Why the next Massachusetts Democratic chairman may be a woman

Massachusetts Democrats, unlike their counterparts in an increasing number in other states, have never had a woman at their party's helm. This situation, however, may be nearing a change, despite the April 21 reelection of state Democratic chairman Chester G. Atkins to a new four-year term.

While the latter, a state senator from Concord, has given no hint that he might step down before 1988, his resignation by early next year has to be viewed as a very real possibility, in the light of his current reach for a seat in the US Congress.

Clearly there would be nothing to prevent Mr. Atkins from continuing as state Democratic chairman while serving in the US House of Representatives.

But trying to sit in two seats hundreds of miles apart could pose more of a challenge than he would care to face. Thus, if he is elected to the Fifth Congressional District seat being vacated by Democratic US Rep. James M. Shannon , it is questionable how long Atkins would stay on as state Democratic chairman.

Were the chairmanship to be vacated, a successor would be elected by the more than 200 members of the state committee, from within its ranks. And there is be no shortage of candidates - women as well as men.

Among those who might be in the running are state Sen. Patricia McGovern of Lawrence, former state Sen. Sharon M. Pollard of Methuen, and Norma Fenochietti of Marshfield, the newly elected state Democratic vice-chairwoman.

The latter, an aide to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, unseated Eva B. Hester of Clinton, a longtime party activist, by nearly 2 to 1.

The governor, although not a member of the Democratic committee, may well have had some influence in the selection, since a majority of those on that panel are Dukakis allies.

Had the governor not been fully supportive of Mrs. Fenochietti's candidacy, there is no doubt he could have persuaded her not to run or forced her out of his administration, where she serves as the governor's appointments secretary.

If nothing else, the new party vice-chairwoman brings the governor closer to the state Democratic organization than any chief executive over the past two decades.

Mr. Dukakis, who has appointed more women to high state government posts than any predecessor and has been a staunch advocate for expanded opportunities for women both in the public and private sector, presumably would hardly be disappointed were a woman to become the next chairman.

Quite understandably, however, he would want the new Massachusetts Democratic Party chieftain to be someone close to him politically. Senator McGovern, Miss Pollard, and Mrs. Fenochietti certainly fit the bill.

While it is uncertain how Dukakis might be involved in the selection, he could hardly be expected to sit idly by without at least indirectly getting out the word as to his preference. But even were he to shy away from such involvement, more than a few committee members would almost surely quietly sound him out.

Obviously the governor is not about to participate in any such discussions. He appears well satisfied with the Atkins chairmanship, which has brought the party closer together than it has been for some years. But he is sure to have given some thought to the next party leader.

Currently, Democrats in Puerto Rico and five states - Alaska, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Washington - have chairwomen. At least a couple of them have taken over within the past few months. And it may be an idea whose time has come in Massachusetts.

Under state party rules, both the chairman and vice-chairman must be elected members of the state committee. They need not hold public office, however, although for the past 25 years, at least, the top leader, like Senator Atkins, also has been a state officeholder.

Atkins, for example, was preceeded by State Rep. Charles F. Flaherty of Cambridge. Before him came state Treasurer Robert Q. Crane of Wellesley, who had succeeded then state Rep. David Harrison of Gloucester.

The senator, who has held the chairmanship since November 1977, has been especially successful in not only bringing funds into Democratic Party coffers through various functions, but also in providing the impetus for revamping party rules and building grass-roots participation in its programs.

While some fellow Democrats may not be thrilled with Atkins's leadership, especially some of the party rules adopted during his regime, there has been no move to replace him.

Whatever disunity there has been within the state Democratic organization, on the surface at least, has faded considerably.

As deeply disappointed as Miss Hester surely was, and is, over losing the vice-chairmanship she held for the past 12 years, she is not about to rock the political boat.

Yet there is little doubt that had Governor Dukakis wanted her to retain her post, and thus perhaps be in line to be state Democratic chairman, she would probably have been reelected without even a whisper of opposition.

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