Since Deval Patrick reclaimed the governor’s office for Democrats in 2006, party activists have held these truths to be self-evident — that grass-roots campaigning is the only way to win and that John Walsh is the reigning master of it.
Walsh, an unassuming Abington insurance salesman who managed Patrick’s first campaign, went on to run the Massachusetts Democratic Party in the same vein for most of Patrick’s tenure. But with the governor’s second term wrapping up, Walsh stepped aside last fall, triggering a changing of the guard before a lively election year. Fourteen Democrats are vying for the four top statewide offices alone.
“It’s always a scary thing when you go from a safe eight-year bubble,” said party vice chair Debra Kozikowski.
Up stepped state Senator Thomas M. McGee, a Lynn Democrat and son of the eponymous speaker of the Massachusetts House. McGee was elected chairman after pledging to better engage his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature, whose constituent-rich bases are sometimes neglected in the rush to bolster the top-of-the-ticket races.
Some worried what it would mean to have a legislator as chairman. Others liked the idea of finally having a party chairman who was not aligned with any one politician. Walsh, though well-regarded for his leadership, was always viewed as the governor’s guy first, a sometimes delicate position when Patrick and Democratic legislative leaders crossed swords.
“I think he’s his own guy,” Warren Tolman, a former legislator who had considered a bid for chairman before launching a candidacy for attorney general, said of McGee. “What I like about Tom is that he listens. He’s just a very thoughtful, reasonable guy. He’s been around. He didn’t just jump into this.”
His roots in the party run deep. McGee, 58, was first elected to the Democratic State Committee when he was just 20 years old. He has served in the Legislature since 1995 and chairs the Joint Committee on Transportation for the Senate.
His political grooming began even earlier, as the child of a Massachusetts House speaker who was known for his autocratic style and his ignominious ouster from leadership by onetime ally George Keverian in the mid-1980s.
But no one would mistake the younger McGee for his father. Not even McGee, who describes himself as more “low-key” than the Marine veteran with a gruff demeanor who would “let you know in a sometimes salty way what he thought should get done.”
“He worked it hard in a pretty powerful way,” McGee said of his father.
Conversely, McGee sees his approach as “working more closely with people and building a consensus,” he said.
What he inherited is the political ideology handed down to his father from his grandmother, a shoe factory worker and union organizer in Lynn who went on to work in the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Throughout the Depression, people would come to their house, looking for jobs, looking for help, McGee recalled of his father’s stories.
“It was about trying to help people,” McGee said. “Those are the things I grew up with, both in my family and as a Democrat.”
To help Democrats keep their standing in the Legislature and statewide offices this fall, McGee has launched an unusually earlycoordinated campaign, securing commitments for help from Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren, whose fund-raising and star power could bolster candidates in a nonpresidential election year. He has been meeting since February with legislators, union leaders, and members of the state’s congressional delegation to plan a “cohesive operation” to push for all Democrats in the general election.
Walsh, his predecessor, said in an interview that he is impressed with McGee’s ability to get “some of the important folks engaged and committed earlier.”
“It’s a reflection of his skill, obviously, and also his long relationships,” said Walsh.
Which is not, however, to say that he’ll neglect the grass-roots operation — a network of volunteers across the state that multiplied during the campaigns of dynamic candidates such as Warren, Patrick, and President Obama but that needs to be “constantly nourished,” as Walsh noted.
“People’s lives change. A kid turns into a teenager, their dog gets sick, mother has moved in,” Walsh said. “People who are very intense volunteers? A couple years later, their lives are in a different spot.”
McGee expresses a similar commitment to replenishing the grass-roots ranks — and igniting volunteers’ energy.
State Senator Jason Lewis, who won an April special election to fill a vacancy, recalled that McGee was out “personally knocking on doors in the city of Malden” to remind voters there was an election that day.
A victory by Lewis gave Democrats — and McGee — an unblemished streak of a half-dozen wins in the six special elections this year.
“I was so impressed with his commitment to grass roots and his support for our campaign,” said Lewis. “He really walks the walk. Literally.”