ARLENE VIOLET - Does a family name help political career?

ARLENE VIOLET - Does a family name help political career?

When I read earlier this month that Liz Cheney, former Vice President Dick Cheney's elder daughter, had withdrawn her primary challenge of an incumbent, it got me thinking about how much a family name influences Rhode Island politics. I am a believer that, unless the candidate is a train disaster, his pedigree influences voters, particularly when there is a celebrity element also present. Such is the case with Clay Pell, who has an exploratory committee for a gubernatorial run.

First of all, let's dispense with the notion that such a committee is truly "exploratory." The candidate is going to run. He is boning up on issues and practicing responses with his campaign team for the eventual announcement. The moniker of an "exploratory committee" provides an excuse for the soon-to-be candidate to dodge answering press inquiries before he gets a handle on issues.

So, just how important is the Pell last name? It is paramount. Some naysayers have told me that many voters, young ones in particular, never knew Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Democrat, so the name is worthless. They err because a Pell for Governor run will have campaign ads linking the young Mr. Pell with his grandfather with text or a voice-over reminding those same young voters and their parents how much the candidate supports education. Reminding the collegiate crowd and their tuition-paying guardians that the Pell family "history" was all about providing breaks in tuition and that this newcomer is committed to education will reap ample dividends. The late senator's wife will also be seen in ads adding a personal endorsement and attesting to the commitment that Clay has for education and how much he is like her late husband.

Mr. Pell also has the celebrity factor on his side with the accomplished Olympian and five-time World Figure Skating Champion Michelle Kwan as his wife. Rhode Islanders like their celebrities. She has a winning personality which will wash over onto the candidate. At a few gatherings she has gone out of her way to shake hands with attendees who gush that they met her.

This is a winning combination. Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy knew how to parlay his family name and the star quality of his relatives to political victory. Lincoln Chafee has also benefitted from the heritage of his father, John Chafee.

So, can Mr. Pell be defeated? Only if he pulls a Liz Cheney. She stumbled by adopting a hawkish foreign policy and getting into a public squabble with her gay sister over same-sex marriage. She also ran against a popular incumbent with no glaring vulnerabilities. This governor's race has no incumbent.

The governor's seat is Mr. Pell's to lose. He has a lot of political talent, including Nuala Pell, who can advise him. Liz Cheney had as well, but her timing, target and persona didn't play well in Wyoming. In the final analysis, it will be up to Mr. Pell to appeal to the voters and to show he is knowledgeable on issues confronting the state and has a plan to put people back to work. His picture in his military uniform will help him as well.

Mr. Pell has a lot to package. It's now up to him to avoid stumbles.

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.