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SCOT LEHIGH

Super PACs — wealthy, loud, and not to be trusted

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

A new era has arrived in Massachusetts: the age of the super PAC.

For reasons that have to do with the state’s low individual contribution limits, an acute case of campaign fatigue, and tougher federal restrictions on donations from pension-fund managers, there’s a dearth of dollars flowing directly to the gubernatorial candidates.

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Enter the super PACs, those supposedly independent expenditure groups that can take unlimited contributions, which until recently didn’t need to be disclosed, to spend on TV ads for favored candidates. Because super PACs will try to play a big role this year, it’s important to understand what they are really about.

First out of the box in this campaign: An ad by the National Association of Government Employees’ super PAC targeting likely Republican nominee Charles D. Baker Jr.It blasted Baker for taking a hefty salary as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care while raising premiums and dropping more than 100,000 people from the plan.

That’s NAGE’s way of saying that Baker accepted a competitive pay package while implementing a downsizing plan for the ailing health insurer that included pulling out of Rhode Island.

Now, it’s certainly fair to point out Baker’s rarefied pay, but the idea that he didn’t deliver value at Harvard Pilgrim — and that’s the ad’s clear implication — is leagues off base. After all, under Baker, Harvard Pilgrim was repeatedly recognized as one of the nation’s best health plans. So if you know the facts, the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth sum this ad up: Dumb-Dumb-Dumb DUMB.

Voters should expect more of the same, however: As my colleague Joshua Miller reported on Thursday, another union-allied super PAC — the Mass Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee — has reserved $3.1 million in TV ad time following the Sept. 9 primary. That PAC is funded by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, several SEIU locals, and the Democratic Governors Association; in 2010, the MTA ran TV spots attacking Baker’s record at Harvard-Pilgrim that were every bit as cheesy as this year’s NAGE spot.

Now, NAGE obviously isn’t driven by concern about Harvard Pilgrim’s plan members. Nor was the MTA in 2010. So why their ads? Simple. NAGE represents public employees; in his 2010 campaign, Baker talked about cutting 5,000 state workers. He’s backed off that this time out, but he does support reforming the so-called Taxpayer Protection Act, which has effectively ended state efforts at privatization. NAGE, which has donated $5,000 to Democratic front-runner Martha Coakley, sees Baker as a threat to its members. Ditto the MTA, since Baker is far more willing to joust with the teachers unions than are the Democratic candidates.

Now to Mass Forward or, as it might better be called, the Grossman Friends and Family Political PAC. Its recent ad, which uses the gun deaths of young black men to go after Coakley for not supporting a one-gun-a-month restriction on gun sales, is cynical and shabby. In early August, Mass Forward declared, in a defensive tone, that its supporters were progressives and philanthropists — as though wealthy liberals were incapable of discreditable behavior.

Next came the stories revealing Mass Forward’s donors, which included Grossman’s mother (!), who gave $100,000. Now, as CommonWealth has written, the super PAC is back-pedaling, canceling dozens of planned spots. It would be nice to report that Mass Forward’s funders, their names suddenly public thanks to the state’s new disclosure law, were embarrassed to be associated with super PAC attacks. However, I’m told that the super PAC’s, um, brain trust merely concluded that its efforts had proved more embarrassing than helpful to Grossman.

Then there’s the pro-Baker Commonwealth Future super PAC, funded mostly by the Republican Governors Association, with a smattering of contributions from local Republicans. It’s female-narrated TV spots extolling Baker’s virtues — spots clearly aimed in part at reassuring women about him — are a little treacly but otherwise unobjectionable.

So far, that is. I for one doubt the pro-Baker PAC will maintain that positive tone. Why? Well, in 2010, the RGA spent heavily in an effort to pound Tim Cahill, the independent candidate for governor, into the sand, the better to help Baker. 

But even if the super PACs can’t maintain a sense of fairness, voters can. As we head into the campaign’s fall stretch, they’d be well-advised to look twice at the claims those groups are peddling.

Or, better yet, to ignore them altogether.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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