GOP Senate candidate Dan Winslow recently promised to release 10 years of tax returns and called on his opponents to do likewise. But even in making good on that vow, Winslow showed the ambivalence that many candidates feel about financial disclosure; his campaign invited reporters to inspect documents late on Friday afternoon — the time of week when politicians put out information in the hopes of minimizing news coverage. Meanwhile, GOP rival Michael Sullivan has vowed to release his returns, but hasn’t said when; Gabriel Gomez has been noncommittal on the issue.
In fact, all five Senate candidates, Republicans and Democrats, should provide tax information as a demonstration of openness. Voters should know how candidates for high public office are earning their money, and the financial disclosure forms that federal officeholders must complete provide too limited a picture.
Massachusetts politicians have not been consistent in releasing their tax returns. Ted Kennedy never did, no doubt protective of the vast array of Kennedy family trust funds, businesses, and investments. Deval Patrick hasn’t either. Former Michigan Governor George Romney set an admirable example when he ran for president in 1968, offering up a dozen years’ worth of returns — and making it all the more difficult for his son, Mitt, to shield his own returns 44 years later.
Most often, candidates are afraid to reveal the full extent of their wealth; voters, the fear goes, won’t be able to relate. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans are millionaires in total assets, but 40 to 50 percent of members of Congress are, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Over time, as campaigns become more expensive, and therefore attract more self-financing candidates seizing on their advantage, this gap will only continue to grow. When little-known business figures such as Gomez suddenly appear on the scene, detailed tax disclosures become even more important.
Promoting transparency shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Aides to Democratic candidates Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch note that both, as members of Congress, earn a base salary of $174,000 and must regularly report assets, liabilities, and financial transactions under congressional rules. Yet these don’t require, for instance, the amount of a spouse’s income, only the source. Tax information could fill in some missing details.
Voters need more than candidates’ personal assurances that neither they nor a spouse are receiving income from sources or in quantities that would create conflicts of interest. Candidates for high office should accept that public scrutiny of their finances is part of the job — and recognize that voters are bound to draw conclusions about candidates who resist that scrutiny.