On Saturday night, at the Rosario Society in Providence, close to 200 people packed the hall to support NAMI RI at the non-profit, community-based mental health support organization’s first annual “Pasta Gala” fundraiser. As NAMI RI’s newly recruited, pro-bono government relations coordinator and communications consultant, I did my best to spread the word and, with a fantastic collaborative effort amongst members of the Board, the event hall was overbooked. And thank goodness for that. NAMI RI was recently written out of the Governor’s FY 15 budget proposal. Without the funding from BHDDH, this vital education, outreach, counseling and crisis response organization would not be able to survive.
The event was well publicized through social media, press release, letters and emails of invitation and word of mouth. It was packed. Senator Frank Ciccone, a stalwart ally from the beginning, was in attendance. Candidate for General Treasurer, Seth Magaziner, was there too. Representative John Carnevale, who has been a strong supporter of the organization’s efforts to secure necessary appropriations, was only unable to attend because he was forced to ride the train back from Boston due to the car in which he was supposed to ride being (it’s funny, but it’s not) stolen.
However, it was Clay Pell, along with his effervescent wife, Michelle Kwan, who were truly present in their support of NAMI RI.
I had contacted Clay when seeking a public figure to say a few words during the speaking program portion of the evening. There had, unfortunately, been some miscommunication as to who would be securing a person of political influence to fill that slot. At an organizational meeting on the Monday prior to the event all eyes fell on me and the question was asked, much to my surprise, “So, who will be speaking?” Rather than stumble through an argument or make an excuse, I did what any good consultant would and diverted by smiling and confidently saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
And I shuffled furiously through my i-rolodex. And I reached out to Clay Pell.
Within hours I heard back from the man himself, saying he would very much like to attend but, given the Easter holiday as well as other family obligations (the passing of his grandmother, Nuala Pell) he would have to check with his scheduler. And, yet, in spite of these very valid and personal concerns, Clay followed up by asking what time he should appear, how long he should speak and how many people were expected to attend?
Having worked with a number of candidates for political office, I know the routine all too well: make an appearance, shake as many hands as possible, pose for some photo ops, hand out business cards and then make a quick exit to repeat the process at the next event. But not Clay and Michelle. They spent time at the door, engaging anyone who wished to speak with them. They perused the silent auction and the raffle. When he was called, Clay spoke briefly about the organization and it’s importance and made mention of a close friend who had struggled with mental illness. Instead of making a beeline for the exit after the applause had dwindled, he sat back down next to Michelle and took his wife’s hand while they both listened to the stories told by those affected by mental illness. Given the amount of time I spend with candidates and elected officials, such a moment felt surreal in its humanity. Clay wasn’t there for himself. He wasn’t there for his campaign. Clay and Michelle were there for the cause. There was selflessness, vulnerability and a depth of humanity to Clay Pell that, if it was only for show, deserves an Academy Award for a brilliant performance. But I, for one, think it was absolutely genuine.
And, in all likelihood, it is this very same depth of character and level of humanity that is the gubernatorial candidate’s Achilles’ heel. Clay has taken a bit of a beating with the press. Due to his reluctance to pander to local media’s overwhelming appetite for a never ending feast of content, those in media have seen fit to punish him by tongue-in-cheek coverage of his stolen Prius. They have filled the void of no controversy with speculation and fluff. One local, political opinion surmised that Pell had a very short time to introduce himself to Rhode Island’s voters and earn their trust. I beg to differ. I see Pell only having to avoid earning their distrust.
He and Michelle stayed to the very end. On a holiday weekend, in the midst of the Pell family (and the state) mourning the passing of his grandmother, Nuala, he took the time to support and learn from a few hundred people fighting to raise a few thousand dollars to keep from closing the doors of an organization that saved their lives and gave them hope. The Pells spoke with anyone who approached them and Clay didn’t just glad hand the crowd. Rather, he listened – truly listened – to each and every guest with whom he engaged. Some just wanted a photo with the man. Others just wanted a photo with his gold medal Olympian wife. But both stayed, even after the last balloons had been handed off to willing takers, and listened to the concerns of the non-profit, mental health community.
There were no members of the press present.