Are Businesspeople Unable to Run for Massachusetts Office?

What the Dan Wolf/Cape Air saga says about mixing business with state politics.

Massachusetts continues to struggle with its reputation as a place where businesses can’t get lift. The latest controversy is over whether Cape Air founder Dan Wolf can run for governor—let alone hold his state Senate seat—is raising questions about whether businesspeople can run for office.

As Wolf, a Democrat, vows not to bow to pressure to choose between running his company or run the Commonwealth, we consulted Rutgers University business ethicist Michael A. Santoro about the chilling wind this bombshell ruling is sending through the business and political communities. “They’re absolutely asking too much,” Santoro said. “We don’t want to preclude people who are active in the real working world from serving in government. We don’t want government only made up of people with experience in government.”

Wolf first revealed the conflict in an August 7 Facebook post, where he contended that Cape Air’s relationship with Massport is largely limited to the landing fees it negotiates. Santoro agrees they are more like licenses and not fees for services, such as shuttling government officials to-and-fro. It seems harsh to force him to pull the ripcord on his corporate parachute or his gubernatorial run. “A good test for someone who wants to be governor is how well he puts through a plan for his business interests once he becomes governor,” Santoro said. “I’d want to know how he thinks about these things, fully and thoughtfully. Then let the people decide.”

But that’s not how this is going down. The Ethics Commission said Thursday in an emailed statement that it’s following the law: Section 7 of the state ethics law requires Wolf fully divest his nearly 23 percent interest in Cape Air, terminate his contracts with Massport, or resign from the state Senate. The Ethics Commission says it has ruled this way before.

An Ethics Commission spokesman said Thursday’s statement was its only comment. A defiant Wolf was on the campaign trail this morning and not immediately available for comment, and a spokesman said nothing has changed since last week’s standoff.

It’s not stopping Wolf from gaining a pack of supporters, either. Massport agrees the Cape Air contracts were typical of those signed with other airlines. The Globe called for an overhaul in the cockamamie ethics law that led to the “unduly harsh ruling.” He’s even received some bi-partisan love. Republican state Sen. Robert Hedlund, who while he doesn’t back the Democrat’s bid for governor, tweeted to Wolf’s defense. He also wants the ethics law changed. “I’m concerned that we don’t have enough people with business experience in the Senate,” Hedlund said. “It gives you a lot of perspective.”

Santoro said blind trusts could avoid conflicts of interest. There’s a history of wealthy Bay State politicians, such as Govs. William Weld and Mitt Romney, using them to put avoid an unseemly appearances. Both had indirect investments, like stocks and bonds, though, and not contracts with state agencies. Wolf argues the contracts’ terms, like a stock, are not set by his company.

Whatever the outcome, Santoro said Wolf must show voters a plan that doesn’t look like it was devised out of the blue. “Going forward, he needs to explain ‘this is how I handled conflicts in the past, this is how I would handle them in the future,’” Santoro said. “The public is entitled to know.”