PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s contentious race for governor is about to get a lot more complicated with the entry of Clay Pell, grandson of the late US Senator Claiborne Pell and 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 be growing support from some party insiders. Pell served in the US Coast Guard and worked on the White House national security staff and at the US Department of Education.
“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 announced his bid with a video released Monday, ahead of a campaign rally Tuesday at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
Two other Democrats in the race, Mayor Angel Taveras of Providence 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 US Senate: the scholarship program now known as Pell Grants. Kwan’s celebrity is not likely to hurt either.
“Voters can be starstruck, and celebrity and pedigree can trump experience,” said Arlene Violet, former state attorney general, who cited as an example Patrick Kennedy, former US representative and son of the late US Senator Edward M. Kennedy from Massachusetts, who was elected to the 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 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 angered some public sector unions during their tenures, especially Raimondo, 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 stronger gun laws restricting some semiautomatic 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’s entry into the race had been expected for weeks, and response from the other candidates was muted.
“We welcome him to the race and look forward to discussing how to get Rhode Island back on the right track,” said Eric Hyers, a Raimondo spokesman.