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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

VIDEO: The Governor’s race just became a lot more interesting

Clay Pell makes it official – he’s a viable alternative to Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras for our next Governor
By Will Collette
Left to right: Pell supporter Victor Capellan, Clay Pell, Michelle Kwan
and Nuala Pell

Tuesday, Cathy and I drove up to Providence for Clay Pell’s official announcement that he is running for Governor as a Democrat. He asked voters for their support in the September primary that is shaping up to be a tough three-way race pitting him against Wall Street Democrat and current General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.

In his announcement, Pell cleared up most of the questions that have been raised about him when he was an undeclared, but likely, candidate. He knows he is young – at 32, he is more than 10 years younger than his opponents. He acknowledged his youth but stressed his already impressive body of work as a Coast Guard officer and as a national security aide at the White House. In laying out his resume, he also addressed questions about his experience and qualifications.

Unspoken, but understood by many of us in the audience of a certain age, is that his grandfather ran for and won the US Senate seat he held for so many years on his very first try. Senator Claiborne Pell, the man called by President John F. Kennedy the least electable man in America, went on to become   one of the most revered public servants in Rhode Island.

Most importantly, Clay Pell outlined his vision and plans for reinvesting in Rhode Island and its people, citing the critical need to reverse decades of cutbacks to education. “We cannot allow our education system to produce haves and have nots” and insisted on more public support for our schools and state colleges and universities.

He wants to see restored emphasis on broad learning, clearly taking a shot at the “teach to the test” approach that currently dominates education. He wants to see internship programs created at every high school to give students early experience about the world of work and career options. He wants more experimentation in college programs that are geared to helping students graduate and go on to lively careers, citing URI’s international engineering program as an example.

He wants to restore respect for teachers.

He wants the state to develop a practical focus on helping small businesses start, grow and thrive, and said he will push for the creation of a development fund of $10 million to provide small business start-ups with between $2,500 and $25,000. He noted that making 400 grants of $25,000 each is certain to be a better investment than spending $12.5 million to bail out someone else’s mistake. He is referring to the pending legislation in the General Assembly to pay $12.5 million in payments to bond holders in the defunct 38 Studios project.

He wants to reverse years of cutbacks to municipalities to help cities and towns reduce the regressive property tax burden on every property owner in the state.

Now politicians say a lot of things during campaigns and voters have become accustomed to taking most of what they say with a grain of salt. Certainly you will hear – especially lately – a lot of progressive sounding talk from Pell’s rivals, Raimondo and Taveras.

But what I have been looking for is a candidate who actually seems to believe in what he or she says. I know, from direct experience, that this is not Raimondo. She ran in 2010 claiming to be a solid progressive and won our enthusiastic support. But once in office, she turned into a union-baiting pension cutter. A Wall Street Democrat.

She could have demanded the General Assembly make up for the years of underfunding promised pension benefits by repealing Rhode Island’s deep tax cuts on the rich. Instead, she hooked up with conservatives, including the RI Statewide Coalition and the Tea Party, recruited money from her Wall Street buddies to fund a secret Super-PAC called EngageRI and mugged public employees, refusing to bargain collectively. She got her way through blunt force. Her famous fist-bump at the Tea Party anti-pension rally was the last straw for me.

She took RI’s pension funds and put the money into the hands of her Wall Street cronies. We invest in under-performing, high expense hedge funds and we can’t even see what is happening with this public money because hedge funds aren’t governed by the usual rules of transparency.  

Raimondo has raised millions of dollars, much of it from her grateful Wall Street friends, for her campaign for Governor. But now that it’s sunk in with her that she had moved way too far to the right to put a lock on winning the Democratic primary, she is tacking hard to the left, trying to convince us that she is really, in her heart, a true progressive. Nah uh, Gina, fool me once, etc., etc.

Mayor Angel Taveras was the clear progressive alternative to Raimondo at first. Even though he too made major cuts to city worker pensions, he at least sat at the bargaining table and negotiated those cuts. He seemed to be working hard to set Providence back on track and had achieved some notable success. 

However, as the campaign tensed up, Taveras purged just about all of the progressive advisers he had on staff, got into ugly political fights with Providence political rivals and, sadly, made me concerned that, like Raimondo, his political ambitions are far more important to him than principle.

Like Raimondo, Taveras seems to be trying to tack back to the left, realizing that progressive voters, especially trade unionists, can make or break a candidate in a Democratic primary.

That brings me full circle to Clay Pell. I’ve spent a good amount of time talking to him and am convinced that he is for real. Unlike his rivals, he strikes me as a person who holds firm convictions and isn’t likely to alter those convictions based on perceptions of opinion swings within the Democratic electorate.

Clay's grandmother and widow of Senator Pell, Nuala Pell
When Mayor Taveras recently met with Charlestown Democrats, he did a great job at giving his stump speech. But when it came time for Q&A, it seemed that he was reaching, that he didn’t really understand South County and, try as he might, he couldn’t figure out what the group wanted to hear. So he dished out platitudes.

In 2010, Gina Raimondo knew exactly what people wanted to hear, gave them that, and then after winning office, did the opposite.

