Two outside groups have launched their own mini-campaigns in the Boston mayoral race, assembling political operations on behalf of candidates John Connolly and Martin Walsh. Democrats for Education Reform has spent about $26,000 as of last week canvassing and phone-banking for Connolly, while labor-backed Working America has put $10,000 behind Walsh. These “independent expenditure” efforts, which must operate outside the control of the candidates, are not illegal.
Still, they rightly set off alarm bells with voters because of their murky finances and unaccountable nature. Thus, Rob Consalvo, another mayoral candidate, has proposed an agreement among the 12 contenders to bar spending by outside groups, akin to the “people’s pledge” that largely kept super PAC money out of last year’s US Senate race. Consalvo is right to start a discussion of campaign funding in the mayoral race, but he’s painting the problem with too broad a brush. Outside money, per se, isn’t always objectionable. What’s dangerous is the particular method that some advocacy groups have used to circumvent donation limits and disclosure rules.
The main target of Consalvo’s proposal is clearly Democrats for Education Reform, which has about a dozen canvassers working on Connolly’s behalf. The Massachusetts chapter of the group has received most of its funding from a New York-based nonprofit, Education Reform Advocacy Now. Because the New York group is organized as a charity, it can accept unlimited donations and does not have to dislose the names of its supporters. Working America gets its money from the AFL-CIO, as well as individual members and donors.
The goals of these groups may be admirable, but their structure allows clear opportunities for mischief. It’s a basic principle of clean elections that voters need to know who is trying to earn brownie points with a potential officeholder. Yet there’s no complete list of donors to either group, and there’s nothing to prevent a wealthy backer of Walsh, Connolly, or any other candidate from secretly channeling unlimited funds to an independent-expenditure group.
Whether through super PACs or charities, unfettered spending blurs the lines of responsibility in politics, giving candidates a way to wage an accountability-free war against their opponents. The typical ritual is for the independent group to air harsh ads, which the candidate can then bemoan in a fit of righteous indignation — while still reaping the electoral benefits of damage done to opponents. Voters should put Connolly and Walsh on notice that, should any such tactics emerge in this race, candidates will be held responsible for the actions of their backers.
The candidates themselves should also enforce some basic ground rules. They should ask independent expenditure groups to stay out of the campaign, and agree to a system of penalties for candidates who receive independent-expenditure help anyway, similar to those in the people’s pledge. Donors who want to back Connolly’s education agenda, or Walsh’s economic views, can still write the candidates a check if they wish. Then the public will know who is contributing, and the donations will also be subject to normal limits. To ensure a fair election, Boston voters deserve no less.