Daphne and Apollo

Pell and Rhode Island’s Political Shapeshifters

Daphne and Apollo
In this painting by John Waterhouse, the nymph Daphne transforms herself into a tree to avoid the advances of the god Apollo (retrieved via Wikimedia Commons)

Let me start this out by saying I don’t like Clay Pell as a candidate. I know that should be obvious, but it bears repeating. But the news that he was a registered Republican in Arizona until 2009 and registered Democrat in Rhode Island from 2003 strikes me as an uproar over nothing much.

First, let’s get the horror some people have over the man being registered in two states. Speaking as someone who never notified North Carolina that I no longer reside or vote there, I’m reasonably sure I remain an unaffiliated voter there. This means, that should I somehow produce a valid North Carolina ID, I can waltz down there and vote at the Greek Orthodox Church in Greensboro — I assume, I voted early both times I voted in North Carolina, and thus never visited my official polling place (hey, we should implement early voting in Rhode Island). However, I have been registered as a voter in Rhode Island since 2010, and a Democrat since earlier this year.

It turns out, this is incredibly common. There are over 50 electoral systems in place in the United States, and there is no communication between any of them. We’ve known this is a problem for a long time. And it’s a way to actually pull off voter fraud. However, it’s still not voter fraud that can be stopped with ID laws. So, to sum it up, Clay Pell did what thousands, possibly millions, of other Americans have done: he registered to vote in two places.

Okay, but what about him being a Republican? Frankly, let’s talk about this. In the Republican primary, you have Ken Block, the Moderate-turned-Republican and Allan Fung, the Democrat-turned-Republican. Both are attempting to lay claim to being the true conservative in the race, despite years of clinging to the moderate side of things. How far has Block jettisoned the Moderate label? The Moderate Party website is now a single sentence in Japanese — in spite of the fact that the Moderate Party exists and has a candidate for Governor. And Fung? Well, whatever Democratic leanings he might have had, he’s molded himself into the typical Cranston mayor: Mr. Republican.

The Democratic primary is slightly different. While the primary has been plagued by questions of who is the Real Democrat™ in the race, the candidates have been relatively steadfast in trying to out-left each other. Despite early reports that Gina Raimondo might run as an independent (which would’ve been incredibly stupid), she held fast to being a Democrat. Now it appears the only person to remain an unwavering Democrat has been Angel Taveras; but don’t hold me to that, because tomorrow is another day.

And this ignores the two big political shapeshifters in Rhode Island politics, Lincoln Chafee and Frank Caprio.

Most of the kerfluffle is entirely irrelevant to what matters in this race: knowing what the priorities of the governor will be and how they’ll govern with the General Assembly. What does reveal is the inability of the Pell campaign to effectively squash these kinds of sideshows – here’s Pell unable to deal with a hostile interview from WJAR’s Dan Jaehnig. This is what I remain most uncomfortable with the idea of a Governor Pell, that he may very well suffer the same kinds of self-inflicted wounds that have continually hamstrung Governor Chafee’s administration. Outlining the parallels between the two plutocrats isn’t without merit nor is it particularly difficult.


  1. For me, what makes this an important story is that the entire narrative of Pell’s campaign has been that he is the only true progressive, or at least the most progressive, candidate in the race. If you are going to challenge the progressive credentials of your opponents (either yourself or through surrogates), you had better be prepared to defend your own. If we had learned that Gina Raimondo used to be a Republican, I don’t think it would really conflict with what we already know about her. But this goes to the heart of Pell’s political persona.

    Having said that, I don’t think it would disqualify him if he had disclosed it earlier and could explain his change of heart. But his evasiveness (the Jaehnig interview is just painful to watch) suggests that there is more to the story that he doesn’t want revealed. The obituary that is the original source of this story refers to Pell’s “activities” for the Republican party in Arizona. What were those? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he volunteered on the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2000 or was president of his High School Young Republicans. Those may be forgivable offenses in the eyes of some voters, but they are certainly at odds with the super-progressive that Pell is trying to be now.

    Like you, I was never a Pell fan and never understood why true progressives would support him at the risk of handing Raimondo a victory. I think even less of him now. I am left with the impression that he is nothing more than an opportunist who was a Republican when it suited him (in Arizona) and became a Democrat when he realized that he might have a future in RI politics.I know these are guesses on my part – but I am just filling in the blanks left by Pell’s inability or unwillingness to explain his own political history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s