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New candidates on the block
Dems de Ramel and Mollis emerge as the early candidates to succeed Matt Brown as Secretary of State
BY IAN DONNIS

For someone with a fancy name, a colorful family history, and more than enough bucks to fuel a statewide political campaign, Guillaume de Ramel seems unassuming and quite down to earth. although part of his early childhood was spent in Monaco, de Ramel (pronounced, "DURA-mel") says his coming of age in Newport was typified by working small jobs and an instilled sense that familial wealth did not confer privilege. If you were going to benefit from the money, "it was always kind of understood," he says, "that you had to work for it."

De Ramel has tapped this sense of industry, emerging as an energetic would-be successor to Secretary of State Matthew A. Brown since almost immediately after Brown announced his US Senate run in February. Asked why heís running, the 31-year-old Democrat, who has the genial quality of a helpful neighbor, mixes campaign boilerplate ("This is something where I think I can make a difference in the state") with his ideas for what he hopes to do in office. With his campaign being helmed by fellow Newport resident Tony Marcella, a veteran campaign operative and former aide to US Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, de Ramel has steadily crisscrossed the state in recent months, gaining recognition and building support among more than a few labor and political insiders. The indefatigable quality of this early push can be seen in how, as one Democratic observer puts it, "Every time you turn around on the political circuit, you see Guillaume."

Although de Ramelís early entry and his personal wealth (the candidate has so far supplied $300,000 of his $400,000 war chest) led some to wonder whether competitors had been scared off, North Providence Mayor A. Ralph Mollis jumped into the Democratic race for secretary of state last Friday, September 28, speaking with a small number of reporters. On the Republican side, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian is a potential candidate, but he has remained oblique about his plans. (Bill Lynch, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, noting how 11 months remain before next yearís primary, says, "I donít think people should assume that there wonít be others.")

Mollis, 44, says he is intrigued by the prospect of putting his business background to work on a statewide basis. The three-term mayor has long been interested in running for statewide office; had Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty decided not to seek that post again in 2002, the mayor was likely to be a candidate. Although Mollis says he was most attracted to this race by the diverse responsibilities of the secretary of state, the campaigns of state Senators Elizabeth Roberts (D-Cranston) and Frank Caprio (D-Providence), who are respectively shooting for lieutenant governor and general treasurer, may have also been a factor.

In contrast to de Ramelís status as a first-time candidate, Mollis is an experienced elected official, having first run for town council at 23, and he has a strong base of support in North Providence. Both men have real world experience in finance, de Ramel as an adviser to F.H. Prince & Co., the investment portfolio started by one of his great-great grandfathers, and Mollis as a former executive with the LAMCO Pension and Investment Advisory Firm. And though both are Democrats, de Ramel seems the more progressive of the two, having joined a September "Justice for Janitors" rally in Providence, for example, and forging ties with such liberal favorites as Representative Grace Diaz (D-Providence), a leader in the effort to organize the stateís home-based day-care workers.

In a sign that Mollis plans to emphasize his familiarity with government, he used a statement on the day of his announcement to tout his role in overseeing "one of the most progressive and successful periods in North Providence history. As secretary of state, I intend to utilize my public service experience to continue this progress and improve the quality of life of every segment of our great state." In a telephone interview as this weekís Phoenix was going to press, Mollis said his campaign will be "a great opportunity for us to truly state how can help Rhode Islanders and make a difference in Rhode Island."

The message from the de Ramel camp is that the first-time candidate is motivated more by public service, and that he has targeted the secretary of stateís post because of genuine enthusiasm for the job, rather than for its potential as a stepping-stone. De Ramel goes so far to say that if elected, he would pledge to seek the office for another term.

Considering how Matt Brown unabashedly began preparing for his US Senate run not long after winning election in 2002, such an approach would make de Ramel the personification of patience. Unmentioned in this scenario, though, is how the political newcomer, who would be 40 after two terms as secretary of state, could then be quite well positioned to run for governor or some other office.

NOBLESSE OBLIGE

De Ramel seems to have sprung from a world where Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous intersects with New England liberalism.

Asked about his extended family tree, he describes how it encompasses a member of Theodore Rooseveltís Rough Riders, and relations of French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu and William Bradford, one of Massachusettsí Colonial governors. His parents, Lisette Prince and Regis de Ramel, met in Monaco, and the family lived there until splitting when Guillaume was about six. De Ramel spent the rest of his youth in Newport.

The candidate traces his progressive values to his family, including one ancestor, Frederick O. Prince, who served as Bostonís mayor for a few years in the late 19th Century, strongly supporting the creation of the Boston Public Library. (Another ancestor, Norman Prince, died in a 1916 flying accident after serving with the Escadrille Lafayette, a group of American pilots who volunteered to aid France before the US became involved in World War I.) Frederick O. Princeís son, Boston entrepreneur Frederick Henry Prince, made the family fortune in railroads and other enterprises, going on to establish with his wife, Newport native Abigail Norman (whose father donated the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown), the Prince Charitable Trusts. The trusts distributed almost $8 million in grants in 2004, a chunk of it to support social services, arts and culture, environmental protection, and cultural preservation on Aquidneck Island.

This kind of civic impulse, "a big conscious effort" by his mother, and frequent attendance as a youth at benefits for Save the Bay, Claiborne Pell, and the like, de Ramel says, led him to grow up with a liberal outlook and a humble bearing. "I never had my cousinís chauffeur driv-ing me to school," he says, describing teenage jobs as a caddie and a busboy at the Clarke Cook House. "I didnít even have a car until my junior year in college, and it was a junk."

De Ramel graduated with degrees from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Columbia University. In addition to serving as an adviser to F.H. Prince & Co., he has worked as a real estate analyst at Holliday, Fenoglio, Fowler LP in New York City, and started Air Newport LLP, an air charter service based at Newport State Airport, with his twin brother, Regis. He lives in an 18th-century Newport home with his wife Molly, a former Fox TV reporter, and their young son, Charlie. In a nod to the relative complexity of his first name, a French version of William, his Web site, www.deramel2006.com, includes an audio clip of how to pronounce it.

A symbiotic pairing has been struck by de Ramelís partnership with Marcella. The candidate seems at ease in a variety of settings, whether taking part in a Portsmouth fundraiser featuring actor John Malkovich, mixing with Latino political activists at a cookout in South Providence, or cultivating state political leaders during meet-and-greets on yachts in Newport. If de Ramel seems a good vessel for Marcellaís political skills, the longtime operative hardly takes issue with that notion. After running Patrick Kennedyís congressional campaign and then vowing not to run other political bids, Marcella says he "sort of got dragged back in when I met Guillaume. I find him a perfect candidate . . . Heís someone who really wants to do the job. I find it to be refreshing. I find it to be different . . . I think I found a real winner."

 

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Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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