PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island’s already contentious race for governor is about to get a lot more complicated with the entry of Clay Pell, the grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell and the husband of Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan.
Pell, a Democrat, may be a political newcomer at age 32, but he can count on his family’s legacy, his wife’s star wattage and what appears to growing support from some party insiders. Pell served in the Coast Guard and worked on the White House national security staff and at the U.S. Education Department.
“The problems we face are urgent and they need urgent action,” Pell told The Associated Press during a recent interview at his home on Providence’s East Side. “They need a fresh approach, and I believe I bring a distinct set of experience, values and skills to move this state forward.”
Pell will kick off his campaign Tuesday at an event at the Rhode Island Convention Center. Following months of speculation, Pell made his intentions clear Monday with an invitation to the event bearing the words “Clay Pell for Governor.”
Two other Democrats in the race, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, have a head start on the campaign trail as well as more experience in state politics. But the Pell name still resonates with those who remember his grandfather and his greatest legacy from six terms as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate: the scholarship program now known as Pell Grants. Kwan’s star wattage isn’t likely to hurt either.
“Voters can be star-struck, and celebrity and pedigree can trump experience,” said former state Attorney General Arlene Violet, who cited as an example former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts, who was elected to Rhode Island’s General Assembly at age 21.
Pell insists that despite his youth, his experience in the Coast Guard and in Washington has prepared him to lead the state. He is a graduate of Harvard University and Georgetown Law School and worked as an attorney in the Coast Guard. He was a White House fellow and worked as director for strategic planning on the president’s national security staff.
Last year, Pell joined the Department of Education where he worked for six months as deputy assistant secretary for international and foreign language education.
He can already boast some notable supporters including Robert Walsh, executive director of the powerful teacher’s union, the National Education Association Rhode Island. Taveras and Raimondo have both angered some public sector unions during their tenures — especially Raimondo, the architect of the state’s 2011 law that suspended pension increases and raised retirement ages.
“Suddenly, an opportunity appears,” Walsh said of Pell’s candidacy.
Like Taveras and Raimondo, Pell favors a higher minimum wage and a ban on semi-automatic weapons and says investments in education are the key to growing the economy and reducing the state’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate. When it comes to the pension overhaul, Pell has said he would have called for more negotiations before the law was passed.
“People will see me as an honest broker — someone who can be trusted and able to bring people together to forge compromise,” he said.
Pell was born in Arizona but spent his summers in Rhode Island and bought his home in 2008. He said he returned to Rhode Island whenever he could during his time in Washington. He and Kwan were married at a Providence church in 2013, and he has voted in Rhode Island for the past decade.
Pell declined to discuss his candidacy with the media until a handful of one-on-one interviews over the past few weeks. Instead, he introduced himself to the state through at meetings of community organizations and Democratic groups, including a recent meeting of the Cranston Democratic committee, where Taveras and Raimondo also spoke. Cranston Chairman Michael Sepe said he was impressed by all three.
“It seems like the other two have been running for 10 years,” he said. “Clay Pell is a fresh face, a new face. Right now I wouldn’t bet on any one of them.”
The gubernatorial primary is in September, ahead of the November general election. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and businessman Ken Block are running as Republicans.