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[talking politics]

A candidate with a conscience
Gubernatorial hopeful Warren Tolman bets on the Clean Elections Law


DEMOCRATIC GUBERNATORIAL HOPEFUL Warren Tolman has a lot at stake when the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) convenes December 3. That’s when lawyers for Tolman and 31 other plaintiffs (including Mass Voters for Clean Elections and other advocates of the campaign-financing law) will argue before the Commonwealth’s highest court that the state legislature is legally obligated to fund the Clean Elections Law, which passed by ballot referendum in 1998. Although the measure won the support of 67 percent of the voters, both House Speaker Tom Finneran and Senate president Tom Birmingham refused to allocate money for the law. It was supposed to be fully funded in time for the 2002 statewide elections. For that to happen, $10 million should have been set aside for the law this year. Instead, the budget hammered out in closed-door meetings between Finneran, Birmingham, and their top lieutenants provides no money for the law’s implementation.

Of the candidates currently vying for the Democratic nomination for governor, only Tolman has taken his chances with Clean Elections. To date, he’s raised roughly $170,000 from a little more than 7000 donors. As required by Clean Elections, none of the donations exceeded $100. (If a candidate opts out of the Clean Elections system, individual donors can give up to $500 per year.) He now has just $12,230 left in his campaign account. By contrast, State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien toyed with the notion of being a Clean Elections candidate, but rejected the idea in October when it became increasingly clear that the legislature would not fund the law. She has $825,000 from both Clean Elections and other sources of funding in her account. Secretary of State William Galvin has done something similar: he’s maintained both a Clean Elections and a conventional-fundraising account ($1,018,249 combined). If O’Brien and Galvin end up running outside of the Clean Elections system, they are still allowed to use the money specially raised under the law and can even go back to those donors again for more money. Birmingham (who has $2,675,000 in his war chest) and former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman ($914,033) are raising money the old-fashioned way — in several-hundred-dollar chunks, with plenty of $500 donations from Democratic Party activists. Birmingham is also tapping lobbyists and other groups that do business on Beacon Hill.

Clearly, Tolman is the most vulnerable of the five Democratic candidates when it comes to raising money — which is the lifeblood of any statewide campaign. (Jill Stein, a Green Party candidate and co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, is also planning a Clean Elections run.) After all, candidates can’t be expected to knock on the door of every voting Democrat in the state. They need to be able to pay for expensive television advertising to get their message out. So Tolman’s entire candidacy hinges on what the SJC rules after December 3. If he wins, he stands poised to receive up to $3.8 million in public financing. If he doesn’t, he’ll be left with the roughly $12,000 he’s got in his Clean Elections account as of today — and little more.

"One of two things will happen," says Tolman. "Either people will be upset and absolutely disgusted with what’s happened with Clean Elections and they’ll respond to the only candidate who is talking about it and remaining committed to it, or they won’t. If they do, I’ll be governor, and if they don’t, I’ll be sending you my rˇsumˇ."

THOSE HIGH stakes have left Tolman feeling — or at least talking — as if he has nothing to lose. Consider his candid, on-the-record assessments of three of his competitors.

On Birmingham: his donors are "the same lobbyist, special-interest, business-as-usual gang which ... brought us no budget mid November."

On O’Brien, who helped clean up the state treasury and uncover the Big Dig cost overruns: "I would like to see one legislative reform that she ever worked on in her six years in the legislature." Referring to her work at the treasury, he adds "those are things that any executive wouldn’t hesitate from doing. You see debts going on, particularly from your predecessor’s administration, you point it out. You’ve got a Republican administration trying to pull a fast one, you point it out. I don’t think it’s anything in [the latest] edition of Profiles in Courage."

On Grossman, the head of Somerville’s MassEnvelopePlus: "Somehow the notion is that he can run for governor, and I can’t. Yet he’s never held elected office.... I have no doubt he’s going to resort to spending his own money at some point.... I’ve never seen that model [the example of billionaire Michael Bloomberg who spent millions of his own money in his successful campaign for New York mayor] ... work in Massachusetts." (In this, Tolman overlooks a former congressman from his own district, John F. Kennedy, whose father bought him the 1946 congressional election and the 1952 senatorial election.)

Of course, this combative stance is nothing new. Tolman has been talking tough for months now. And some on the national scene are beginning to listen to him: in an editorial this past Monday, USA Today called him "a politician trying to do what the voters of Massachusetts want: break free of the suspicions aroused when election campaigns are paid for by special interests and wealthy individuals." But local Democrats remain impervious to his message. Talk to some in these parts, and it quickly becomes clear why they aren’t listening: they believe he ought to be heading over to Kinko’s to get his rˇsumˇ ready. "For the rest of the world, if they didn’t care about [Clean Elections] before September 11, they really don’t care about it now, and now we don’t have the money for it," says Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist.

Such sentiments only underscore the tremendous gamble Tolman is taking.

FOR ALL his Clean Elections rabble-rousing, Tolman looks like an establishment player. At a recent morning meeting held at his old law firm Holland & Knight, wearing a traditional blue blazer, he easily glad-handed lawyers and support staff as he made his way through the office to an outside deck that overlooks much of the Back Bay and South End. Not that Tolman is an establishment player these days. All the conviviality at Holland & Knight masks the awkwardness surrounding Tolman’s departure from the firm. In June the Boston Globe reported that Tolman resigned only after being pressured to leave due to his vocal criticism of the state legislative leadership, including Finneran, who also happens to be a client of the firm.

The basis of the conflict runs even deeper. Tolman was hired by Holland & Knight, a national and international law firm based in Florida, fresh from his unsuccessful 1998 run for lieutenant governor. His job? To focus on, among other matters, government relations. After Tolman sued the state over Clean Elections funding, however, it obviously became more difficult for him to do that sort of work. "I sued the legislature. I sued Birmingham. I sued Finneran," Tolman says. "You rock the boat a little bit, most firms have interests with which they’re governed." Today, he calls his old workplace "a great firm with a lot of terrific people" and describes his departure as "mutual" — adding that he would have left the firm by now anyway. He’s kept up with friends at Holland & Knight and one partner, Lawrence Bradley, recently hosted a fundraiser for the candidate at his home in Winchester.

But the goodwill between Tolman and his former colleagues doesn’t change the fact that he had to give up his job to run for governor. In fact, he’s the only candidate who’s had to do so. Which raises the question: why is he doing it? Nothing in Tolman’s early rˇsumˇ, after all, suggests a rebel. His background is more Horatio Alger than James Dean.

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Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001

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