Members of the Franklin Field Elderly Task Force gathered for their coffee hour one overcast morning, as they do every month inside the Dorchester public housing complex. The councilor who represents them, Charles C. Yancey, was running late, but his staff was there, as was his wife, standing in until he arrived.
A Yancey aide talked about their work addressing constituent needs, the new lids for trash cans and repaved sidewalks. His wife, holding a red, white, and blue “Yancey for Mayor” sign, told the small crowd that her husband’s 15-term legacy as a councilor would propel him to mayor.
Yancey arrived, 20 minutes late, to applause. “Yes, I am running for mayor, and my name is also on the ballot for city councilor and I make no apologies for that.” As Yancey spoke, a staff member offered a late arrival a cup of coffee, a business card, and a campaign flier.
So, was this 11:30 a.m. event a constituent coffee or campaign event? The answer is unclear, even to Yancey who called it an “interesting question.”
“It was actually scheduled a little while ago,” said Yancey, who officially declared his run for mayor at the beginning of July. “I think it was more campaign than City Hall.”
The issues that animate elected officials when they are in office are often the same issues that drive them when they are on the campaign trail.
But in the world of politics and government, the distinction between being on the stump and being in office isn’t simply a matter of choice, it’s a matter of law. Politicians are usually scrupulous about separating their day jobs in government from their lives on the campaign trail.
They have two of most everything: two staffs, two schedules, two cellphones. Some refuse to talk campaign business inside government buildings, meaning City Hall or the school district’s Court Street headquarters.
“It’s the law,” said John R. Connolly, councilor at large and mayoral hopeful. “It can certainly get a little crazy . . . but we try to be really careful.”
He said his council staff is trained not to take any campaign calls, telling callers they cannot answer such questions. “I try,” he said, “to make that an absolute.”
But there’s a point where being a candidate and councilor “dovetail,” Connolly said. As a councilor, you spend a lot of time advocating for people and issues that affect the city, and as a candidate, you spend a lot of time campaigning and talking about the work that you have done. “There’s a point of connection,” Connolly said.
The trick is to know the rules.
According to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, public resources cannot be used for political campaigns.
That means no firing off a note on government e-mail, no making a quick call on a cellphone paid for by taxpayers, no using city cars to transport campaign signs.
And if public employees are on the clock, they cannot participate in political activities, said Jason Tait, spokesman for the independent agency that ensures that candidates adhere to specific election laws.
If government workers are using city resources for political reasons, their superior must file what is called a 22A Form, disclosing the activity and addressing reimbursement, Tait said.
“Those are the rules,” he said.
They are rules Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo takes very, very seriously. “I’m strict,” said Arroyo, who refuses to talk about his campaign for mayor inside City Hall. “Never. Never. But people also understand when you explain it to them.”
More times than not, conversations about his campaign’s vision of Boston, about things such as, education, public health, and neighborhood development, can happen at places like coffee shops or neighborhood meetings.
These, he said, are the places where “an elected official who really has their ear to the ground have to be.” Constituents get to look their councilors in the eye while talking to them one on one, he said.
But because candidates can’t be in two places at once, they rely heavily on staff to keep both their actual and aspirational operations afloat.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley heads an office with about 250 employees who prosecute some 50,000 cases annually.
Mayoral candidate Conley heads an operation of 12 paid staff members and hundreds of volunteers working out of three to four campaign offices.
“I draw a very bright line between the two.” he said. “I separate everything.”
Conley’s day job presents a “unique challenge” because whenever a major event occurs, be it a police-involved shooting or a heinous murder, he stops all campaign activities to focus on his prosecutorial responsibilities, and most days he feels short of time.
“There’s not enough hours in the day for me to do both,” he said. “I’m down to six hours of sleep, and you don’t fall right asleep when you you’re district attorney and running for mayor of Boston.
“You have a lot of things swirling in your head. But I want to be mayor.”
Unlike his peers in the race for mayor, Yancey does not separate everything. He’s got a small campaign staff, just three recently hired individuals. So recent, in fact, he said they have yet to appear on campaign finance reports. And he has a legion of volunteers.
Yancey said he depends on his City Hall staff to help schedule all of his appearances, both as councilor and candidate, so nothing gets overlooked.
He called it a conscious yet unavoidable decision. “If you have a way of avoiding it,” he said, “let me know what it is.”
State Representative Martin J. Walsh does: Put everything on your private (read: campaign) schedule and not your government one. That’s what he does.
“I’m the chair of ethics for the State House,” the mayoral candidate said. “I know what to do — and what not to do.”