Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray’s fund-raising has plummeted since his highly publicized auto accident and entanglement in the Chelsea housing scandal last year, triggering speculation about whether he will run for governor in 2014 and whether he would be a viable candidate.
Murray, normally a prodigious fund-raiser, raised less money in the first six months of 2012, $134,491. than during any six-month period since 2005, campaign records show. Though politicians tend to raise less money in years they are not up for reelection, Murray has never raised so little since he was a relatively unknown Worcester mayor just starting his first run for lieutenant governor.
A Murray spokesman insists the lieutenant governor has deliberately cut back on fund-raising this year to pay more attention to other duties, such as his role as chairman of the National Lieutenant Governors Association.
But the fund-raising drop comes amid evidence that he has suffered political damage from his handling of the Nov. 2 accident, in which he totaled his state-owned Crown Victoria, as well as from revelations that he was a close political ally of controversial Chelsea housing chief Michael E. McLaughlin. Last month, Murray was questioned under oath in connection with a criminal investigation of McLaughlin, who raised money for the lieutenant governor, possibly in violation of federal and state law.
A June 29 poll by Public Policy Polling showed Murray was the only one of three leading Democrats who would lose in a race with Charlie Baker, the Republican’s 2010 nominee. Nearly half of those polled, however, said they had no opinion of Murray.
‘Tim Murray running successfully for governor . . . would be the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.’
“You can never say never in politics,” said Republican media consultant Rob Gray, who advised Baker in 2010, “but Tim Murray running successfully for governor, given his PR problems, would be the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest without oxygen or a winter coat.”
With Patrick declaring he will not seek a third term, the jockeying to succeed him has already begun. Other potential Democratic candidates include Attorney General Martha Coakley, state Treasurer Steven Grossman, and state Auditor Suzanne Bump, while Baker is also considering a possible run. The lineup could change dramatically depending on who wins the presidential election and the race for US Senate.
As second in command to a popular governor, Murray should be well positioned to be the front runner to succeed him. Murray aides say privately that he recognizes the hurdles he faces and is uncertain whether he will run or perhaps return to Worcester to practice law. Murray knows he needs to decide by the end of the year, an aide said, to avoid losing key workers to other campaigns.
Murray built a record as a formidable fund-raiser in his first campaign as Patrick’s running mate in 2006, raking in $1.9 million in donations for the year, along with more than $2 million in contributions from the Democratic Party. Since then, even during non-election years, Murray has raised more than $500,000 annually. But in the first six months of 2012, Murray is on pace to raise less than $300,000 for the year, which would be his worst showing since 2005, when Murray raised $314,313 for the year.
In recent months, Murray has been making fund-raising calls from a campaign office on Tremont Street, a block from the State House. But campaign spokesman Scott Ferson said Murray is not focused on raising money for himself, but for the Lieutenant Governors Association, a group Murray was named to lead in 2011.
Ferson said Murray has scaled back his personal fund-raising, holding only one fund-raiser around the time of his June 7 birthday this year, compared to several in past years. And campaign workers sent out fewer invitations to this year’s main Boston event, held at the Atlantic Beer Garden, concentrating on core supporters.
However, Ferson stressed that the Beer Garden event, hosted by Governor Patrick, was successful, attracting 150 people, bringing in $14,000 at the door and another $6,000 that is expected to trickle in.
Ferson said Murray remains confident he can raise as much money as he needs when he wants to.
“This is a guy who has raised $2, 3, 4, 5, 6 million in the past six years,” Ferson said. “That’s a lot of money and that’s a lot of time.
“This is not a bad year to not devote as much time to [fund-raising] as in other years,” Ferson said, noting that US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and congressional candidate Joseph Kennedy III tap many of the same contributors as Murray. But Murray “is confident that he is one of the best fund-raisers in the state. His list is very robust. We have the ability to crank it up better than most.”
But Murray’s fund-raising also has caused major political problems because of Chelsea’s McLaughlin, who was forced to resign as city housing director last November after the Globe revealed he had deliberately concealed his inflated $360,000 salary from regulators.
McLaughlin, now under state and federal criminal investigation, ran an extensive political operation on behalf of Murray, including allegedly collecting cash contributions from his employees, even though, as the head of an agency that collects federal funds, McLaughlin was barred from most political activity.
Murray has insisted that McLaughlin was not an official fund-raiser and said he felt betrayed when he learned McLaughlin’s salary, but until then the two were in close contact, exchanging nearly 200 cellphone calls in 2010 and 2011, McLaughlin’s phone records show.
McLaughlin also exchanged dozens of phone calls with Murray’s professional fund-raiser, Kellie O’Neill.
The Chelsea scandal may have played a role in Murray’s high-speed accident last Nov. 2, when he crashed his state-owned Crown Victoria at speeds that reached 108 miles an hour. Aides later said he went for an early morning drive after being unable to sleep because he was thinking about McLaughlin’s deception, but Murray’s explanation for the crash itself has shifted. He initially said he had slipped on ice, but then said he accepted the police account that he had fallen asleep.
The Patrick administration refused to release Murray’s cellphone records from the day, saying only that he was not on the phone at the time of the accident.
Ever since, political insiders say, Murray has been unable to regain his political footing, and that has translated into disappointing fund-raising.
“Many of his supporters are people who are looking for what’s in it for them. They are more or less opportunistic,” said one state official. “Once he got into trouble, those people dropped him like a bad apple.”