WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation on Thursday afternoon, immediately reigniting rumors that Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts could be next in line for the country’s top law enforcement job.
Almost as quickly, Patrick sought to squelch speculation that he would succeed Holder, even amid indications the president’s advisers were interested in Patrick and have sought to measure his interest in the post.
“That’s an enormously important job, but it’s not one for me right now,” Patrick said at a campaign event in Hudson, Mass. “I have no plans and no interest in making plans to be the next attorney general,” he said later at the State House.
A person briefed on the process, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the governor has told his closest aides that he will not be the next attorney general.
But in the hours before getting on plane to fly to Washington — a previously scheduled trip that coincided with the news of Holder’s resignation — the governor said he has talked previously with the president about a position.
“The president and I have had conversations over the years about a role in his administration and I am proud of his administration,” he told reporters in Worcester. “But I’ve told you before, I’m going to finish my term and then I’m going to go into the private sector.”
As long as a year ago, the White House was inquiring about the potential of Patrick taking Holder’s position. A senior adviser to the president posed the question to a prominent Massachusetts Democrat. “Would he be interested?’’ the adviser was quoted as saying.
It is unclear whether the efforts to determine Patrick’s interest went any further, or how Patrick responded to them.
The flurry of speculation erupted Thursday morning after news broke that Holder would be resigning. Holder is one of the longest-serving members of Obama’s Cabinet, and will be ending a tenure as the first black attorney general.
During his nearly six years on the job, Holder sought to create a legacy on civil rights, pushing for legal benefits for gay couples, and filing lawsuits against voting restrictions in North Carolina and Texas. He also sought to ease federal drug sentencing laws, and recently went to Ferguson, Mo., to try to heal wounds and charges of racism that emerged when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.
His tenure also was marked by controversy, and intense jousting with congressional Republicans — many of whom reacted with glee at his resignation. Holder was criticized for his role in Operation Fast and Furious, a government program that allowed guns into Mexico. He was also aggressive in prosecuting members of the media reporting on national security matters.
“Eric has done a superb job,” Obama said during an emotional news conference at the White House. “I just want to say thank you.”
Aside from Patrick, other possible replacements include Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York; Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of Homeland Security; former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler; and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.
Patrick, a Harvard Law School graduate and the top civil rights enforcer in the Justice Department under President Clinton, is often mentioned when top law-related spots open up in Washington. He has been on speculators’ short lists for Supreme Court justice, as well as for attorney general each time rumors arose about a potential Holder resignation. Patrick is also the former corporate counsel at Texaco and Coca-Cola.
“All this stuff is some combination of a compliment to him that he might be considered for any of these wonderful things,” said John Walsh, a longtime Patrick adviser and the head of his political action committee. “It’s also a commentary that we are somewhat of a battered Commonwealth in that our governors keep leaving before their term is up.”
But the White House has also long been interested in Patrick. The governor and Obama are personally close, sharing dinners on Martha’s Vineyard or late-night drinks at the White House. A former top aide to Patrick, David Simas, is now a top aide to Obama.
With Patrick not running for reelection, he also will be available for new employment opportunities come January.
But Patrick has consistently ruled out interest in federal posts and has said he would like to explore more lucrative, private-sector opportunities.
He told the Globe on Thursday afternoon it was “mind-blowing to be mentioned in those contexts,” but acknowledged some weariness at the now-familiar pattern of his name surging to the top of lists about federal jobs, despite his repeated statements that he will serve out his term.
And he repeated his insistence that his first career step out of office will not be into another government post.
“As soon as I know what my next job is, I will tell you, I promise,” he said. “But it will be in the private sector.”
Patrick’s travel schedule Thursday helped fuel speculation. He held a Cabinet meeting at 2 p.m., and later left for Washington, which was abuzz over a 4:30 p.m. press conference during which Obama formally announced Holder’s resignation.
Patrick said he had long planned to be in Washington on Friday for events with the Congressional Black Caucus. Patrick is also attending a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee, and then heading back to Boston in the evening.
A Patrick spokeswoman could not say whether Patrick had plans to go to the White House, or whether he would be speaking with Obama.
“You know, the president knows how to get in touch with me whether I’m in D.C. or not,” Patrick said. “Just relax everybody. I’m not going to Washington to meet with the president.”
But Patrick evaded specific questions over his past discussions with Obama over being appointed to the post.
When asked if he’d ever been offered the position of attorney general, he responded, “I’m not going to tell you all the details of our conversation, but he has an attorney general and a damn good one.”
With the Senate on recess until the midterm elections in November, any attorney general nominee probably would have to wait until at least the lame duck session for confirmation hearings. If Patrick were the nominee and confirmed before his term expires in January, Secretary of State William F. Galvin would become acting governor; the lieutenant governor’s office is vacant.
A confirmation hearing for Patrick could be contentious.
His political image has been dented by a string of mismanagement scandals, including at the state drug lab and major problems at the state’s Department of Children and Families.
Patrick’s administration also has refused to comply with the Department of Homeland Security’s Real ID verification program, which requires proof of citizenship or legal residence in order to obtain a driver’s license. And he declined to sign onto the controversial fingerprint sharing system as part of a Secured Communities immigration enforcement program.
Republicans could also use the hearings as an opportunity to ding Patrick’s national reputation, should he ever decide to seek higher office.
Despite the governor’s denials, Senator Elizabeth Warren — campaigning with gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley in Chelsea Thursday — hinted that Patrick would be an ideal replacement for Holder.
Frank Phillips, Jim O’Sullivan, and Akilah Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.