I don’t believe that’s going to happen with Clay Pell and I’ll cite no better source than his grandmother, Nuala Pell, who said his defining characteristics are “intelligence, integrity and compassion….He’ll make you proud.” She said she didn’t expect she would ever get involved in politics again, but Clay’s run for Governor was more than enough motivation.

Can he win?

Pell admitted his self-doubts about his oratorical skills (though he did fine in this speech, I thought). He said he had shared those doubts with his grandfather before he died. As many will recall, Senator Pell was an unlikely entrant into the Orators’ Hall of Fame. But he told his grandson, “You don't need to be the loudest voice. You just need to speak for those with no voice at all.”

Victor Capellan endorses Pell
Supporters are rallying to him, in some instances from his opponents’ camps. One of the introductory speakers was Victor Capellan who was, until recently, a Taveras supporter. 

Capellan is one of a corps of rising young Hispanic public figures and is one of the key players in Central Falls Mayor Jimmy Diossa’s cabinet. Capellan spoke of Pell’s commitment to increased public support for education from “pre-K through 20” (pre-kindergarten through college). He said he was supporting Clay Pell because “excellence and equity are the pillars of progress.”

Pell has already hired some of the best and brightest young campaign veterans, including Deven Driscoll who ran President Obama’s Rhode Island operation. While Pell is a rank political novice, the people who are running his campaign are not.

I’ve been to a lot of political events where people pretty much went through the motions, applauded at the applause lines and that was that. Pell’s announcement rally had a certain buzz that was different. 

Maybe I’m projecting, but I can’t have been the only one in the room thinking that maybe here’s the real deal. Someone who is worth taking the risk over. And it is a risk, as both Raimondo, and to my great surprise, Taveras have demonstrated that they are more than ready to dish out political payback.

Union support will be split. So far, it looks like many of the building trades are, for their own arcane reasons, going with Raimondo. Nearly all the public sector unions take the position “anybody but Raimondo.” NEARI is foursquare behind Pell. The rest of labor seems to be up for grabs.

Pell took the pledge that he will not accept donations from PACs or lobbyists. Taveras has said he is willing to take the pledge, too. Raimondo said she might since, after all, she already has millions of Wall Street donations in the bank.

Pell is also garnering a surprisingly broad base of support across the Democratic political spectrum. Prime example – the MC for Pell’s kick-off was Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena. In the audience as a supporter was Mike Sepe, leader of Cranston’s Democrats.

It’s unclear whether Pell will self-fund. While most of us assumed that because the Pell family is one of old wealth, that he is too. But he noted that his branch of the family has had a different history. His father’s business was hammered during the savings and loan crash in the 1990s and failed, throwing the family into bankruptcy for years. Then his father was stricken with cancer and died.

I’ve seen his duplex on the East Side of Providence and is definitely not a Newport mansion as the common image of the Pells holds. That’s not to say he is not without resources, but knowing more about the history of his immediate family, I don’t see him writing a million dollar check to his campaign as some of this year's candidates are doing.

I think he can win but simply don’t know yet whether he will win. I have no doubt whatsoever that he is a serious contender in this race. But I am tired of making choices where winning is the top, or sometimes the only, factor with values and integrity as secondary. I’m tired of feeling like I need a hot shower after dealing in politics.

The Michelle Factor

I’ve been trying to restrain myself from gushing about my all-time favorite skater, World and US Champion and Olympian Michelle Kwan. However, she isn't the one running for office.

Yes, I am more than a little starstruck and even though it’s not a guy thing to admit to liking figure skating, she stands out as a unique champion who represented the United States so well for so many years.

Having met her now on five occasions and after talking to her extensively, she is clearly going to be an important part of this campaign. In addition to being a superstar, she’s also an intelligent and dedicated public servant in her own right. She holds a master’s degree in international diplomacy which she uses in her job at the US State Department. She’s also a dedicated board activist for the Special Olympics.

And she’s also a warm, genuine and very funny individual who, as one of my friends once put it, “talks like a person” and not a big shot. She is a thoroughly likeable person. Her presentation at the announcement event was outstanding. Her big standing O applause line was when she declared “I am so proud to call myself a Rhode Islander.”

She proved it just an hour later when we ran into her and Clay at Angelo’s on Federal Hill.

She’s also great with Clay and it shows. Pell opened his announcement speech with a great laugh line, introducing himself by saying “I am Michelle Kwan’s husband.”

She’s out there with him at every event (though she’ll be out of the country for a few weeks doing TV commentary during the Sochi Olympics) shaking hands and talking to everyone. Even if it’s just a quick touch-and-go, she really connects with people. 

When I first met her, I was sitting at a table talking to an old friend, a really hard-bitten, cynical, streetwise guy from Cranston who was clearly impressed, saying to me “jeez, she’s really sumptin’” which was high praise indeed coming from him.

Anyway, I have made my choice. I don’t know if that choice will be shared by my Progressive Charlestown colleagues or my colleagues on the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee when they vote in a couple of months on who they will endorse for Governor. Believe it or not, Mike, we have not undergone a mind meld. But it is a choice that is, for once, a satisfying one where I don’t feel like I’m having to choose among the lesser of an array of evils.

Here’s the YouTube video the Pell campaign released prior to his official announcement: