Rep. Dudley touted to lead Democrats

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AUGUSTA (AP) – Fourth-term state Rep. Ben Dudley, a Portland progressive who unsuccessfully sought the House speakership two years ago, enters the weekend as the widely considered front runner to become chairman of the Maine Democratic Party.

Others have been mentioned for the party post, including former Lewiston Mayor Kaileigh Tara, but people active in Democratic politics or familiar with the inner workings of the party said Friday that Dudley was an odds-on favorite.

The chairmanship has opened up in the wake of former House Speaker Patrick Colwell’s announcement last month that he would be stepping down.

Colwell announced his resignation as chairman days after the party’s executive committee discussed a $10,000 contribution by the Maine party to a Rhode Island political campaign, according to a party official.

The party’s ruling committee put forward rules to prevent similar out-of-state contributions in the future but it did not take direct action to remove Colwell, said Stanley Gerzofsky, a party executive committee member and state representative from Brunswick.

Colwell’s candidacy for the party chairmanship had been encouraged by Gov. John Baldacci. Colwell won the job in January 2005 by defeating two other candidates.

The Democratic State Committee will elect a new chairman on Sunday.

Change at the top of the party’s organizational structure comes as Baldacci is gearing up for a re-election campaign and Democrats are trying to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, hold two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and maintain control in the Legislature.

The state Senate is now split 19-16 with Democrats holding the advantage over Republicans. The House membership is made up of 74 Democrats, 73 Republicans, 1 Green Independent and 3 unenrolled members.

Dudley serves on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee and was of a member of the Joint Select Committee on Property Tax Reform.

In November 2004, shortly after that year’s statewide general elections, Dudley dropped a bid for the Democratic nomination for speaker, giving way to now-Speaker John Richardson of Brunswick while conceding he did not have the votes to win.

Also saying he decided to drop out of the running in the interest of party unity, Dudley went on to nominate Richardson.

Two months ago, Julie Ann O’Brien, a former four-term legislator from Augusta, took over as executive director of the Maine Republican Party.

O’Brien succeeded Michael Leavitt, who was hired by the Republican National Committee to fill a party leadership post in Maryland.

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