Democratic Party Chair: Then There Were Three

Ben Grant - photo from law firm profile

On Sunday, January 23rd, Democrats from around the state will gather in Augusta to select a new Chair of the Maine Democratic Party. Over the past few weeks, the field of candidates has been whittled down to three. Some Party insiders have told me, however, that one candidate, Ben Grant, has the votes in place to win and will become the next Chair of the Maine Democratic Party. (You heard it at first!)

The Chair is a critical role for the Party in terms of fundraising, campaign development, candidate recruitment, and above all, a vision for the beleaguered Democrats. One high-ranking Democratic Party official told me that the Party is still haunted by the friction created among leaders during the Obama vs. Hillary primaries. Throw on top of that the absolute shellacking the Democrats took in November and you have a Party in modest disrepair, at best.

The new Chair will likely need to address the fallout created by the anti-Cutler mailers the Party sent out during the last election, mailers that some found offensive and/or xenophobic. I was volunteering my time during the final days of the campaign at the Dem Party HQ in Augusta and was tasked with answering the phone the day the mailers started to hit mailboxes. It wasn’t a pleasant assignment.

So who is Ben Grant? First off, he is an attorney for the premier labor law firm in the state, McTeague Higbee in Topsham. Not just any labor law firm. The state’s most progressive labor law firm. The firm prides itself on representing workers and unions. Not bad, sir.

The Kennebec and Sagadahoc County Dems held a forum in Augusta a few weeks ago and invited the remaining candidates for chair to speak. During his interview before the crowd of eager Dems, Ben mentioned his work as a lawyer by saying he gets to "talk to people every single day who are facing unbelievable struggles at home" and he gets to hear "about families on the brink." He went on to say that it is the policies of the Democratic Party that give these families "any chance at all." I love it when Democrats actually "walk the walk" – when their work actually matches the values they espouse.

And Ben knows Maine well. He worked in the Senate President’s office as an aide before heading off to the University of Maine School of Law where he graduated cum laude. Again, not bad sir.

In the video above, Ben mentions the "three legged stool" approach to politics – organizing, fundraising and message. That’s music to the ears of this labor organizer.

There are reasons for the Democratic Party followers to be excited. Despite the dramatic losses across the country on November 2nd, both Michaud and Pingree held their seats and they held them firmly. In fact, Pingree was able to withstand an aggressive negative campaign against her and her fiancé to win her seat with a slightly larger share of the vote than she did in 2008. (Although she received fewer votes than she did in 2008, which is to be expected in a non-presidential year). Michaud’s win was far less decisive than his victory in 2008, but the campaign demonstrated his ability to fight and win even with a disgruntled electorate.

While the political atmosphere in Maine may be changing due to the growing significance of the Tea Party, Democratic registration has ticked up slightly since 2000, with 25,000 more Mainers calling themselves Democrats. At the same time, Republicans and the unenrolled have gone the other direction and have declined slightly over the last decade. (As was obvious in the last election, the Democratic Party needs to work on messaging to their own and locking in on a candidate that can bring Dems home on Election Day. Quite a few Dems voted for that unenrolled guy.)

And the Dem Party has new leaders emerging from its bench. Emily Cain appears to be a capable and savvy leader of the Dems in the House. She will certainly be tested during the next two years as she tries to manage her colleagues and position the caucus for a campaign to regain the majority in 2012. In the State Senate, Justin Alfond, Phil Bartlett, and Seth Goodall, among others, all have the ability to build impressive resumes despite being in the minority. And like her or not, Rosa Scarcelli is undeterred by her third place finish (a.k.a. second to last) in the gubernatorial primary and seems to think she has a career in politics, although she is ducking and diving from some recent controversies.

Can Grant, working with the Dem leadership, pull the Party together out of the ashes of the 2010 election?

Can the Democrats build enough momentum to regain the State House in 2012?

Will Democrats ever regain the State Senate?

Will the Democrats be able to beat LePage on policy fights without relying on the bumbling governor’s slips of the tongue?

Most importantly, can Grant unite a Party that is reeling from painful losses and work towards a vision that engages Democrats throughout Maine?

Congrats, Ben. I can’t say that I envy your mission... but expect lots of unsolicited advice from gadflies like me.