Clay Pell greets me at the door of his duplex on the East Side. He is tall and affable as he welcomes our camera crew and me.
As the lights are set up, he accompanies me and fills in details on the artwork on his walls. There's a watercolor signed Ted K., with a two line note at the bottom from Ted Kennedy to his colleague Claiborne Pell, the grandfather of this would-be politician. On the table beneath is a photo of Clay Pell and his famous figure skating wife, Michelle Kwan, standing with President Barack Obama.
It's a tasteful home, with a grand piano, but not ostentatious. The most striking object, a full suit of armor, which Clay tells me was the one item he selected from his grandfather's possessions when the family split up the estate. And the legendary six-term U.S. senator from Rhode Island until 1997 is the inspiration for Clay's consideration of a political career.
"I grew up admiring and listening to people say what a difference the Pell Grant made. I always wanted to go into public service. So, it's hard to disaggregate myself from my family," Pell said.
He's 32 years old, a Coast Guard officer now in the reserves, and has worked in the White House in the National Security Council, and as a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Education.
He speaks directly, and with confidence, clear-eyed and engaging.
"The truth, government is a unique beast. There are people with very powerful titles who have no power. There are other people with no title and a lot of power and you have to know how to maneuver through all the different pieces of government, and that was exactly my job as director for strategic planning. To take an agenda and work across departments and agencies to bring
budget together with policy, and bring those people together in the same room, who sometimes had never been in a room together and move the agenda forward. And when things get stuck to reach into the department and agency and push things along," Pell said. "That really is the challenge for the governor here."
He talks in general about the need for a vision for the future of the state because his exploratory talks over the past two months have shown him that Rhode Island's most important issue is unemployment. He said he believes that his perspective, as a former student in China, and Spain, and Argentina, can change the economic goals for the Ocean State.
He says, "If we're going to grow the economy we have to link our economy to the region to the country and to the world."
He agrees with Gov. Lincoln Chafee's investment in education, and says "the job of government is to make things simple and to help people get to the end result. That, in the end, I think is one of the lessons I learned from my grandfather and from the Pell Grant program. The idea has to be simple. Government has to make it accessible. The services that government provides and when government does not make those processes transparent and accessible then government is not doing its job," Pell said.
He promises he will make an announcement about whether his future includes a run for governor within two weeks.
And graciously, he invites the crew and me to come back sometime for a barbecue.