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Cahill’s switch leads to scrum for his office

'I don't seem to be getting anywhere from inside the party, so maybe I can be more effective outside the party. We'll see.' -- Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill "I don't seem to be getting anywhere from inside the party, so maybe I can be more effective outside the party. We'll see." -- Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill
By Matt Viser and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / July 8, 2009
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State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill’s decision to leave the Democratic Party and possibly run as an independent candidate for governor set off a massive scramble yesterday as potential candidates for treasurer started making calls, openly discussing their intentions, and trying to stake a claim on frontrunner status.

Cahill, who seems all but certain to run against Governor Deval Patrick next year, said in an interview that he felt alienated by his party, which he says is out of touch with the concerns of average citizens.

“I just feel like I don’t fit,’’ he said. “I’m a fiscal conservative and have been railing at the spending and the taxing decisions over the past year. I don’t seem to be getting anywhere from inside the party, so maybe I can be more effective outside the party. We’ll see.’’

Almost as soon as news of his decision was announced, Democrats leaped at the possibility of a rare opening for a statewide office.

Former gubernatorial candidate and Democratic Party official Steven Grossman announced he will run for the post, a decision he said he made yesterday morning after learning of Cahill’s imminent defection from the Democratic Party.

“I thought it is the right time,’’ said Grossman, 63, of Newton, who ran for governor in 2002 and has led both the state and national Democratic parties. “I want to be out early and let people know I’m running. This is not a committee formation or a trial balloon. When I do something, I try to do it decisively and bring every ounce of energy I have.’’

Grossman, who said he will run even if Cahill seeks reelection as an independent candidate for treasurer, will probably join a crowded field. The names of several other potential candidates surfaced yesterday, including state Senator Mark C. Montigny, Democrat of New Bedford; state Representative Thomas P. Conroy, Democrat of Wayland; Plymouth County Treasurer Thomas J. O’Brien; and Norfolk County Sheriff Michael G. Bellotti. All confirmed in interviews that they are considering a run.

James E. Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority; Suzanne Bump, Patrick’s secretary of labor and workforce development, Norfolk County Treasurer Joseph A. Connolly; and Neil M. M. Morrison, a former first deputy treasurer, were also said to be weighing a run.

Bump, a former state representative from Braintree, issued a statement that did not rule out a possible candidacy. “I love state service and the ability to problem-solve in the public sector,’’ she said. “I have made no decision to return to elective office.’’

The treasurer oversees the lottery, the investment of state pension funds, the school building authority, and all state borrowing, responsibilities that can give the office holder a platform to weigh in on policy and exercise political clout.

The move to fill Cahill’s shoes so quickly illustrates the political challenges that lie ahead for the treasurer, who plans to go to Quincy City Hall this week to remove his name from the Democratic rolls.

If Cahill does run for reelection as treasurer, switching to unenrolled could open the door for a bevy of well-funded Democrats to challenge him.

“A lot of people think this is a crazy move, and at the end of the day I’m going to come to my senses,’’ Cahill said. “I don’t think it’s crazy. I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it was. I don’t think it’s political suicide.’’

Still, he said, “it’s been a nerve-wracking week for me.’’

Cahill said he has not made a final decision on whether to run for governor, but sounded all but certain that he will.

“I wouldn’t be putting myself through this if I didn’t think it would lead me to make a decision to run for higher office,’’ he said.

He called his decision to leave the Democratic Party the first part of a “two-step process,’’ and said he would try to build a campaign network to see whether he could mount a run against already established political parties.

“I don’t want to be a spoiler,’’ he said. “I want to be comfortable that there is a path.’’

“It’s more than a toe in the water,’’ Cahill said of his flirtations with a run for governor. “I’m going up to the cliff basically. But I haven’t dove off the cliff yet, honestly. But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I haven’t thought of higher office.’’

Cahill, a Democrat since he registered to vote at age 18, said he started thinking about leaving the party last year after he was the only statewide elected official not to be elected a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

“It was a wake-up call for me in my standing in the party and what people thought of me,’’ Cahill said. “That made me stop in my tracks and think: ‘This is what they really think of you? Is this a message?’ ’’

Cahill said he still agrees with the Massachusetts Democratic Party on all social issues, and said his decision was based almost solely on how state Democrats reacted to the economic downturn.

“The debate this year within the party was which taxes to raise, not whether we should raise them,’’ Cahill said. “The taxes and the spending are symptoms of what ails us economically.’’

Cahill also appears to be trying out a possible campaign theme, that an independent could carry a new voice to the State House, where Republican governors have seen their policies disregarded with regularity and Democrats, he believes, have been unable to properly manage the recession.

“It’s hard for either side to govern effectively, and I think that’s been proven,’’ Cahill said. “Maybe it’s time for a different way. Maybe this is the time.’’

Meanwhile, Patrick reacted diplomatically yesterday to the news on Cahill, saying he was working hard to manage the state during the recession. The time for verbal jousting, he said, will come later.

“My focus continues to be managing us through this extraordinary challenging economic time, trying to do what we can to get the economy going again, and implement these new reforms,’’ he said.

“There will come a time when the campaign is for real, and we’ll engage then,’’ the governor said. “But for the time being, that’s my focus. I wish him well, as I do all the candidates, real and would-be.’’

When asked about Cahill’s criticism that Democrats have espoused too much of a “tax and spend’’ philosophy, Patrick told the Globe: “Look, all those old slogans are for yesterday. We’re governing for tomorrow.’’

Cahill tried to downplay the assumption that his defection is a calculated political move.

“If it was,’’ Cahill said, “we haven’t calculated it that well yet. I don’t have a campaign manager.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.