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Democrats in Mass. kick off campaign season

Mayor Walsh moves to build up strength as power broker

QUINCY — Massachusetts Democrats saw a new Boston mayor flex his citywide muscle and Worcester party leaders settle some political scores on Saturday as party activists kicked off the 2014 campaign season.

With a popular two-term governor headed toward the exit, Democratic activists met in caucuses to begin the process of filling in blank spots in a drastically changed political landscape. Strategists for different campaigns said the first day of caucusing failed to make fundamental changes to the race, with no candidate claiming a decisive victory as of late Saturday.

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“There is no indication that anyone has the upper hand,’’ said state Democratic Party chairman Thomas McGee, Jr., a state senator who said he witnessed strong turnout and enthusiasm by the grassroots Democrats. “I didn’t see any groundswell for a candidate.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in the most significant test of his political clout since his November election victory, began the process of replacing the meticulously constructed organization that his predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, had built over two decades. Walsh, whose advisers have been huddling for weeks to develop a caucus strategy, worked to add delegates loyal to him as he tries to take his place — as did Menino — among the state’s powerhouses.

Walsh also used the delegate election process to make inroads in neighborhoods he lost to his mayoral rival John R. Connolly, including Charlestown, West Roxbury, and the North End.

Collecting delegates would help make the Dorchester Democrat a power broker at the June 14 convention in Worcester, where blocs of delegates can make or break statewide candidacies.

In 2006, then-House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi boosted venture capitalist Christopher Gabrieli onto the ballot, throwing enough delegates behind Gabrieli to lift him just over the requisite 15 percent threshold.

Walsh on Saturday adopted a Menino tactic: banking delegates uncommitted to any of the statewide candidates. That ensures that various candidates will court the mayor as they build support across the state.

Walsh political advisers said the only statewide candidate to back him during his mayoral bid was Warren Tolman, a former state senator running for attorney general.

In Worcester, Democratic front-runners Attorney General Martha Coakley and Treasurer Steven Grossman were hamstrung by a palpable anti-Beacon Hill sentiment, said leading Democrats. Both Coakley and Grossman have crossed swords with former lieutenant governor Timothy P. Murray, the city’s onetime mayor and current head of the regional chamber of commerce.

The chief beneficiary of that dynamic appeared to be Joseph Avellone, the biopharmaceutical executive who has barely registered in statewide polls. His wife, Sandy, has Worcester roots, and the candidate said he has stumped in the city roughly 50 times.

The support for Avellone reflects what Democratic operatives said is bitterness among Worcester party activists who feel that Murray had been badly mistreated by the Boston party establishment and rivals.

Avellone said he had picked up support in “really blue-collar, moderate areas.”

Campaign aides to Juliette Kayyem, a former homeland security official and Globe columnist, said the results proved her viability among party activists.

“There’s two statewide elected officials who supposedly have these known political organizations, and Juliette is competing with them when she’s told again and again that she can’t,” said Kayyem spokesman Matthew Patton in a phone interview.

About a quarter of the party caucuses took place on Saturday; the remaining sessions will unfold throughout the month, including some Sunday in Cambridge, Middleton, Saugus, Sharon, and Watertown.

Party leaders were quick to claim that the day was full of enthusiasm and strong participation in the caucus process. But, unlike past caucus events, none of the five gubernatorial candidates immediately emerged as a clear winner.

House majority leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat, said turnout in his city was the heaviest since the 1982 primary duel between former governors Edward King and Michael Dukakis, calling it “a bit of a hornet’s nest.”

But Democratic veterans of past caucuses, who did want to speak on the record so as not to undercut party leadership, said the caucus-goers lacked the passion the party saw when Elizabeth Warren, Patrick, and Robert Reich were candidates.

“This certainly was nothing like 2006,’’ said one former Patrick campaign worker who participated in the caucus system eight years ago.

“A lot more work is going to be done post-caucus for the gubernatorial candidates than has been done in a long time,” said one Democrat running for another statewide office.

The Democratic field for attorney general also thinned Saturday when state Representative Hank Naughton, a Clinton Democrat, ended his campaign, leaving Tolman and former assistant attorney general Maura Healey.

Naughton said he would run for reelection to his House seat.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports. Frank Phillips can be reached at frank.phillips@globe.com.
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