Massachusetts Democrats Start Looking For A New Chairperson

John Walsh announced his resignation.

John Walsh, hero of the Democratic grassroots, has announced that he will resign as state party chairman in September; he is taking his talents to Governor Deval Patrick’s political action committee, a less time-demanding assignment that should allow him to attend fewer ward committee cookouts and more of his son’s football games.

That’s fine for him, but it leaves the party in need of a new chairperson at a bit of a tough juncture. Patrick is halfway out the door, the bedrocks of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry have shifted away, and there is little party unity regarding the 2014 gubernatorial race.

My initial conversations with party committee members and others close to the fray suggest that Patrick and Walsh, and/or U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have not put forward a preferred successor. That might mean they’re just biding their time before making that choice known, or that they’re having trouble finding someone they trust who is actually willing to take the thankless position.

There are a number of names floating around, some more seriously than others. Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who just led the party’s platform process, seems like a legitimate possibility, but I am told he has decided not to do it. Mo Cowan’s name comes up a lot, but nobody seriously thinks he’s heading anywhere but the private sector now that his stint as U.S. Senator has ended. Former State Senator Warren Tolman might be open to it. Former State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien may be more of a long shot. Hank Naughton, possibly, if he’s not running for lieutenant governor. One-time Lieutenant Governor candidate Deb Goldberg, maybe; although people tell me she may be more interested in running for state treasurer.

Then there are the behind-the-scenes grinders who would be trusted to carry on the Patrick/Walsh strategic approach. Roger Lau, currently Elizabeth Warren’s state director, is another who I’m told is declining entreaties. Gus Bickford, the state party’s former executive director, tells me he is “not actively seeking it” but would not be adverse to the idea.

There are at least a couple of committee members floating their own names as well, according to party vice-chair Deb Kozikowski and others. (Asked if she’s interested in the position, Kozikowski replies: “Me? Absolutely not.”)

My own pet theory, with no supporting evidence whatsoever, is national committee member David O’Brien, who currently works at Northwind Strategies for Patrick strategist Doug Rubin.

If you’ve sense a theme of reluctance to serve, you’re not wrong. State party chairman is not exactly a plum job. It sucks up your leisure hours, and doesn’t pay all that well. You have to try to please many self-anointed masters, including elected officials, big donors, candidates, and activists. You have to deal with Democratic committee members, who are, shall we say, not everybody’s cup of tea. Complicating matters, an unusual number of Democrats are seriously considering launching campaigns, thanks to the multiple open statewide offices in 2014, and the trickle-down openings from officeholders jumping into those races.

And the committee members currently appear divided on what they want from the next chairman—whether, for instance, the premium should be on someone who can continue Walsh’s strategy of grassroots, door-to-door canvassing, or on someone more known for fundraising prowess, which was never considered Walsh’s strong suit. Some think it’s important for the party to select a woman (for the first time since Joan Menard in the 1990s), or a minority. Others express interest in someone from the often-ignored western regions.

Most likely, the power-triad of Patrick, Warren, and Markey will recruit someone they can agree on; get buy-in from others, including the congressional delegation, state legislative leadership, and John Kerry; and then sell that consensus choice to the committee members.

But, they’ve only got a month or so to do that, and the pool of willing and acceptable choices might be small. If they can’t find someone, there could be a genuine contested election with potential for all manner of salacious infighting. But that’s probably just wishful thinking on my part.