BOSTON (SHNS) – With voting well underway in the 2020 election and many Democrats singularly focused on winning back the White House or flipping control of the U.S. Senate, the 2022 state elections may seem a long way off.
But members of the state party will have little time after the final ballots are counted in November to think about who they want to lead their party into the next cycle when the governorship will again be up for grabs and the enduringly popular Gov. Charlie Baker could be seeking a third term.
Democrats in Massachusetts hold both U.S. Senate seats, all nine federal House seats, four of the six constitutional offices, and 164 of the 200 legislative seats on Beacon Hill.
But party members say there’s room for expansion.
“We have to make sure the next governor is prepared to rebuild Massachusetts in a way that helps everyone in the commonwealth,” said Mike Lake, a two-time former statewide candidate for office, who runs the global non-profit Leading Cities.
Lake is one of two Democrats preparing to challenge Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford next month for control of the state party, as first reported earlier this month by Politico. Members of the Democratic State Committee will choose the next party chair just nine days after election day, and will be asked to choose between Bickford, Lake and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Bob Massie.
Lake, who is a deputy party treasurer, ran unsuccessfully for the party nomination for state auditor in 2010 and lieutenant governor in 2014. He lives in Boston, and considers former Gov. Michael Dukakis a mentor.
“I don’t think this is about Gus. I do think this is about opportunities the party has not taken advantage of, from engaging activists to raising more resources and standing up and providing a contrasting vision for the future of Massachusetts from what we get from Charlie Baker,” Lake said.
“Elections are about contrast. We hear a lot from Charlie Baker. We don’t hear a lot from the party. I think the party has failed in being a reliable opposition,” he said.
Bickford, who confirmed he intends to seek a second four-year term, defended his efforts to point out Baker’s weaknesses. He specifically noted the party’s efforts to draw attention to the administration’s lack of reporting of certain COVID-19 data, and criticized Baker’s endorsement of Maine Republican Susan Collins.
“I’m proud of the considerable gains the Party has made over the last few years, which include flipping three historically Republican seats in the state legislature in recent special elections. We are continuing to build our grassroots army to win back the Governor’s office in 2022, and regularly remind the public of the failures of Charlie Baker and his administration,” Bickford said.
But poking holes in Baker’s facade has been no easy feat, even with Democratic voters.
In a July MassINC Polling Group survey, Baker polled better with Democrats than among Republicans. The poll found that 84 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of the Republican governor and 90 percent approved of his handling of the coronavirus.
That was compared to just 69 percent of Republicans who a favorable opinion of the governor, and 76 percent who approved of his COVID-19 response.
Massie did not respond to an email seeking comment about his candidacy, but Lake confirmed that the two men have spoken, and that he has been calling members of the State Committee seeking their support. He said the contest for party chair was “not going to be a vicious fight.”
“I think Bob Massie and I frankly have a much more aligned vision of what the party can be,” Lake said in a recent interview. “We have already pledged to support each other. We need to show that unity, because one of the things our party is lacking is unity.”
Since Bickford took over as chair, party enrollment in Massachusetts has declined by about 50,000 voters from 1.55 million Democrats, or 34.18 percent of registered voters, to 1.5 million, or 32.14 percent.
Over that period, the movement has been toward unrolled status as the Republican Party has also shrunk by about 24,600 voters, and now represents just 9.86 percent of the electorate.
“I see a huge opportunity for the Democratic slate not just in Massachusetts but nationally,” Lake said. “I don’t think we here in Massachusetts are capitalizing on that opportunity. We just had one of the worst performing governor’s races in 30 years at a time when activism is at record levels. These are people who share the same values and vision and hopes and dreams that the Democratic Party stands for and it’s our responsibility to bring them in.”
Massie also also spoke about recruitment as a reason for running, telling Politico, “A lot of things have changed over the last four years. It’s not the same world, it’s not the same America, it’s not the same Massachusetts. And I just don’t think the party is doing enough to bring new people in and new energy, young people and so forth, but also to meet those challenges.”
When Baker ran for reelection in 2018, he was matched up against former health care executive and Patrick administration Cabinet official Jay Gonzalez, who despite the built-in advantages in Massachusetts for Democrats won just 33 percent of the vote.
Lake said he didn’t have any one person in mind to run for governor in 2022, but he said the party needs to start talking now about what Massachusetts under Democratic leadership in the corner office could look like.
Part of that messaging, Lake said, requires reaching out to working-class voters the same way the party has prioritized outreach to women and other demographics. He said he would make that a focus at both the state and national level as a member of the Democratic National Committee, if elected.
“Up until Joe Biden, I would argue the Democratic Party had taken for granted hard-working people,” Lake said. “Thankfully, we do have Joe Biden reminding us of the fight of the working class.”
Convincing state committee members to move on from Bickford could take some doing, especially with the Nov. 12 vote coming so soon after the election.
“That meeting is the furthest thing from my mind. We have to get rid of Donald Trump first,” said Deb Kozikowski, the vice chair of the party who is helping run the Left of Center PAC, focused on six Congressional races this cycle.
Kozikowski did not support Bickford when he emerged the winner of a three-way contest in 2016, instead backing former Edward Kennedy and Barack Obama aide Stephen Kerrigan. Bickford defeated Kerrigan and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins to become chair, and Kozikowski said he can’t be held responsible for the party’s poor showing in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
“He’s done a good job, ” the Chicopee Democrat said. “The voters of Massachusetts like their blue cake with a red candle and this is not a new phenomenon with this particular state party leadership.”
Kozikowski said she will support Bickford this time for another term.
“I think the state party does what they need to do in order to maintain statewide majorities and win in local districts, especially down ballot at the State House,” she said.