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[talking politics]

Collateral damage
Beacon Hill’s failure to fully fund the Clean Elections Law may torpedo the Democrats’ best chance of ending 12 years of GOP gubernatorial rule


MANY MASSACHUSETTS DEMOCRATS view 2002 as the year they will finally retake the governor’s office after 12 years of Republican rule. Poll numbers suggest that State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien is the best-positioned candidate to defeat Governor Jane Swift. An October 2 Boston Herald poll shows O’Brien at 29 percent and Swift — who is dealing with the state’s fiscal meltdown and getting more deeply drawn into the troubles at Massport with each passing day — at 40 percent. The next-closest Democratic challenger was Secretary of State William Galvin, with 27 percent.

For all her popularity, however, O’Brien has a problem with money. Her campaign bank account runs a poor fourth behind those of Democratic-nomination rivals Tom Birmingham, Steve Grossman, and William Galvin. This isn’t because O’Brien can’t raise money; it’s because she banked on running as a Clean Elections candidate — as she revealed during a March interview with the Phoenix. Since then, she dutifully raised small-dollar donations under the constraints of the program; in all, she raised $253,000 from more than 6000 individual donors. None of the contributions was more than $100. But the legislature has failed to fund the Clean Elections program adequately — or, for that matter, even to release its budget, which is now 20 weeks late. That means O’Brien can’t count on the $3.8 million in matching funds for which she would have been eligible if the Clean Elections Law had been fully funded.

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory neatly summed up O’Brien’s predicament in his October 26 column. O’Brien is "left with $800,000 in her campaign account and a dire need for millions more. If she wants to keep pace with Tom Birmingham, who already has $3 million saved up, she’ll have to raise another $2.2 million between now and the Democratic primary next Sept. 17," McGrory wrote. "That’s $200,000 a month, nearly $47,000 a week, almost $10,000 every workday."

Though the picture painted by McGrory is stark, it actually may be somewhat optimistic. O’Brien, with $825,000 in her bank account, is at least $1.85 million behind Senate president Birmingham, $89,033 behind Grossman, and $193,249 behind Secretary of State Galvin, who briefly flirted with a run as a Clean Elections candidate himself. She’ll also have to expend serious financial resources on setting up a full-fledged campaign operation soon. Birmingham, for example, spent $735,409 getting his offices up and running, according to state documents. O’Brien does have more money than Democratic challenger Warren Tolman, who’s continuing to run as a Clean Elections candidate despite the fact that he’s likely never to receive matching funds (to date, Tolman has raised $12,230 in Clean Elections money). He is suing the state to honor its commitment to fund Clean Elections.

Making matters worse, this summer’s sluggish economic environment worsened after the September 11 terrorist attacks — creating a political-fundraising environment that is among the worst in anyone’s memory. "I think it will be hard for everybody to raise money this year because of the economy, which was already worsening before September 11 and is even worse now," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "Now [O’Brien’s] got to play catch-up. And all of the Democrats have to catch up with Jane Swift." Indeed, with $1.3 million already in place, and without any need to spend it on a primary challenge, Swift’s funds will likely dwarf the campaign war chests of all the Democratic challengers.

Still, O’Brien’s finance director, Coleen Burgess, says she’s up to the challenge; 26 fundraisers have been scheduled between now and December 13. "We need to raise a significant amount by the end of this year," says Burgess. Although the O’Brien team is mum on exactly how much it must raise, one source put the figure at a little over $1 million by year’s end. By primary day, however, O’Brien will surely need to have raised at least $3.5 million (the amount Scott Harshbarger, the last Democratic gubernatorial nominee, had on hand at the same point in the 1998 election cycle).

POLITICAL INSIDERS see O’Brien’s plight as particularly ominous for one reason: money is the lifeblood of gubernatorial politics. Unlike local elections, such as the special one just held to fill the Ninth Congressional District seat left empty by Congressman Joe Moakley’s death, money plays a much larger role in statewide elections. After all, door-knocking — critical to a local campaign — is impractical in a statewide run. Instead, gubernatorial candidates must rely heavily on television advertising. Political experts estimate that competitive candidates will have to spend $5 million in the primary alone, about 80 percent of which will go toward TV ads. To break it down further, a candidate will have to spend at least $250,000 per week from the Democratic State Convention in early June until the primary on September 17.

With these realities in mind, O’Brien’s financial position appears particularly weak compared to that of Birmingham, the Democratic fundraising front-runner. Birmingham, more than any candidate in the race other than the governor herself, can use his office to advantage: his strong role in the budget process can influence fundraising. For instance, the longer Birmingham and his House counterpart, Speaker Tom Finneran, go without a budget, the longer lobbyists, desperate to see their programs funded in the final budget, have to throw money at them. A recent study by the Massachusetts Money and Politics Project concluded that "top legislative leaders raised the most money ... in the midst of the budget debate." Birmingham, of course, shielded his donors from scrutiny until recently, taking refuge in a state law that allows legislative candidates to report their financial information only once annually in off-election years. (Birmingham is free to use any money in his state account for a statewide run). He filed papers as a statewide candidate on October 29, finally making this information public.

But when O’Brien used her position as treasurer for a fundraising benefit, she was quickly stung in the press. A March 30 Boston Herald story highlighted the ties between the Treasury and some of O’Brien’s donors. In a related matter, a March 14, 2000, Herald editorial called the O’Brien team’s targeting lottery sales agents for contributions "disappointing." Birmingham’s fundraising efforts may be similarly clouded by conflict-of-interest questions but we won’t know until his recently disclosed donor lists can be analyzed.

O’Brien has since made it known that she will decline campaign contributions from Treasury and lottery employees. In the meantime, as she steps up her fundraising efforts, the state treasurer must take extra care not to stumble into other situations that appear to involve conflicts of interest.

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Issue Date: November 8 - 15, 2001

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