Clay Pell getting traction in Democratic gov primary

Clay Pell and his wife, Michelle Kwan, enter the Rhode Island Convention Center for his campaign kickoff in January 2014. (photo: Stephan Savoia/AP)
Clay Pell and his wife, Michelle Kwan, enter the Rhode Island Convention Center for his campaign kickoff in January 2014. (photo: Stephan Savoia/AP)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Could Clay Pell win the Democratic nomination for governor on Sept. 9?

No small number of people have scoffed at that suggestion. But with 50 days to go before the primary – and nearly $1 million in Pell TV ads saturating the airwaves – there’s reason to think the 32-year-old political newcomer has a real, if still unlikely, shot at victory.

The evidence for a Pell surge is anecdotal at this point because there’s been no public polling in the race since a May WPRI 12/Providence Journal survey that put Providence Mayor Angel Taveras at 33%, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo at 29% and Pell far behind at 12%. But WPRI 12 political analyst Joe Fleming, who conducted the poll, suggested the next survey may show some movement.

“It seems like Clay Pell has finally got his act together, so to speak, in terms of getting a strong message out there about himself,” Fleming said. “I think the perception is that Clay Pell has moved his numbers upwards.”

Pell has spent months releasing policy proposals and stumping around Rhode Island. He has also put some distance between himself and the strange saga of his missing car, and continues to benefit from voters’ affection toward his late grandfather, U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, and his famous wife, Michelle Kwan.

Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island teacher’s union and a high-profile Pell supporter, was characteristically self-confident when asked about the state of the race. “I think it’s ultimately a horse race between Clay and Gina,” Walsh told WPRI.com on Monday.

Pell doesn’t have to win the primary to have a big impact on it. If he draws most of his support from liberal and union voters who would otherwise be inclined to back Taveras, he could theoretically draw enough votes to throw the race to Raimondo – though Pell backers chafe at suggestions he could play the role of spoiler.

“I think the only thing that Pell can accomplish is getting Raimondo elected, and I think people need to be concerned about that,” Phil Keefe, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 580 and a staunch Taveras backer, told WPRI.com. “He is taking votes away from Taveras. There’s no doubt that that’s factual. So I guess if people want Raimondo elected as governor, I guess that’s a strategy.”

“He’s a spoiler,” Keefe declared. “Absolutely he’s a spoiler.”

Walsh countered that Pell has always “had a very definable path to victory” in the primary. “I think he’s the first choice of a lot of folks, and he seems to be the second choice of people who support either of his opponents,” Walsh said. “I think that consolidates on election day into a victory.” Walsh quoted a statement often attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Keefe fired back: “I think Bob Walsh should spend more time considering the consequences of what might happen, because let’s think of this scenario to labor: you get Raimondo as the governor, you get [Frank] Caprio as the treasurer, and [Nicholas] Mattiello is already in as speaker. That’s my worst nightmare.”

Pell’s rising profile is in no small part thanks to the sizable financial resources of his campaign, which he is mostly funding out of his own wealth. Next week’s second-quarter financial report is expected to show that Pell recently made another huge cash infusion into the campaign, which could bring his personal investment in the race to more than $3 million.

Devin Driscoll, Pell’s campaign manager, declined to say how much Pell loaned his campaign during the second quarter, but said the campaign took in $1.08 million and spent $1.09 million between April 1 and June 30, finishing with $2 million on hand. The Taveras campaign said it raised more than $400,000 and spent less than $450,000 during the quarter. The Raimondo campaign declined to comment.

Driscoll made no apologies for his candidate’s self-funding and reiterated that Pell isn’t taking donations from PACs and state lobbyists. “He hasn’t had years as an elected official to build and court a donor base, and he feels it’s important that folks who want someone with a progressive vision have an opportunity to have a choice in this election, and he’s proud to be that choice,” Driscoll told WPRI.com.

The Pell campaign has invested a lot of its millions into a slick series of campaign commercials created by veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine, a Providence native who worked on Lincoln Chafee‘s 2010 bid for governor and John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run. Pell had booked $764,587 worth of TV ads through July 10, nearly matching the $836,494 spent by Raimondo and far outpacing the $295,278 spent by Taveras.

The money is also being spent on an energetic field operation – the “ground game” – whose paid staff includes a field director, four regional field directors and 24 field organizers. Many are veterans of the Obama campaign, including deputy campaign manager Sarah Hummell, who worked for the president’s re-election bid in the Cincinnati area.

“This is the most substantive pre-primary investment in field in at least a generation or longer in Rhode Island,” Driscoll said.

Pell has picked up fewer endorsements than his rivals, but has the support of Walsh’s NEARI and the United Nurses and Allied Professionals. A number of groups – including the Rhode Island Democratic Party, the Rhode Island Association of Democratic City and Town Chairs, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO executive council, the Rhode Island Laborers’ District Council and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals – have all declined to endorse in the race.

One risk for the Pell campaign is that his rising profile will draw more scrutiny of his record and attacks from his opponents. So far, though, Taveras and Raimondo have been acting as though the primary is still a two-way race, focusing on each other and treating Pell as little more than an afterthought.

Raimondo spokeswoman Nicole Kayner declined to comment directly on Pell’s campaign when asked about it Monday. “Rhode Island is in a jobs crisis. Families are struggling. The state is tied for the highest unemployment rate in the country,” Kayner said in an email. “The question for voters on Sept. 9 is who can turn this economy around and get people back to work.”

Pell could benefit if the increasingly heated war of words between Taveras and Raimondo continues to escalate, leaving him as an alternative choice for voters turned off by the negativity. “I think we’re going to see a new tone in the campaign, and I really think part of Clay Pell’s strategy is to come down in the middle between these two candidates, Angel and Gina,” Fleming said.

Surprises can happen in politics. Fleming recalled that former Gov. Bruce Sundlun began his 1988 challenge to Gov. Ed DiPrete roughly 50 points behind in the first WPRI 12 poll of the campaign, yet nearly defeated DiPrete in November after the incumbent got hammered over a controversial Cranston land deal. And in 1990, then-Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty surged to second place in a primary against Sundlun and Joseph Paolino.

“Minds change,” Fleming said.

If Pell pulls off a primary victory, the question will become whether he can defeat the eventual winner of the Republican nomination battle between Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and Barrington businessman Ken Block. Keefe is, unsurprisingly, skeptical.

“I think he is a bright man. I just don’t think at this point in time that he is someone that is going to be able to bring all groups together to move this state forward,” Keefe said. “It takes some political savvy, and you don’t get political savvy by being a prosecutor in the Coast Guard. I don’t care what you say.”

Walsh said Pell represents the new leadership that unhappy Rhode Island voters are seeking, and said he expects the election results will bear that out.

“I am a little surprised that some of the other media outlets aren’t paying attention to this, but that doesn’t really bother me because it really is what happens on Sept. 9, and while it seems soon, we’re still talking 50 days away,” he said. “That’s a lot of time to make up a little ground that’s left.”

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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