Cahill prepares to leave his party

Still undecided on run for governor; Move would avert hard primary fight

By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / July 7, 2009
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State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill plans to leave the Democratic Party this week, two advisers said yesterday, in what is probably a first step toward an independent challenge to Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, in next year’s election.

By removing his name from the Democratic ledgers in Quincy City Hall and declaring himself unenrolled, Cahill will be making not only a strong philosophical statement, but a practical one as well. As an independent, Cahill will be positioning himself as an outside candidate at a tumultuous time on Beacon Hill; he will also be sidestepping an uphill primary fight against an incumbent in a possible gubernatorial race.

Cahill, a fiscal conservative, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday, but he has told supporters he feels estranged from the Massachusetts Democratic Party, whose tax-and-spend philosophy, as he describes it, is more liberal than his own.

He has recently accused the Legislature and Patrick of taking the easy route by raising taxes instead of making deep cuts in what he called sacred cows, including healthcare and education.

Cahill will be the first incumbent officeholder in memory to drop his party affiliation, according to state election officials, who could recall no instance when an independent candidate won statewide office in Massachusetts. H. Ross Perot garnered 22.8 percent of the vote when he ran as an independent candidate for president in 1992, the largest percentage won in the state by an independent in recent years.

Cahill advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move does not necessarily mean that he will run against Patrick for governor, but Cahill has told them he will campaign as an independent either for governor or treasurer.

In the past, Cahill advisers have given strong indications that Cahill would challenge Patrick for governor, and Cahill himself discussed it in a March interview with the Globe, though he said he would prefer to remain a Democrat.

“Unless the party throws me out, I expect to run as a Democrat, if I run,’’ he said at the time.

Still, it has always been an uneasy relationship between the treasurer and the state’s dominant political party. Cahill felt spurned when the state party denied him a slot as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention last year after he refused to endorse either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Before that, when he ran for treasurer in 2002, Cahill was convinced that state Democratic leaders had tried to hurt him by encouraging a second office seeker with the same surname to enter the race. Cahill beat three other candidates in the Democratic primary, including Mike Cahill, then a state representative from Beverly.

Cahill has also told supporters that before being elected treasurer as a Democrat, he had exercised a great deal of freedom as a Quincy city councilor running without party affiliation in municipal elections that were nonpartisan.

But more than anything else, some observers say, Cahill may be leaving the party because it would be nearly impossible for him to win enough support from Democratic party members, 15 percent of the convention vote, to secure a place on the primary ballot.

Patrick’s former campaign manager, John Walsh, serves as state party chairman, and other Patrick supporters serve in key party posts, meaning that Patrick essentially controls the party apparatus.

“That was his main stumbling block to becoming a viable candidate within the party,’’ said former party chairman Philip Johnston. “The only way he could have obtained 15 percent is if he had the support of many members of the Legislature, and I don’t think that would have happened.’’

Yesterday, Walsh called Cahill “a credible candidate for anything he would run for.’’

“As long as he’s a registered Democrat, I love him dearly,’’ Walsh said. He said he believes Cahill would have no problem winning enough convention votes to run in a Democratic primary.

Patrick campaign spokesman Stephen Crawford declined comment on Cahill’s imminent party defection, but said the governor is “proud to be a Democrat.’’

“He will be running for reelection under the party banner,’’ he said. “The party represents the values he feels strongly about.’’

For months, Cahill has been preparing for a run, speaking out on issues not traditionally in the treasurer’s sphere. He came out early for casino gambling and several months ago proposed that the state license slot machines to generate revenue. He has been quick to criticize the Legislature and the governor, seizing on nearly any opportunity to differentiate himself from Patrick.

Advisers said yesterday that Cahill wanted to leave the Democratic Party before making a final decision about running for governor. He has said he will make up his mind on a possible run by Labor Day.

But if independent candidates find themselves at a disadvantage in Massachusetts, Cahill would start the race with a huge fund-raising edge. He has amassed nearly $3 million in campaign contributions, significantly more than Patrick, who had $484,000 on hand on June 15.

But Patrick would still be able to tap into the Democratic Party’s fund-raising machine.

A recently approved ethics law bans the kind of special campaign committee that has allowed Patrick to maximize the money he could raise from individual donors.

With his Seventy-First Fund, so named because he is the state’s 71st governor, Patrick had been collecting $5,500 from individuals, $500 of which went to his campaign and $5,000 to the Democratic Party, which paid some of his political expenses.

Since the fund was created in May 2007, the party has paid $628,000 of Patrick’s campaign bills.

Lawmakers proposed limiting all donations, including to the party, to $500. But in the end, they left the $5,000 limit intact. The governor can no longer collect $5,500 checks, but supporters can still give generously to the party, which in turn can pay his expenses.

If Cahill runs for governor as an independent, observers said, he could hurt Republican candidates more than Patrick.

Tarah Donoghue, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Republican Party, said that by any other name Cahill is still a Democrat.

“The letter next to his name doesn’t make a difference,’’ she said. “It’s the same broken promises and disappointing leadership . . . Nothing will change.’’

Even though independent candidates have not done well in Massachusetts, almost half its 4 million voters are unenrolled, according to state officials.