Pacheco faces challenging campaign season as head of R.I. Democratic Party
01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, May 19, 2010By Steve Peoples
Journal State House Bureau
The Providence Journal / Connie Grosch
PROVIDENCE –– His name will not appear on any ballot, but few Rhode Islanders will do more to influence the success or failure of Ocean State Democrats this fall than Edwin R. Pacheco.
This fresh-faced 28-year-old Burrillville native will help drive election strategy for dozens of races. He will struggle to quietly resolve conflicts among a crowded and powerful Democratic field. And, as the newly elected chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party, he will fight to attract campaign cash from national organizations that face similar pleas from beleaguered candidates across the country.
“I’m sure there will be those individuals who suggest because I’m 28, I don’t have the ability or experience to be successful in this position,” said Pacheco, believed to be the youngest party chairman in state history. “I think if people give me an opportunity and see what it is I have to bring to the table, I’ll make believers out of each and every one of them.”
Pacheco is a 2005 University of Rhode Island graduate, a video-game enthusiast and the kind of fisherman who uses barbless hooks to avoid harming the small-mouthed bass he occasionally pulls from Wallum Lake. He is a husband of three years and a father of 26 months.
He spends days serving as the executive director of the Providence-based nonprofit group Education in Action. And, over the last six years, he has spent evenings in the House of Representatives, serving the community where he was raised, having first sat on its School Committee for two years.
But his greatest test this election season will not involve school committees or local House districts. Perhaps that’s why he called the Democratic National Committee “first thing” on his first Monday morning on the job.
It was a simple introductory phone call, he says, but an important one. And in the two weeks since he became chairman, Pacheco has been in near daily communication with the DNC and other national political forces such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Indeed, even in one of the bluest of blue states, all eyes are on Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District.
Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, in office since 1995, shocked the political world when he announced in February he would not seek reelection. The move offered newfound hope to Republicans still celebrating the unlikely success of Massachusetts’ Senate candidate Scott Brown.
Kennedy’s departure led to a flurry of activity among Rhode Island Democrats. At last count, at least three candidates were in the running, including Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, state Rep. David Segal and former party chairman William Lynch, with a fourth — Anthony Gemma, the former president of Gem Plumbing and Heating — who may enter the race in the coming weeks.
It’s too late for Pacheco to help shape the field. But he will work behind the scenes to discourage Democrats from bloodying up their primary opponents.
“If we’re in a situation where every other commercial is a negative commercial about one person or another, it’s going to be difficult for us to overcome that,” he said.
But Pacheco’s ability to influence high-profile primaries for both congressional seats and the governor’s office may be limited, according to University of Rhode Island political science Prof. Maureen Moakley, who had Pacheco in class not long ago.
“He’s going to have his hands full. But even a more-experienced chair wouldn’t have a lot of leverage with these candidates,” Moakley said. “They’re going to go their own way.”
Things may change, however, after the Sept. 14 primaries.
“Coming into the position at this late date in the political cycle makes it even more difficult,” said AFL-CIO President George Nee, long a player in Rhode Island politics. “But his first real test will be to bring the party together after the primaries are over.”
Pacheco will have less than 50 days to help coordinate general-election strategy and resources. That’s why he’s already begun to develop relationships with key national players.
“We don’t want to have another Scott Brown situation. We need to make sure that we have the appropriate resources, and that we’re coordinating those resources in an effective manner,” Pacheco said. “I want to make sure that Rhode Island maintains its status as being one of the bluest states in the country.”
Neither the DNC nor the DCCC would comment on specific plans for allocating resources. But facing a strong anti-incumbent sentiment among voters, there will be tremendous lobbying by local officials such as Pacheco for a slice of the pie.
And it may be a large pie this year.
While fundraising machines are just ramping up, the DNC and DCCC reported having $14.7 million and $26 million cash on hand in their most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission. The Democratic Governor’s Association, which Pacheco will push to assist the primary winner of the governor’s race, has already raised more than $30 million this election cycle.
Pacheco will also push to coordinate campaign strategy with labor unions, although organized labor’s role this year — especially in the governor’s race — is far from clear.
“I would expect this year that we might sit out a lot of races. We’re not just going to support any Democrat,” Nee said. “We might support some independents; we might support some Republicans. Or in certain races, we might say, ‘You know what? Those people weren’t there for us, so why should we get involved.’ ”
It’s just one more challenge for Pacheco.
“We’re in uncharted territory this year,” Nee said, offering the new chairman a message: “Good luck.”