Voters, here’s a question: Do you want this year’s gubernatorial candidates offering secret guarantees, promises, or assurances to self-interested constituencies or advocacy groups?
If not, let them know, because with the campaign commencing, we are about to witness the new season of that ongoing political drama, The Continuing Case of Confidential Questionnaires and Covert Candidate Commitments.
Every election year, organizations ranging from business federations to labor unions to advocacy nonprofits ask candidates seeking their endorsement to fill out lengthy questionnaires on issues they care about.
If past is prologue, public-employee unions will want candidates to pledge support for the so-called Pacheco Law, which essentially prevents contracting out any work done by state employees. The teachers will likely ask hopefuls to sign onto their latest effort to block or undermine charter schools. The police will probably solicit backing for paid details. Business types will ask candidates to push to lower taxes and to oppose legislation expanding employee benefits. The nurses will want a promise of support for mandatory nurse-patient ratios.
And most of those groups will demand that the candidates treat their questionnaires as confidential, the better to keep their pet causes beneath the public radar.
So in the interest of transparency, I recently asked the major party gubernatorial candidates if they would commit to making public any questionnaires they complete for any business, labor, or other advocacy group.
How did they do?
Give an A for openness to Democrat (and former Globe columnist) Juliette Kayyem and Republican Charles D. Baker.
Kayyem’s team quickly weighed in with this statement from the candidate: “Of course I will make public questionnaires that I fill out. This campaign must be about preparing to be governor, which means having an open dialogue with residents of this state, not working behind closed political doors to set the direction of government.”
Through spokesman Tim Buckley, Baker’s campaign made the same commitment.
“We will make questionnaires available for public scrutiny and encourage all candidates to do the same so that voters are aware of the pledges made to special interest groups,” Buckley e-mailed.
Sadly, their rivals cut low profiles in courage.
Treasurer Steve Grossman’s campaign offered this timid half-step: He would release the questionnaires provided the interest groups didn’t mind. And if they did? Then, “out of respect for those organizations we will not violate their policies,” wrote campaign manager Josh Wolf, who added: “In those cases, we’d share with you whatever answer we gave them with regard to any specific topic you may be interested in.”
There are three problems with that position. First, there’s no way to verify that you’d be getting the exact same answer. Second, some of the questionnaire issues are so arcane or subterranean that reporters and citizens would never think to ask about them.
But the biggest problem is that Grossman has his priorities backwards. How about putting respect for voters and for transparency over deference to constituency groups?
The campaign of Don Berwick, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, started off sounding admirably stout-hearted. “He is committed to running his campaign the way he would run the state, with openness and transparency,” spokesman Leigh Appleby declared via e-mail.
Alas, that winning windup was followed by a wussy wimp-out.
“[W]e will release all of our questionnaires unless doing so would violate a confidentiality agreement with a particular group,” said Appleby. And in those instances? “[W]e would encourage the group in question to waive the agreement and release our questionnaire answers.”
In other words, Berwick will be as bold and transparent as the state’s various interest groups give him permission to be. Democrat Joe Avellone took a similar stand, saying in a statement that he would “respect whatever choice” those groups make about disclosing their questionnaires. (I didn’t get a reply from Republican Mark Fisher.)
Which brings us to Martha Coakley. As attorney general, Coakley is forever calling for more transparency, so surely as a candidate, she’d aggressively embrace openness. Not quite. What I got instead was calculated Coakley campaign caution.
“Martha will commit to releasing questionnaires if all candidates agree to do the same so that there is a level playing field for everyone,” e-mailed campaign consultant Kyle Sullivan.
In other words, Coakley won’t be a bold standard-setter, but if others consent, she’ll go along.
This issue offers a good early lens to help focus the campaign. And what we see is instructive: Two candidates who don’t just talk the talk, but who are willing to walk the walk on transparency. And four others who offer little more than lip service when it comes to political openness and campaign candor.