The Block Island Times

Clay Pell offers vision for the state, Block Island

Visits the island
By Lily O'Gara | Jul 25, 2014
Photo by: Lars Trodson


Clay Pell is no stranger to Block Island.

He spent summers in Newport with his grandfather, the late Senator Claiborne Pell, and often visited Block Island. Pell visited the island with his father, Herbert Claiborne Pell III, too; it was the last trip they took together before his father passed away. Most recently, Pell proposed to his wife, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, on the island. The couple married in Providence in 2013. On Monday, July 21, the 32-year old gubernatorial hopeful, a Democrat, found himself on the island once again, though the goal this time was a dialogue with constituents.

“I’m very happy to be here on Block Island,” Pell said when he stopped by The Times’ office. “It’s a place that’s very important to me, personally, and it’s an important asset for the state, and I think that it deserves attention and focus.”

Pell’s no stranger, either, to the ins and outs of the U.S. government. He attended Harvard and law school at George Washington University and then joined the Coast Guard, serving as both an officer and a prosecutor. He also served as the director for strategic planning on President Obama’s national security team and was then appointed deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Education.

In recent years, he said, Rhode Island has fallen many rungs on the economic and political ladders. Pell sees these problems, but feels that there’s hope and potential for the faltering state. He outlines tactics to deal with every major issue, from poverty and gender inequality to green energy.

“I’ve seen it my whole life as a place of promise,” Pell said. “I believe that the economic challenges that the state faces are a consequence of ignoring areas of natural strength.”

Some of these “natural, competitive advantages,” Pell said, include the long-ignored maritime economy, as well as the state’s creative economy. Tourism initiatives, too, need to be pursued in a “more ambitious and comprehensive way,” Pell said, across the whole state. And, especially relevant to Block Island, Pell believes that investment in all types of infrastructure reform, including broadband capabilities, is crucial.

In fact, infrastructure is one of the first things Pell plans to tackle if elected.

Once, Pell said, Rhode Island was very economically competitive, because it was “at the intersection of the movement of goods, of people, and of ideas.” Repairing the state infrastructure, Pell said, would help return the state to its former days of prosperity. He’s proposed $200 million in bonding for this purpose.

First and foremost, though, Pell plans to deal with the state’s government integrity, or lack thereof.

“The cronyism of the political system is fundamentally to blame,” Pell said of Rhode Island’s recent climate.

Pell believes that the state needs a new generation of leadership, one whose members are not tied to individual interests or lobbyist dollars. Pell said he does not accept donations from lobbyists or politic action committees and, if elected, he would seek to limit the influence of such donations.

“Rhode Island is a small state, and we’re only going to grow if we look beyond our borders... for a generation, at least, I think Rhode Island has looked very inward,” Pell said.

According to Pell, there’s something to be said, too, for inter-state coordination. When the doctor’s house on the island was brought up, and the question was raised as to whether the town or the state should handle the issue, Pell said it’s the state’s job to empower cities and towns to deal with problems on a local level. That’s why he wants to increase aid to municipalities, with the expectation that they work together. Pell will be releasing his healthcare plan in a few weeks.

There’s a great deal of potential, Pell said, and he hopes that he can be a part of transforming Rhode Island into an example for the rest of the nation. The state can become a leader, for example, in environmental conservation measures. Pell cited the value of the Oceanography Institute at the University of Rhode Island and the school’s Exploration Center in Bristol. He said that, as the Ocean State, Rhode Island is going to “bear the brunt of climate change.” Through utilizing and enhancing existing resources, the state can become a conservation leader. Though Pell said he wished the handling of the project had been more transparent, he feels that the Deepwater Wind farm is a step in the right direction.

Though there’s potential, Pell has heard tales of unemployment, mortgage payments and hardship from constituents.

“People are really struggling right now,” Pell said. “People don’t feel like they’re being listened to. They feel ignored and they feel forgotten… they’re hungry for a fresh perspective.”

This is where Pell comes in, and why he visited Block Island in the first place. He wants to hear what people have to say and be an accessible, hands-on governor, an advocate for the people of Rhode Island. It’s often too late, Pell said, when problems or complaints reach the governor’s office through government channels.

When the issue of last summer’s Public Utilities Commission and Interstate Navigation rate case arose — in which freight costs rose 34 percent against islanders’ wishes — Pell expressed sympathy for those who felt their voices were not heard.

“I believe having a voice at the table is essential,” he said. “It’s the core part of how our Democratic process needs to be… I believe in listening and making sure that we find a way to stand with working Rhode Islanders.”

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