It’s Time to Play: Who Sank the People’s Pledge?

Because no major campaign in Massachusetts is complete without a pissing contest about filthy finances.

It is apparently necessary for every major Massachusetts political campaign to periodically engage in a pissing contest about which candidate most abhors the filthy finances that sully the otherwise pure Athenian ideal of democratic debate. So, here we go. Again.

Democratic gubernatorial rivals Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman are at it, prompted by the formation of a so-called “Super PAC” in support of the latter (as first reported by the Boston Herald). Although Grossman’s campaign is not responsible for the PAC or its activities—it cannot be involved, by law—he has also neither denounced it nor expressed any desire for it to stand down.

This primary lacks a “People’s Pledge” regarding such outside groups. For those who don’t live and breathe Massachusetts politics (oh, how I sometimes envy you), the Pledge was a signed agreement between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren in 2012 to pay a penalty equal to half of any amount spent on their behalf by any outside group. It successfully deterred such groups from flooding the airwaves, to the delight of the masses and the editorial boards, which means everybody since then must at least give lip service to the concept.

Late last year, the five Democratic candidates—Coakley, Grossman, Joe Avellone, Don Berwick, and Juliette Kayyem—began negotiations over a Pledge for their primary. Negotiations are necessary, because the language of the agreement can matter a great deal. For example, Brown foolishly forgot to subject direct mail to the terms of the Pledge, and soon learned how much left-leaning groups love to fill mailboxes with unflattering characterizations of Republican opponents.

I have discussed the negotiations with people directly involved for several of the campaigns and have seen some email exchanges shared with me and verified by others. In November, there was talk of bringing in former state party chair John Walsh to arbitrate; Grossman’s camp did not sign onto the idea, although versions differ on how strongly. In any event, negotiations continued without an outside moderator. There was one meeting with the candidates themselves, followed by email exchanges and other conversations among the campaigns’ point people.

That ended in December. According to one version, Grossman killed the Pledge by unilaterally walking away from the negotiations; according to another, Coakley blew up the talks by insisting on unreasonable additions.

There were two particular Coakley proposals at issue. The first would exclude outside spending done in response to attacks from the Republican side. It’s an understandable concern: it’s not unlikely that the Republican Governors Association and others will start running ads against Coakley well before the September primary, and the original version of the Pledge would prevent EMILY’s List or others from responding.

On the other hand, you can see why Grossman would object. Since Coakley is (at this point) the likely target of such attacks, this exemption could easily unleash the resources of pro-Coakley forces while gagging supporters of the other four Democrats. Also, the proposed language was vague enough to potentially apply to almost any attacks on Coakley, not just from GOP and right-wing groups. Reworking the language might have helped, but could still have left a sizable loophole.

The second proposal, in my opinion, is less defensible:

Each of the undersigned candidates and their campaigns will not run paid advertising of any kind, including but not limited to—television, print, web, or mail—that mentions the other candidates by name or using their image.

In other words, the Grossman campaign itself would be barred from saying anything about Coakley in any ad or mailer. You can understand why the frontrunner would want to immunize herself from any criticism, but there is no reason that any of the other candidates would, or should, sign on.

Besides, it has nothing at all to do with the purpose of the Pledge, which is intended to keep outside groups from doing the dirty work of negative campaigning while candidates keep their own hands clean.

Interestingly, today the Coakley campaign went public with a version of the Pledge that they are calling on Grossman to sign—and it includes the first of these proposals but not the second.

Those proposals might have been negotiating points to be bargained, or attempts to sabotage the process with unreasonable demands; that’s to the eye of the beholder. Regardless, the Grossman campaign—which was advocating a modified version of what Steve Lynch and Ed Markey signed during their US Senate primary—declared the negotiations futile, and discussions ceased. Again, that could be seen as walking out on negotiations, or pushing back for the other side to recalibrate their position. Both sides insist that they’ve always wanted a Pledge but neither has made any overtures in the subsequent four and a half months.

Coakley has gone heavily on the offensive since the Herald article, criticizing Grossman for not denouncing the Super PAC support, while touting her own history of active opposition to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened the door to large contributions undisclosed until after the election. Grossman partisans point to Coakley’s hypocrisy in slamming outside spending after relying heavily upon it (albeit not in Super PAC form) in previous campaigns.

There was also this odd comment from Coakley in Friday’s Herald follow-up:

… Coakley wouldn’t explicitly commit to swearing off Super PAC support herself, saying, “It is not an issue right now.

“I believe at this stage in the game, I don’t see any reason for it. And we certainly, among ourselves, have had that discussion,” she said. “We haven’t had it as an issue in primaries before. … Frankly, I didn’t think it would be an issue in a primary.”

As I mentioned above, Super PACs—like all independent expenditure committees—must by law be entirely separate from the political campaign. It would be entirely inappropriate for Coakley and her campaign team to have had discussions, among themselves, about whether to do anything related to the creation of a Super PAC, now or at any stage of the game. To me, it sounds like that’s what she’s talking about in that quote; but it could be instead that she is talking about strategic thinking around the effects of signing the pledge. I have not yet received a clarification from the Coakley campaign.

Update, 3:20 p.m.: “Martha was simply referring to the discussions among the campaigns about signing a People’s Pledge,” says Coakley campaign manager Tim Foley.