Invasion of the Policy Snatchers

It may be a long time before Massachusetts matters again to presidential candidates, but the blitz of out-of-town cash that hit our state this election season showed there's another way for us to be relevant: as guinea pigs for crackpot causes.

Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

The conventional wisdom is that what we do in Massachusetts is for the most part politically meaningless. That we’re so detached from mainstream (read: fat, incurious) America that anything that happens here must be viewed as an un-American aberration, or, in some cases, an outbreak that needs to be contained via months of hysterical, sanctimonious posturing, lest it spread to godforsaken small towns in the Great Ordinary Belt.

Never is this more evident than during a presidential race, when states like Ohio and Pennsylvania find themselves buckling under continual bombardment from the candidates. (In the closing weeks of his winning campaign, Barack Obama had nearly a quarter of a million people working to capture Florida. And save for a few miles along the Barrier Islands, Florida is horrible.) So you can see why Massachusetts residents might feel a little neglected as autumn rolls in: no nasty, late-night robocalls, no reporters nagging you as you try to eat breakfast at a rootsy-looking diner, no pockmarks on your front door from the knuckles of all those earnest canvassers. Sure, some attack ads aimed at swinging southern New Hampshire land on our TVs. But otherwise, it’s downright tranquil. And this is seen as a sign of our obsolescence as a people.

Yet even as Obama and McCain spent predictably minimal time here, Massachusetts showed itself to be something of a battleground this year. The months that led up to November 4 saw out-of-state donors unleashing millions to try to tip the outcome of two initiatives on our ballots: Question 1, which sought to abolish the state income tax, and Question 2, which called for decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. The Committee for Small Government, which pushed Question 1, was bankrolled more than 50 percent by non–Massachusetts residents. Meanwhile, the much-better-funded Coalition for Our Communities, which helped squash that initiative, received more than $2 million from people definitely not living in our communities. More than 85 percent of the funding for the primary group behind the successful Question 2, the Committee for a Sensible Marijuana Policy, came from beyond our state’s borders. (Evidently, meddlers care not for our greyhounds: Question 3, which secured a ban on dog racing, got most of its funding from in-state donors.)

Add it up, and 2008 saw an influx of more out-of-state money than any year this decade (save for 2006, when supermarket corporations spent big on the fight over whether their local outlets should be allowed to sell wine). It leaves you torn. For one, you can’t help but feel a sort of gratitude, after years of attention starvation, that we matter enough for people in Middle America to send in $10 checks to try to influence our affairs. Your elitism falls away. You turn Buddhist, or maybe Federalist, pondering how all our interests are interconnected, how we are all one.

But then you talk to the guy from Maine who tells you he donated $850 to support Question 1 because he wants the anti-tax movement to spread, kudzu-like, to his state, and also because “people in Massachusetts know it’s one of the most bloated and corrupt governments in the entire nation.” And a native defensiveness, rooted in the belief that only Massholes are allowed to denounce their government as bloated and corrupt, sends you swinging in the other direction. You go provincial, you cocoon, you morph into George Wallace and start shaking your fist at these agitators sowing chaos in your state to satisfy their own ideological agendas. You get a window, in fact, into how it feels when we do the exact same thing to everyone else.


Naturally, the distinction between meddler and patriot depends to a great extent on whose ox is being gored. During the run-up to Election Day, I spoke to the people on either side of the ballot questions, and the mischief-making outsider was a shared theme. Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, part of the Coalition for Safe Streets—which opposed Question 2—assailed billionaire philanthropist/provocateur George Soros for giving $400,000 to the pro–Question 2 Committee for a Sensible Marijuana Policy. “It really bothers me that a guy who’s made billions on the hedge fund industry is dumping all this money into Massachusetts, a state he has absolutely no connection to,” said Conley. “While we’re struggling here to get our kids educated and prepared to compete in the global economy, here comes George Soros!” Whitney A. Taylor, campaign manager for the Committee for a Sensible Marijuana Policy, countered by suggesting it was Conley’s group that was benefiting from out-of-state dollars (not the case). She added that though her group received over $200,000 from the DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, that was only right, because “the Marijuana Policy Project has a huge membership in Massachusetts, so they’re supporting us the way the members of Massachusetts are supporting them.” Hmm.

