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Clay Pell's full-time residency in R.I. tough to measure

Clay Pell, Democratic candidate for Rhode Island governor Clay Pell, Democratic candidate for Rhode Island governor

Clay Pell, Democratic candidate for Rhode Island governor

By John Hill March 9, 2014

Clay Pell, one of the Democrats running for Rhode Island governor, has a resume that includes Harvard College, Georgetown University Law School, as well as study in Argentina and China and service in the U.S. Coast Guard, National Security Council and federal Department of Education.

Pell says that national and international experience will be a plus in the governor’s office, but WPRO morning host John DePetro (whose program Pell has decided he won’t visit) says he sees a glass half empty.

DePetro took to Twitter last month to question whether Pell, grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, has lived long enough in Rhode Island to be the state’s governor.

"Pell: did he mention if Rhode Island is his home?" DePetro tweeted Feb. 2. "Pell has never had a job in Rhode Island or lived here a calendar yr"     

DePetro’s jibe was prompted by Pell’s appearance that day on WPRI’s "Newsmakers" program, when Pell was asked twice if he had lived a full calendar year in Rhode Island, and never answered yes or no.

Reporter Ted Nesi asked first.

"How long have you lived in Rhode Island full-time, have you ever lived a full calendar year in Rhode Island?"

Answered Pell: "Rhode Island is my home. It’s the place that Michelle and I got married, that we want to raise our family. I have been coming to Rhode Island ever since I was a child, but I became a resident of Rhode Island in college, and have been a resident ever since, and it’s the place that I’m invested in and committed to and the place that I don’t want to see suffering as it is now."

Then host Tim White asked: "So, you have lived a full calendar year in Rhode Island?"

Responded Pell: "Well, I’ve been a resident of Rhode Island since college. And I’m sure, during those times, I’ve gone to other places during the year, but I’ve been a legal resident of Rhode Island since college. This is my home. This is the place I’m fighting for."

We decided to check DePetro’s claim that Pell hadn’t lived a full year in Rhode Island.

When we called DePetro to see what he based his claim on, he said he had no proof, but he felt Pell hadn’t disproved it.

"I mean he has never lived in Rhode Island for a full calendar year," he said in an email. "He lived at Harvard, and has vacationed here, but never fully lived here."

Had we decided to put DePetro’s claim to the Truth-O-Meter, his lack of proof would have been a factor in our ruling.

But as we looked into Pell’s residency, it became clear that ruling on DePetro’s calendar-year claim would be difficult, largely because there’s no precise way to define what residency for a calendar year means.  

However, we decided to share our findings with our readers because Pell’s Rhode Island residency is a significant issue in his campaign, and some of the details are unclear.

Clay Pell was born in Tucson, Arizona in 1981, and lived there as a child. He spent summers with his grandparents in Newport -- his grandfather was the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell -- and said he declared Newport as his home address when he attended Harvard from 2001-2005.   

Numerous public documents show Pell’s other ties to the state.

He bought a house on Barnes Street, in Providence, in August 2008, currently assessed at $527,000. The house is his legal address for voting purposes.

According to Providence City Hall records, Pell owns two vehicles registered at his Barnes Street address --  a 2006 Nissan and a 1967 Mercedes, on the Providence tax rolls since the 2009 tax year. Of course after last week, there is one less car in the household. A Toyota Prius with Rhode Island plates belonging to Pell’s wife, former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, was stolen from in front of their home Mar. 1.

According to the secretary of state’s office, Pell first voted in Rhode Island in 2004. In the 13 statewide general, primary and presidential primary elections held since then he voted in six:  the 2004 Democratic primary and general election, the 2008 presidential primary, the 2010 Democratic primary and general election and the 2012 general election.

Pell was out of the country studying in Argentina and China when some of the elections occurred. When the missed votes were noted publicly, Pell issued a statement regretting the missed votes.

"I believe in the importance of voting. I regret those times when I did not vote, and I take responsibility for not voting in every election," said Pell.

When we called Pell’s campaign about DePetro’s claim -- that Pell had never lived a calendar year in Rhode Island -- Pell’s then-spokesman William Fischer pointed to 2009-2010.

He said that Pell took his Coast Guard enlistment oath in Newport in July 2009 and lived in Providence until late in 2010, when he was assigned to the Coast Guard’s judge advocate general’s office, in Washington D.C.

During that time he trained at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Conn., attended the Naval Justice School, in Newport, and taught at the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies, also in Newport. At times those duties took Pell over state lines and out on bodies of water, Fischer said.

After Pell’s JAG duty and assignment at the National Security Council, his Coast Guard enlistment expired in April 2013 and he was appointed a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of  Education, a position he held through October 2013.

Pell campaign manager Devin Driscoll said throughout that time Pell remained a Rhode Island resident. Driscoll said wondered how many other Rhode Islanders would be able to meet the 365-day standard, because, like Pell, either their job assignments, personal obligations or vacations took them out of state at one time or another.

Bottom line: It’s clear that Pell has family and personal ties to Rhode Island.  But whether he’s ever lived in the state for a full calendar year is open to interpretation.

Why does it matter?

University of Rhode Island political science professor Maureen Moakley said that not having lived in a state a long time is not necessarily fatal to a campaign, especially when the candidate has a professional resume to point to.

An added challenge for him, she said, is that he has no experience in elective office and hadn’t been especially visible in the state, personally or professionally, before he announced his candidacy.

"He’s at a particular disadvantage because we don’t know a lot about him," Moakley said. "It’s a picture of someone without a lot of experience and connections to Rhode Island … every other event or story is going to get filtered through that prism, no matter what he’s talking about."

Whether that even matters will be something the candidate will deal with during the campaign, and the voters will decide in the September Democratic primary.

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Our Sources

Email and interview, William Fischer, Clay Pell for Governor, Feb. 4, 2014

The White House,  "2011-12 Class of White House Fellows," accessed Feb. 26, 2014.

City of Providence, Tax Assessor’s office, "Property lookup, 52 Barnes St." accessed Feb. 27, 2014

Interview Maureen Moakley, Feb. 24, 2014

Interview, Devin Driscoll, campaign manager Pell For Governor Feb. 27, 2014

Email, Raina C. Smith, spokeswoman, Secretary of state’s office, Feb. 25, 2014

Email, Devin Driscoll, campaign manager, Pell for Governor, Mar. 3, 2014

Email, John Depetro, WPRO radio host, Mar. 7, 2014


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Clay Pell's full-time residency in R.I. tough to measure