Pennsylvania Democratic chair Marcel Groen’s sudden retirement has set off jockeying among Democrats eager to fill the state party’s top slot – there’s even an early front-runner, with several insiders citing a Western PA county committee chair as a possible successor.
Groen abruptly announced his resignation via mass email on Friday morning, under apparent pressure from the Wolf administration. Groen, who took power himself after Wolf pushed out previous party chief Jim Burns, had taken flak for several problematic comments about recent sexual harassment scandals.
Until a new leader is appointed, former vice chair Penny Gerber defaults to interim chair. But Gerber had already indicated her intent to resign her post, citing health issues. Party treasurer and attorney Jack Hanna is now widely expected to fill out much of the remainder of Groen’s term, which expires in June.
In the long run, sources said that Wolf, who has broad de facto power over the state party, will likely select a close confidant and a woman to fill the role.
“We are at a point and a time where circumstances will have a big influence on who the next chair will be,” political consultant Mark Nevins said. “There’s...a situation where a large number of candidates and electeds have been caught up in sexual harassment scandals. Having a strong woman lead the party makes sense. And having someone who will prioritize getting Gov. Wolf reelected will also be a priority.”
A number of sources pointed to the party’s Allegheny County chair, Nancy Mills, who had herself recently called for Groen’s ouster. She is close to the governor, and holds close relationships with powerful Western PA political players like Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald and rural county committee heads.
“She has been a very fair and effective county chair and she would do a great job with the state party,” said Pittsburgh-area campaign consultant Matthew Merriman-Preston.
In recent years, Democrats have ceded a great deal of political territory to Republicans in that region and are currently locked in a heated contest for a March special election in the 18th Congressional District.
Mills did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Nothing is yet set in stone. Mary Isenhour, a top political aide to Wolf and former executive director of the state party, was floated as a possible contender.
Katie McGinty, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2016 and recently resigned from a post-election life sciences job, was also rumored as another possible successor. However, sources indicated that she would not seek the chair and intended to stay out of politics for the near future.
The party chair, an unpaid position, is also expected to drive fundraising for big-ticket races.
“The other box that needs to be checked is proven fundraising prowess,” Nevins said. “It’s sort of a thankless job, honestly. Someone is always mad at you.”
Groen’s retirement also comes amid discontent voiced by progressives, who have clamored for more left-leaning leadership since President Donald Trump won the Commonwealth in the 2016 election.
“We are at a moment where there is real energy for reform in our party, and all of that energy is coming from the progressive wing,” said lawyer Jake Sternberger. “We need bold, accountable, new leadership and we will not settle for the same tired insider names leading the party.”