Campaign Finance Lawsuit Could Reshape the State’s Political Landscape

This lawsuit could level the playing field for businesses interested in participating in Massachusetts politics.

Massachusetts State House via Mass. Office of Tourism.

Massachusetts State House photo via Mass. Office of Tourism

It’s impossible to overstate how much of a major role organized labor plays in Massachusetts politics.

Candidates go out of their way to make sure their campaign items have the little union stamp on them. They seek their endorsements at meetings. Thousands of active union members are the foot soldiers in the always-evolving voter outreach efforts. And they crave their financial donations.

Unions are special in the eyes of Massachusetts campaign finance law because they can donate up to $15,000 directly to campaigns, unlike small businesses and corporations that can give nothing directly to candidates or political action committees.

Meanwhile, mere individuals can donate just $1,000 to political campaigns and $500 to PACs.

This has been the way of the life in Massachusetts politics since the good ‘ol Guild administration. You remember Governor Curtis Guild, who ruled Massachusetts from 1906-1909, don’t you? Big union guy, someone tried to assassinate him once but shot the wrong man at the State House? No? Anyway.

Enter two businessmen upset with the status quo: Rick Green, owner of 1A Auto in Pepperell, and Michael Kane proprietor of Self Storage Inc. in Ashland. Green and Kane, with the help of the Arizona-based free market Goldwater Institute, are suing the state to end the ban on private business political donations. They’re upset because they think the law’s application of contributions limits is unfair.

Their attorneys argued for a temporary injunction against the law banning direct business donations to political campaigns in court on Wednesday before Suffolk Superior Court Judge Linda Giles, who said she would have to do her “homework” on the issue before making a ruling. A ruling on the injunction could come within the next month. It’s unclear at this time if her ruling would apply to just the two men and their companies or all businesses.

Kane told reporters on Wednesday that he was baffled as to why a union outside Massachusetts could have more influence over an election that him, a small business owner in Massachusetts.

“I can’t compete with unions from Chicago, Washington, D.C., Minnesota. Somehow they have more say in Massachusetts politics than I do,” said Kane according to State House News Service reports.

A recent example of this was in the 2013 mayoral race, when organized labor groups from around the country contributed heavily to the campaign of now mayor Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Like in all elections, businesses were forbidden from participating financially.

Massachusetts is one of just eight states that treats unions and businesses differently when it comes to campaign finance. In New Hampshire, the laws are reversed and unions are blocked from making financial donations to local campaigns. The other six states either ban donations from businesses outright or severely limit them.

Under current laws, the only course of action for businesses looking to participate in the Massachusetts political process is to donate to federal Super PACs or ballot question committes. This lawsuit could level the playing field for businesses interested in participating in Massachusetts politics.