Last week, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern notified the Ohio Democratic Party’s Executive Committee and county party chairs that Doug Kelly and Lauren Groh-Wargo would be leaving ODP to go into business together:

Executive Director Doug Kelly and Deputy Executive Director Lauren Groh-Wargo have decided to tackle a new challenge that will utilize their talents not just here in Ohio, but across the country, in helping build stronger, more effective state-based organizations. 

While I am disappointed that these two extraordinary leaders have decided to leave ODP, I am excited they will remain in Ohio and continue to provide guidance to me and the Party through 2011 and beyond.

A national search will soon commence to find a new executive director.  In the interim, Doug will be available for any questions you may have.

In addition, sources within ODP indicated that the White House, Democratic National Committee, and major party stakeholders, such as the leadership of organized labor have also been informed within the past few days.

The announcement wasn’t much of a surprise.  Several Democratic insiders I talked to about the announcement mentioned that Kelly, in particular, had signaled that he had told folks he felt that he had “one cycle left in him” before the 2010 elections.  Kelly mentioned the same as well  as his two young children, ages two and nine, and the demands of the job requires a  great deal of personal sacrifice.  Kelly had served as Executive Director since 2007, after service as the Research Director at the Democratic National Committee.  All in all Kelly has had a major role in national and State party politics for the past fourteen years.

Kelly and Groh-Wargo spoke exclusively with us about the decision to leave.  Kelly told us that the plan was for him to remain for the next two months, while Groh-Wargo will be at ODP for another month.  They’ll both be involved in assisting the Party in the national search for their replacement and will be basing their new consultancy job out of Columbus, so they will be available to further aid in the transition once their successor are chosen.

Groh-Wargo, who headed the GOTV effort in 2010 while at Organizing for America’s Ohio chapter, said the voter files from the 2008 and 2010 campaigns and well as their plans and internal post-election analysis will remain with the party.  The party’s institutional knowledge “doesn’t go away with the people,” Groh-Wargo said.  She also pointed out that Greg Schultz is expected to remain at OFA while assuming his new duties as the Franklin County.

In reflecting on his tenure since 2007, Kelly noted that their approach was to grow the State Party as an organization, build a solid base of institutional funding, and building the party from the bottom-up and top-down.  Kelly leaves feeling that the Ohio Democratic Party has gone from a politically anemic organization to a strong brand that has taken the concept of what a State party can be to the next level. 

During the 2010 elections, the Ohio Democratic Party was the third largest Democratic organization in the nation.  Kelly indicated that he believes the time was as right to make the move as it can ever get.  But he believes that the SB 5 referendum fight, what MSNBC’s Chuck Todd predicted will be the “Super Bowl” of American politics this year, in addition to the ‘12 presidential election, and ODP’s reputation nationally will attract top political talent nationally to ODP.

Groh-Wargo emphasized that one of the lessons learned is that a coordinated campaign cannot be just an even-year concept.  With twenty professionals on staff at ODP, both believe that ODP is well positioned to go to the next level and become even more effective.  In discussing the referendum campaign this year, both indicated that the party is able to reach 600,000 Democratic activists–a much broader audience than organized labor can do on their own—to assist with messaging and the crucial organization that is needed to get SB 5 on the ballot and the other challenges of an issue campaign.

Both indicated that they hope their successors will bring the new energy ODP needs, but builds off the infrastructure and approach they built over the last two cycles.  Meanwhile, they hope to assist other State parties in repeating the success and, yes, avoid some of the mistakes, ODP made into the political institutional powerhouse.

Both Kelly and Groh-Wargo indicated that this was their personal decision.  ODP officially declined comment, beyond the Chairman’s e-mail mentioned above.  However, conversations with insiders at ODP and outside have consistently indicated that this was, in fact, their decision.  If it had been otherwise, a change would have likely occurred much soon after the November elections than now.

[UPDATE:] Seth Bringman, Communication Director of the Ohio Democratic Party issued the following statement:

“The organization we were able to build is a direct result of their leadership. Doug was the inspirational, visionary leader. Lauren was the glue that held the organization together. It has been an absolute honor to have had the opportunity to work for them for the past two years and I am confident that they will make us proud in their new venture.”

Furthermore, such turnover is actually the norm.  For example, the Ohio Republican Party had already announced they had made a change in Executive Director and Communication Director after their successful 2010 elections as well.

We’ll continue to follow the story of the search, and we wish Kelly and Groh-Wargo success in their efforts to build even stronger State Democratic Party organizations across the nation.

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