EAST PROVIDENCE — In the same vein as his counterpart, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, did a few weeks back, Rhode Island gubernatorial aspirant Clay Pell become the second candidate for the state’s top office from his party to address the East Providence High School Young Democrats Club.
Mr. Pell conducted a Q&A with the students Thursday afternoon, May 1. Mayor Tavares did the same in early April while General Treasurer Gina Raimondo is expected to address the EPHS Young Dems sometime later this month.
The group of pupils gathered Thursday was of mixed classes, though some in attendance will be of age and able to vote for governor in the Democratic Primary in September and the General Election in November.
Mr. Pell began by discussion his background, though coincidentally or not, never mentioned by name his esteemed grandfather, the late legendary Rhode Island U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, for whom he is named.
Rather, the younger Pell spoke about his career in law, working for the administration of President Barack Obama and his service in the United States Coast Guard. He mentioned early his familiarity with East Providence, drilling at the Coast Guard auxiliary center on Risho Avenue.
“The Coast Guard has been an incredible force in my life,” Mr. Pell, a Coast Guard prosecutor, told the group of roughly 20 students and teachers.
He continued, “I learned a simple lesson in the Coast Guard. If you want to change the destination, then you have to change course.”
Mr. Pell then led into a discussion about his platform, which included the introduction of his education plans the previous day during a public event in city at the Hennessey Elementary School. He said he was “passionately committed that people have the opportunity” to gain an in-depth and varied educational experience. He touted his “Hope” Scholarship Program, something he believes will allow students to alleviate excessive depth upon graduation from college.
He encouraged the students to “get involved” in public service, politics specifically, telling them to run for office at an early age and to participate at the grassroots level.
“You are the future,” Mr. Pell said. “But you’re also the present.”
Asked about what he would do to improve public schools, Mr. Pell said “there are a lot of things right about public schools, a lot of great students and teachers.” He added he wants to “make sure students and teachers have the opportunity to create spaces where people can develop passions,” highlighting his intention to introduce internships into the high school level and giving access to an International Studies program to any and all students interested.
Mr. Pell, Harvard and Georgetown Law graduate, speaks Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic. In the Obama Administration, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of International and Foreign Language Education within the Department of Education.
To the great delight of all the students, Mr. Pell voiced his opposition to “high stakes” or standardized tests as being a graduation requirement. He and the youngsters engaged in an agreeable discussion on the topic, Mr. Pell saying the tests “come at a cost” of students being introduced “to the breathe of skills” available to them.
In answering a question about controlling school violence, Mr. Pell called it “complicated” but signaled his support of “common sense” restrictions on certain types of guns and sizes of bullet magazine clips. Like with drug-related problems, he said more must be done on issues of mental health, de-stigmatizing the matter while increasing attention on intervention and recovery.
On marijuana legalization, Mr. Pell said he agreed with recent moves to decriminalize possession in small amounts and for medicinal use, but stopped short of endorsing make it completely legal. He said Rhode Island should wait to see both the economic and social data gathered from states like Washington and Colorado, where “pot” has been legalized, before going any further.
Answering separate, though similar questions about undocumented residents, Mr. Pell said he was for giving out driver’s licenses, calling it a “public safety” and “law-and-order” issue. He also said he was in favor of offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented college students, saying “people should have access to education if they grew up in Rhode Island.”
On matters related to the economy, Mr. Pell said the state needs to do a better job of exploiting its “maritime sector,” its “defense sector” and its “knowledge” sector. He said he was in favor of upping the state’s minimum wage to the $10.10 prescribed nationally by the Obama Administration, saying the more money people have to spend, the better it is for business owners and that there’s a lesser likelihood for dependence on public subsidies. He also said he would like to put a greater emphasize loans to small business owners as means of helping their endeavors grow and prosper.
On the topic of the disputed pension settlement between the state and its workers, Mr. Pell said the “whole issue is an example of what happens when there is a lack of leadership.” He said all sides needed to have a say previously and they need to be engaged in the process going forward.
And finally, Mr. Pell noted his greatest accomplishment to date in public life was his service in the Coast Guard. As for his greatest regret to this point, he quipped, “Stay tuned.”