Why I Don’t Get Clay Pell

Ted Nesi is out with a story claiming that Clay Pell is gaining traction in the race for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Rhode Island. The only thing missing? Hard evidence that Clay Pell is actually doing well. Mostly, it amounts to guesses from pollster Joe Fleming, hoorahing from Pell backer Bob Walsh (NEARI executive director), and bitter denouncement from SEIU’s president Phil Keefe. One of my friends reacted this way: “of course Pell has a chance. He’s a rich white man in America.” So far, that’s been a pretty good set of qualifiers to get elected Governor of Rhode Island.

The problem with Pell is that he’s better as a potential candidate than as a real one. Yes, it’s a good thing he’s managed to get out of the shadow of the saga of the missing Prius, but that was already a non-story to begin with. It seemed more driven by the fascination with celebrity which is inevitable if your wife is Michelle Kwan. The few times I’ve met Pell he’s come off with a mixture of nervousness and aristocracy that didn’t particularly endear him to me. Now, yes, that was before filing and everything, so he’s had more time to shape up. But he hasn’t had anything that knocked my socks off and made me think “this is the next governor!” He has no fire – though I find that .

Here’s a guy who’s rich enough to lend his own campaign what may be over $3 million. Looking through his filings though, large swathes of his donors are from California and Arizona, not from Rhode Island. The geographical location of donors matters in state elections; it’s a good way to tell the candidate’s level of support among the electorate in the absence of reliable and varied polling (note: it’s more about the number of donors not the amount raised from in-state donors). Pell’s campaign manager has this defense of that to Ted:

 “[Pell] hasn’t had years as an elected official to build and court a donor base…”

Exactly what makes me nervous about Pell, both as a candidate, and as a possible governor. If a Democrat makes it to the governor’s office, one of their primary goals has to be seizing control of the Democratic Party. But frankly I don’t see any of the three as capable of doing this. All three have more or less made their way without much assistance from the RI Democrats. But Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras have both had to deal with the reality of Democratic politics in Rhode Island. Pell has not.

I wish he’d taken the time to instead of running for governor. His possible $3 million is more than the aggregate of what successful General Assembly candidates spent last election. 2014 looks like a bad year for progressives. There’s no Ocean State Action to rally progressives, unions sat out the fight for Speaker (which makes Keefe’s whining about Speaker Mattiello particularly depressing), the progressives in the House shattered during the battle for Speaker, and virtually every progressive in the General Assembly is facing a reelection battle while many of the most conservative Democrats are already locks for reelection.

Pell could’ve taken his millions and invested in building a lasting progressive infrastructure in Rhode Island. This would’ve honed his skills as a campaigner as well as created a huge amount of earned goodwill from progressive Democrats while helping to orient the Rhode Island Democratic Party to its national party’s values. It would’ve built that base of in-state donors. And yes, while that may have meant putting off his hopes of being governor for four or eight years, it might’ve meant a progressive General Assembly in 2016 with a presidential election year liberal surge.

However, most elections are all about egos and short-term thinking, not about movement-building. It’s a large reason why Rhode Island progressives continue to fail in the face of entrenched conservative interests.


P.S. – Since I’m kind of obsessed with good quotes (and proper attribution of said quotes), I should point out that Nesi’s story includes a disputed Gandhi quote from Walsh which seems more likely to be a paraphrasing of a 1918 address to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Pithy re-writings of more complicated quotes are always game to be misattributed to famous people.


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