The Democrats' ambitious new chairman

Party time
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  July 21, 2010


Last month, just a few weeks removed from his long-held post as chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, Bill Lynch walked into the party’s convention as a Congressional candidate and didn’t come close to securing the endorsement.

It was just the latest sign of the diminished power of the party boss. But if the Democrats’ new chief is daunted, he isn’t letting on.

Edwin Pacheco, 28, is known for his ambitious streak. He launched his first campaign for public office while still in high school. And before long, he ousted an incumbent and grabbed a seat in the General Assembly representing Burrillville.

After just five years in the legislature, he floated his name for lieutenant governor only to withdraw when the incumbent, Elizabeth Roberts, decided to pass on the governor’s race and seek re-election.

And when Representative Patrick Kennedy stunned the political firmament with the announcement that he would not run for re-election this fall, Pacheco seriously considered a bid for Congress.

Now the chairman, who will leave the General Assembly at the end of the year, has big plans for his new gig. He is visiting the city and town Democratic committees one by one, vowing to ramp up the party’s use of social media, and promising aggressive engagement with a rank-and-file that can feel left out between elections.

Rick McAuliffe, a lobbyist, Democratic fundraiser, and Pacheco supporter, says constant contact with the grassroots is particularly important in an era of declining party fealty. Party leaders, he says, can no longer count on reflexive support: “The days of, ‘I’m a Democrat and that’s good enough,’ are gone.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in the highest profile race on Pacheco’s plate: the contest to replace Governor Donald Carcieri, the Republican terming out of office this year.

Before he dropped out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Attorney General Patrick Lynch did his best to make the case that his opponent, Treasurer Frank Caprio, is too conservative for the party.

Now that Caprio has a clear path to the nomination, some on the left wing of the party — already interested in the independent candidacy of Lincoln Chafee — are getting more serious about a defection.

Even before the gubernatorial race, the party had a problem on its progressive flank. Many in organized labor, traditionally a major funder of party-building activities, have become disenchanted with Rhode Island Democrats over the last couple of years — particularly over a push, closely associated with Caprio, to curtail pension benefits for public employees amid budget woes.

Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association-Rhode Island teachers union, says disaffection with local Democrats is compounded by a growing frustration with the Obama Administration on everything from education reform to the handling of the BP oil spill.

The union chief, a member of the Democratic State Committee, has decided not to stand for re-election to the panel this year.

Pacheco also faces some rumbling from the conservative wing of the party. State Representative Jon Brien, a Woonsocket Democrat, says it is too early to judge the new chairman’s tenure. But he is concerned that Pacheco’s decision to hire Peter Asen, former director of the liberal Ocean State Action advocacy group, as a party staffer could portend a larger leftward drift.

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Related: Why Lincoln Chafee deserves your vote, Chafee's Smith hill prospects, Caprio's Clinton fixation, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Barack Obama, Politics, Patrick Lynch,  More more >
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