In all, according to state campaign-finance records, Carla Howell’s Committee for Small Government got more than $230,000 from carpetbagging donors. Two hundred bucks from Tennessee, $45 from South Dakota, $350 from Kansas…. The campaign-finance reports can go several pages without a local address.

Yet when asked about that, Howell took umbrage. “A greater percentage of the opposition funding is from out of state,” she said. “The opposition has almost no individual donors.” Of course, that was nonsense. But necessary nonsense, for Howell recognizes that donor rolls full of out-of-state contributions are a big liability to her cause.

But maybe it just looks that way because I was a Yes-on-2, No-on-1 guy. To me, these marauding anti-tax lunatics were goring my bull, while the potheads were patriots. Like Stan Merkin, a retiree in Stuart, Florida. He donated $500 to the decriminalization effort in the hopes that if enough states overturn weed laws, it’ll force the federal government to do the same. “If lives are being ruined, it isn’t ‘meddling,'” he said. Gene Case, an ad writer in New York, gave $50 to the Committee for a Sensible Marijuana Policy because—to the protests of Dan Conley, et al.—he was prompted by the DC-based Marijuana Policy Project. “I’m unapologetically meddling,” he said. “When someone like MPP calls up and says, ‘Meddle,’ I meddle.” You can almost hear the flag proudly flapping around in that statement.

By contrast, when Mark Cenci, the aforementioned pro-1 geologist in Maine, said, “John Adams and Sam Adams were great examples of meddlers, they were from Massachusetts, and their meddling still reverberates positively today,” it rang false. As it did when Robert Golwick of Branchville, New Jersey, explained his donation to support Question 1 by saying simply, “It’s the USA.” Surely even John Adams, who famously deplored unfair taxation, would want us to have passable roads. Not to mention a nice, fatty insulating layer of bureaucracy to keep our pols from doing anything truly rash or destructive.

If Massachusetts is going to remain a full-time battleground, maybe there’s a compromise to be found. Maybe Boston City Councilor Sam Yoon, seasoned by his own unusually treacherous situation, can take the lead.

Over the past few months Yoon has raked in tens of thousands from out of state, mainly from California. A flier for one fundraiser out there appealed to the Korean-American community to help elect him mayor of Boston. A big shock to pundits here, it was an even bigger one to Tom Menino. “The hornets’ nest has been jostled,” according to a source close to Yoon, meaning that the mayor has now taken an interest in Yoon’s fundraising activities—never a great development for an upstart Boston pol.

Yoon himself argues that taking out-of-state money is necessary because Massachusetts campaign-finance laws limit individual donations to a paltry $500, forcing an
y challenger’s fundraising efforts to include tapping more-far-flung sources. Of course, in reality the reasons for it are a little more quotidian: 1.) Yoon is Korean-American, and there aren’t many of those in government, so other Korean-Americans from around the country are stepping up and filling his coffers. 2.) When you’re a politician and someone who’s not an obvious felon or terrorist hands you money, you take it.

(I was hoping to speak to some of Yoon’s supporters—ask why this guy, what they see in him, and whether they would consider moving to Boston and shoring up our tax base if he’s elected. Strangely, though I called dozens, none of them called me back. Finally one, a South Korean actress in L.A., let slip that Yoon’s office had been telling supporters not to talk to me. Bostonians may question Yoon’s capability, or his motivation for considering a mayoral run. But no one can argue his staff lacks the requisite needless paranoia for the job.)

Yoon offered a more convincing justification for his fundraising strategy when he noted—presumably while lazing in a swimming pool full of California money—that “Massachusetts is an ATM for campaigns everywhere else.” Indeed, Massachusetts residents give prodigiously to political campaigns all over the country (we gave more per capita to Barack Obama than any other state), and therefore own a good bit of responsibility for that army of canvassers Obama unleashed on all those unfortunate Floridians. By such a standard, it’s only fair that people start meddling in our affairs with the same doggedness with which we tend to meddle in theirs.

At the same time—to run with the ATM metaphor—it would be nice if we could at least collect a surcharge. We could call it the Yoon Rule: People get to donate as much as they like to our politicians or initiatives, but 5 percent would be redirected into a rainy-day fund, in the event the pol or policy they foist on us turns out to be a dog. That way, the next time a state income tax repeal comes up for a vote, we can set aside funds to help pay for the little things the Carla Howell camp has decreed we can do without. Like teachers, for instance, to enlighten our children on the difference between a good idea and a really bad one.