Is The Mayoral Election For Sale?

This election is as clear an example of money's impact on politics—nearly $2 million has been spent by outside groups in October alone—but, so far, very few seem to be worried about it.

Money image via Shutterstock

Money image via Shutterstock

There are few issues that elicit more hand-wringing among progressives than campaign financing, especially in the past few years since the Supreme Court widened the door to independent expenditures by outside groups. And the concern is not limited to lefty activists. Much of the general public claims to be worried about the effect that money has on the electoral process and on those who are helped into office by it.

Here in Boston, we’re watching as clear an example of the phenomenon as you’ll ever see. And yet, there’s been almost no concern raised about it at all.

To point this out is not an attack on Marty Walsh, nor is it some sort of assault on unions (or, on the other side, on John Connolly or the “education reform” movement). This is about the process.

As of this writing, outside entities have reported spending almost $2 million here in the month of October alone; three-quarters of that has been in support of Walsh. That includes canvassing—Working America has spent more than $100,000 this month on the canvassing described in today’s Globephone banking, billboards, mailings, door-hanging literature, and, of course, ads.

Paul McMorrow of CommonWealth recently calculated that outside spending in Boston’s campaign was already, on a per-capita basis, nearly double the amount in the recent Los Angeles mayoral race and more than five times greater than in the ongoing New York City race. He notes that other big cities have had far less.

The figures actually understate the amounts invested because a lot of the work—polling, strategy, and so forth—doesn’t have to be reported since it can be considered general, non-campaign activity (we’re curious what the people of Boston think about things!) rather than active support of a candidate.

If outside money can affect elections, Boston’s mayoral election provides a particularly rich environment for that influence. The candidates entered the race relatively unknown to most Boston voters, and, to a large extent, they remain blank slates for many. For a variety of reasons, including declining revenues and circulation as well as a surfeit of other huge local stories, the local media has arguably played a greatly diminished role in informing voters, leaving a gap to be filled. Very restrictive fundraising limits in Massachusetts—created in an attempt to reduce the role of money in campaigns—makes it extremely difficult for the actual campaign committees to raise the large sums of money needed in one of the most expensive media markets in the country. Many people (including those running the Walsh campaign) were absolutely stunned that Connolly raised $700,000 in the first half of October. Outside groups make a mockery of that $500-at-a-time check gathering—and it’s worth noting that raising $700,000 required an enormous commitment of the candidate’s time and attention, taking away from other types of campaigning in that critical time.

And the Supreme Court rulings, particularly Citizens United, completely upended the state’s existing limits on outside groups as the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance explains.

It also cannot be ignored that Walsh’s support comes from one interest area: labor unions. With the lone exception of One Boston, whose funding and intentions are a complete mystery, every outside spender in support of Walsh has been overtly tied to labor: Working America; Working America PAC; SEIU 1199 General Treasury Fund; SEIU 1199 PAC; Massachusetts Nurses Association; Retired State, County, and Municipal Employees; American Working Families (AWF) PAC; and UNITE Here. All of them, I think it’s fair to say, have interests of various kinds that come before the city government from time to time.

In addition, by my calculation, roughly one-third of Walsh’s own campaign committee contributions have come from unions—many from far-flung states—who can give as much as $15,000 under state law. When you add the substantial number of individual contributions from union members (and money those members have raised), easily half and perhaps two-thirds of Walsh’s funding has come from labor.

When you then add the outside spending, labor is responsible for the vast majority of all spending on behalf of Walsh in this campaign; probably more than 80 percent, if One Boston’s funds turn out to come from labor.

True, these labor organizations do not all have the same interests and purposes. And you can make the argument, as some do, that unions are more representative of “regular voters'” interests than, say, the financial-services sector. But if you believe that money has a potential corrupting effect on politicians, it is simply not credible to suggest that this much support from one interest area would have no impact on Walsh’s behavior in office.

It also needs to be said that the politicians who have lined up to endorse Walsh are themselves past and—they hope—future beneficiaries of labor support in their own careers. Local labor leaders have left little doubt that there will be long memories of who was with and who was against them in this mayoral race.

I also find it troubling that Walsh has been less than forthcoming, and in my opinion, dissembling, about his labor sympathies. Walsh is a union guy. I’ve always considered him that way, he has always presented himself that way, and everybody has always treated him that way. I don’t say that as a criticism. It is who he is. But he has not presented himself that way in this campaign. Most obviously, he has repeatedly and absurdly misrepresented his mandatory-arbitration bill. In addition, his response to the BPPA arbitration award and the school bus drivers work action were shocking to some labor leaders I have spoken with, who found his comments at odds with his past statements to them.

Walsh has also tried to have it both ways on the issue of outside spending. That spending, while not coordinated with his campaign, did not simply happen in a vacuum. He was counting on that spending all along, and much of it is being done by associates of his. Yet, as I reported, on at least one occasion during the primary he claimed that he would like a “People’s Pledge” to eliminate that spending, and claimed he would sign if all other candidates did. That was simply untrue as was revealed when the race narrowed to two and Connolly offered to sign the Pledge. Walsh refused, but rather than simply saying he supports the outside spending, he gave the preposterous excuse that he didn’t trust Connolly’s supporters to abide by it (even though they had in the preliminary, when he switched gears as a late convert to the outside-interest-detractors).

Connolly has benefited from the outside spending of one group so far, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). It has so far reported spending just over $500,000, mostly on ads and canvassing. That’s a lot. And Connolly has certainly raised a fair amount from others in that arena, although it appears to comprise a relatively small percentage of his total.

But it’s also true that we don’t really know where DFER’s money for this campaign comes from, so it’s hard to say how much influence, and of what kind, they might have. Like AWF and UNITE Here, that group has formed as a SuperPAC and has not disclosed the sources of its funding.

I recently solicited and obtained the agreement of both Connolly and Walsh to call on all these outside groups to disclose their donors of at least $1,000. This is not a radical idea; the OCPF itself does this: “Although it is not currently required by law, OCPF has asked these groups to also voluntarily disclose their contributors in the interest of full and fair disclosure,” its site explains.

I have tried to get responses from the three SuperPACs; none have responded to my calls and emails. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised by that. But I do think it’s reasonable for me to expect the clean-finance folks in the Boston area to take up the cry. And so far, I have heard almost none of it.