesn’t know where his car is will handle a prickly, self-serving General Assembly and the $8.5 billion dollar state budget those lawmakers control.

And they ask – has this guy ever heard of Lojack? It isn’t unusual for cars to be lifted from Providence’s East Side. That’s where the late-model vehicles are in a capital city more brutally divided each year among haves, have-nots and have-mores.

It isn’t too late for Pell to put his own imprint on the campaign. The first thing he has to do is alter the narrative and immediately begin focusing on his ample resume, White House experience and the policies he will bring to the State House. He would also do well to remind everyone that he suffers none of the baggage of candidates who have been entrenched in Rhode Island politics.

Where is the plan, to, say, amplify the legacy of his grandfather, the revered Sen. Claiborne Pell and make college more affordable and accessible for needy, working-class Rhode Island students? He has begun this effort in a small way by calling for a faster minimum wage increase.

And Pell and his spouse, who has dealt with microphones in her face since she was a teen-ager, had better get used to the rough scrutiny of the 21st century political media, which is a much different animal than the fawning television coverage accorded skating stars. Or the more civilized coverage Pell’s grandfather received during a 36-year Senate career that ended in 1997.

Pell campaign manager Devin Driscoll has attempted to put the Prius matter to bed.  "At this point," said Driscoll, "Clay and Michelle just want their car."

What they really need to get back is their campaign.