AUGUSTA (AP) – Maine’s Democratic Party organization settled on a new leader less than six months ago, but already must elect a successor.

Barbara Raths, a youthful veteran in party affairs who had already served as the organization’s executive director and twice as head of its coordinated campaign committee before being tabbed chairwoman in December, says she is stepping down to focus on graduate school.

Seeking to succeed her are at least two candidates: Dorothy Melanson of Falmouth and Barbara Burt of Newcastle.

Melanson, previously the Democratic chairwoman in Cumberland County, is currently a state party delegate to the Democratic National Committee. Burt is the party’s Lincoln County chairwoman.

At least one other party activist is said to have taken soundings.

Sunday’s election comes at something of a turning point for the state Democratic organization.

For the first time, the chairmanship is becoming a paid position. Organizational staffing has been beefed up and in some ways the party structure’s traditional reliance on volunteers is being supplanted by a more professional approach.

Sunday’s election also comes as party activists are turning their attention to the 2004 elections, in which Maine Democrats will select presidential delegates in an old-fashioned caucus system with a modern twist – optional absentee voting.

Last time around, on March 7, 2000, Maine Democrats cast ballots in a presidential preference primary election.

Al Gore defeated Bill Bradley by 54 percent to 41 percent in a contest that attracted 64,279 voters.

Last winter, without opposition, Raths took the party’s gavel from two-term chairwoman Gwethalyn Phillips, who is credited by her successor and others for serving as virtually a full-time chairwoman despite the status of a volunteer.

“Gwethalyn Phillips has raised the bar,” Melanson says admiringly.

In the past, adds Burt, “for all intents and purposes, it was a full-time job. It’s just people weren’t getting paid for it.”

Heading into Sunday’s election, both Melanson and Burt say they are focused on the basics.

“My priority is what the priority of the Democratic Party is,” Melanson says, “which is to elect Democrats, maintain majorities and seek a new president.”

Burt says she hopes to lead a Democratic state committee that “should really reach out to Democrats and unenrolled voters and increase the membership.”

Recent electoral wins for Democrats in Maine contrast with the party’s less successful showings at the federal level.

While the White House is in Republican hands, the Blaine House has been claimed by the Democrats for the first time since the mid-1980s. And while both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are GOP-led, Democrats control the Maine House and Senate.

A major chore for whomever assumes Democratic Party leadership will be monitoring campaign finance laws. At the federal level, that has become no easy matter.

On May 2, a federal court struck down most of a ban on the use of large corporate and union contributions by political parties, casting a cloud over a new campaign finance law that was supposed to take big money out of politics.

Nationally, there are nine Democratic candidates looking to take on President Bush.

At the state level, Raths says grass roots organizing is sure to remain a key Democratic Party interest.

Given competing demands to aid office seekers and promote issues, “we just have to do more organizing,” she says.


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