Metro

State GOP pounces on Setti Warren

Newton Mayor Setti Warren in March.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Newton Mayor Setti Warren in March.

How protective are Massachusetts Republicans of Governor Charlie Baker, who won office two years ago by the slightest margin in 50 years?

So vigilant that the party jumped Wednesday — the day before Thanksgiving — on a Democrat who has not even gone public with his intentions to challenge Baker. The Globe reported Tuesday that Newton Mayor Setti Warren has told potential donors he will run for governor in 2018, when Baker is expected to seek a second term.

But while Warren has declined to discuss his plans publicly, Republicans wasted no time pouncing on his maneuvers, filing a campaign finance complaint Wednesday. The grievance alleges that Warren violated state law by announcing he would not seek another term as mayor, but not declaring his intention to run for another office — while continuing to solicit campaign funds.

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“Warren appears to have violated campaign finance laws and regulations by campaigning for an office that is different from the office for which his campaign committee is organized,” state GOP chairwoman Kirsten Hughes wrote in a letter to director Michael J. Sullivan of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

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Warren adviser John Walsh, whom the mayor hired earlier this month, said he was “fully comfortable that the mayor of Newton is in full compliance with OCPF.”

“I don’t believe that there’s any trigger in the OCPF regulations that applies to us here,” Walsh said. “We will file the change when it’s appropriate, and I don’t think that threshold has been crossed.”

“The Massachusetts Republican Party, they’re working the day before Thanksgiving, God bless them,” Walsh added.

Political candidates are required by state law to report any changes in their campaign organizations within 10 days of that change. However, that change is typically triggered by a public announcement or a campaign kickoff, OCPF spokesman Jason Tait noted.

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“If a fund-raising invitation says a person is running for a particular office, then we’d want a change of purpose filed with our office. If a candidate makes a public announcement, then we’d want a change,” he said in a statement. “But if a candidate does not give details of his or her intentions publicly, then OCPF does not require a change of purpose.”

Tait would not speak directly to the Republicans’ letter because OCPF does not confirm or deny the existence of complaints. Warren is having a campaign fund-raiser next month, but the invitation from his political committee does not specify the office he is seeking.

Violations are almost always resolved informally with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, though they technically could bring a criminal penalty of up to a year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to $1,000.

Warren’s aggressive fund-raising push in the year’s closing weeks represents a clear effort to mitigate one of his most glaring disadvantages against Baker. The governor, who has demonstrated a willingness to push the boundaries of state campaign finance law, sits on a war chest of $4.4 million. Baker has circumvented the state’s hard-cap limit on campaign donations and used fund-raisers explicitly directed at special-interest political action committees.

As of mid-November, Warren counted just over $30,000 in his campaign account, a deficit of more than 140-1.

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But he is also trying to capitalize on a new restiveness among state Democrats, who have voiced alarm over President-elect Donald Trump’s victory this month.

In interviews, several senior Democrats likened the energy among the party’s base to the climate after Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley in the 2010 special election for the seat once held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Initially crestfallen and disoriented, Democrats quickly buckled down and, later that year, helped then-governor Deval Patrick win reelection by defeating Baker.

One of Warren’s fund-raisers, slated for next month, will be hosted by Foley Hoag law firm partner Kevin Conroy, who was Coakley’s campaign manager in her race against Brown. Warren has also hired Patrick’s longtime adviser, Walsh, a former state Democratic chairman widely admired among the party’s grass roots.

State Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford, elected by activists last week, has said he will remain neutral in the expected 2018 party gubernatorial primary. But he indicated that Democrats would follow the blueprint they used this year to thwart Baker’s efforts to pass a charter-school expansion ballot measure.

“I think that we’ve identified cracks in the foundation,” Bickford said, predicting that Baker’s popularity would wane as Democrats began drawing clearer contrasts between him and their own candidates.

“It’s going to be much tougher for him, and we’ll be sure to point out the differences with how, if we had a Democrat in the corner office, that would be better for the people of Massachusetts,” Bickford said.

Warren won the office in 2009, becoming the city’s first African-American mayor. An Iraq War veteran and former aide to then-Senator John F. Kerry, Warren won praise from Newton residents and fiscal watchdogs for putting the city on a financially sustainable course.

He ran briefly in 2011 for the Senate before bowing out in the primary to Elizabeth Warren, who beat then-Senator Scott Brown in 2012.

Newton Democratic City Committee chairman Shawn Fitzgibbons, who must remain neutral in a party primary, said Warren would be “a really strong candidate for governor.”

“Setti’s been a great mayor here. He’s very popular, very well-liked,” Fitzgibbons said Wednesday. “He’s been involved with the Democratic Party for a while, helped lead the process that resulted in a new platform for the state Democratic platform a couple years ago. He’s someone the state Democratic party has put forward as an up-and-comer.”

Asked for a response to Warren’s challenge, Baker senior adviser Jim Conroy said in a text message, “The people of Massachusetts are still recovering from a national election just two weeks ago, and the governor is happy to be focusing on doing his job leading the state.”

O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him @JOSreports. Ebbert can be reached at stephanie.ebbert@globe.com. Follow her @StephanieEbbert.