The first bills date to July 29: charges for a Dorchester Holiday Inn Express and a rented van and money to feed political organizers. The workers — two from Ohio, one from Minnesota — came to Boston on the payroll of Working America, the political organizing arm of the national AFL-CIO. Their mission, which now includes other organizers who have racked up $60,000 in hotel bills, is electing state Representative Martin J. Walsh as mayor of Boston.
The national group Democrats for Education Reform is in town, too, but on behalf of Walsh’s opponent, Councilor at Large John R. Connolly. That group claims roughly 60 part-time canvassers working out of field offices in Jamaica Plain and the North End. There are no hotel charges for those organizers, but thousands of dollars have been spent sending canvassers into neighborhoods across the city.
Boston’s race for mayor has been flooded by an unprecedented level of spending by labor unions and other outside groups operating independently of the Walsh and Connolly campaigns. While much of the money has paid for a barrage of television commercials, groups have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying people to knock on doors.
“You can put a lot of money in a local election really fast,” said Robert G. Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University who has studied campaign finance. “If you have an agenda . . . you can score an easy victory really quickly.”
Walsh has benefited from three times more outside spending than Connolly, according to records filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Walsh is a longtime union leader, and organized labor and other groups have spent $2.5 million on television ads, paid canvassers, mailings, and more. Walsh’s official campaign for mayor had spent only $1.7 million by Oct. 15, the latest data available.
Organized labor has had difficulty on the national stage in recent years because of antagonistic Republicans in Congress, said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. Boston’s mayoral election may suggest a new strategy.
“I think cities are the arena now,” said Berry, adding that he was still surprised that labor had invested so heavily in Boston’s mayoral race. “Walsh’s opponent is not someone who is relentlessly antiunion. He has some strong feelings about schools, but he is still a progressive Democrat.”
‘You can put a lot of money in a local election really fast.’
Connolly has benefited from $792,000 in outside spending, most of it coming from Democrats for Education Reform. The group is funded in large part by a New York nonprofit that does not disclose its donors. The group’s advisory board includes US Senator Cory A. Booker, a newly elected Democrat from New Jersey who had been mayor of Newark.
Records show that many of the canvassers from Democrats for Education Reform come from Boston, but others live in two dozen suburbs and seven other states. They are predominantly college students, and many attended Boston public schools, according to the group’s spokesman, Liam Kerr.
“We’re with Connolly because he has put education first,” Kerr said Friday. “We think he is closest to fulfilling the promise [President] Obama made in big cities around the country.”
In Boston, Democrats for Education Reform has paid $427,000 for television ads promoting Connolly, according to state records filed through Friday. The group has also spent roughly $171,000 knocking on doors. But state records do not show any money spent on hotel rooms, rental cars, or flights.
The outreach by Democrats for Education Reform is led by Matthew Garcia, a 25-year-old Harvard graduate who worked as a regional field director in Ohio for Obama’s reelection campaign. In an interview Friday, Garcia described coordinating the effort for Connolly as an extension of his work for Obama, who he said needs support at all levels of government.
“It’s one thing to get someone elected. It’s another thing to make sure the vision is actually supported,” said Garcia, originally from Texas. “I’ve seen the power that focusing on education can have on a family. I don’t want my family to be the only one that can tell that story.”
Outside political committees are legally barred from coordinating with a candidate’s official campaign. Connolly spokeswoman Natasha Perez said Connolly’s official campaign has its own cadre of volunteers.
“This is about the moms versus the machine,” Perez said in a prepared statement. “We have over 1,000 Boston residents volunteering from every corner of the city while special interests are flying in paid canvassers from across the country to try to take this election away from the people of Boston.”
Working America declined to submit to an interview, but did issue a statement. The local field director, Gregory Kiefer, did not respond to a message left Friday at his room in the Holiday Inn.
In the statement, Working America said it was a national organization for people who do not have the benefit of union representation on the job. Working America has been active in Massachusetts since 2004, according to the statement, and has 11,000 members in the state.
“The vast majority of our staff is from Boston,” it said. “Our grass-roots effort includes knocking on doors every night, talking to Boston voters about why we think Marty Walsh is the best person to be mayor.”
State campaign finance records show that much of Working America’s paid staff lives in Boston, but others reside in 14 suburbs and states as far away as Texas and North Carolina. In the last 14 weeks in Boston, Working America has paid $3,000 for flights, $20,000 for rental vehicles, and $16,000 for pier diem travel allowances. Operating out of a field office on an industrial block in South Boston, the group has spent $331,000 paying staff and canvassers to knock on doors to promote Walsh.
Working America first reported spending money for Walsh July 29. Two days later, Walsh was in Washington, D.C., and went to a meeting at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, which has the same address as Working America. Walsh has said he did not discuss the group in his visit to the union’s headquarters.
Working America echoed that Friday. “There is absolutely no connection,” Working America said in the statement. The Walsh campaign declined to discuss operations of Working America or other outside groups.
“I can only speak for Marty’s campaign, and we are proud to have thousands of volunteers who are supporting Marty because of his values, character, and life experience,” campaign spokeswoman Kate Norton said in a statement. “Like the campaigns of Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren, Marty’s campaign is a grass-roots effort that is based on thousands of supporters having conversations in neighborhoods, coffee shops, and at soccer fields because they know Marty will stand on the side of working families all across Boston.”